In explosive comments US President says UK-US trade deal unlikely to proceed if Theresa May continues to pursue strategy that could lock out US agricultural imports
Green groups are likely to be celebrating this morning, after US President Donald Trump signalled a US-UK trade deal was highly unlikely if the UK government continues with its current strategy of pursuing a softer form of Brexit based around high standards for food and goods.
In an incendiary breach with diplomatic protocol Trump gave an interview to The Sun yesterday in which he attacked Theresa May's Brexit negotiating strategy, hailed Boris Johnson as a potential Prime Minister, and insulted London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
He warned if the UK continues with the plan agreed by the Cabinet at Chequers last week to pursue a softer form of Brexit then a previously promised future trade deal with the US was unlikely to proceed.
"If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the UK, so it will probably kill the deal," he told the newspaper.
He added that the UK's plan to seek a 'common rulebook' with the EU that would cover goods, including agricultural products, would "definitely affect trade with the United States, unfortunately in a negative way".
"We have enough difficulty with the European Union," he said. "We are cracking down right now on the European Union because they have not treated the United States fairly on trading. No, if they do that I would say that that would probably end a major trade relationship with the United States."
He also revealed he had advised May to pursue a harder form of Brexit, but had seen his recommendations rebuffed. "I would have done it much differently," he said. "I actually told Theresa May how to do it but she didn't agree, she didn't listen to me. She wanted to go a different route. I would actually say that she probably went the opposite way. And that is fine. She should negotiate the best way she knows how. But it is too bad what is going on."
Trump made no reference to environmental standards, but they are known to be central to trade disagreements between with the EU and US. Attempts to broker a transatlantic trade deal between the EU and the Obama administration faltered in large part over concerns it would lead to the watering down of environmental standards on food products and make it easier for corporations to sue governments when faced with regulations they object to.
The US administration has repeatedly signalled it would use any future US-UK trade deal to push for a relaxation of standards that would make it easier for US farmers to export to the UK. The most high profile examples of rules the US wants to see relaxed are those governing the sale of chlorinated chicken and hormone injected beef, but there are numerous other standards US officials want to see relax covering both food products and wider goods.
Green groups maintain the practice of bathing chicken in chlorine after it is slaughtered allows US farmers to meet much lower standards in terms of environmental impact, animal welfare, and diseas control. Similarly, many UK manufacturers fear any relaxation of energy efficiency and recyclability standards would force them to compete with cheap and shoddy imports. Moreover, business groups are concerned that competing EU and US trade deals based on differing standards would require UK firms to comply with multiple different regulations based on where they are exporting to.
Up until last week's Chequers Cabinet meeting the government was divided on the issue. Environment Secretary Michael Gove and the Prime Minister have in the past signalled the UK would not relax environmental standards post-Brexit, but Trade Secretary Liam Fox and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had defended the quality of US agricultural products and hinted the UK should be willing to relax its standards to secure a trade deal with the White House.
Last year Fox told MPs that "there are no health reasons why you couldn't eat chickens that have been washed in chlorinated water". He added that "I have no objection to the British public being sold something that is safe as long as they know what they are eating. I am a great believer in giving the public a choice over what they are eating so long as the scientists tell us it is safe".
However, academics and environmental campaigners have repeatedly argued the use of chlorine on meat allows animals to be raised in conditions that do not meet EU welfare standards and which result in significantly higher risk of animal diseases and higher environmental impacts from factory farms.
Gove has previously pushed back against proposals to water down UK environmental standards post-Brexit, arguing the UK would not agree to a trade deal that demanded a relaxation of standards.
Specifically on the issue of chlorinated chickens, he told MPs last year that "the Cabinet is agreed that there should be no compromise on high animal welfare and environmental standards".
"In America they cannot guarantee the same high standards in terms of how chickens are reared that we insist on here," he added. "Unless there is a change in the American side we would say that those animal welfare rules are things on which we will not compromise. The whole point about trade deals is that you have got to be assertive in defence of your own interests."
Last week's Chequers agreement confirmed May and Gove had won the debate, with the final text explicitly pledging "the UK and the EU would also agree to maintain high regulatory standards for the environment, climate change, social and employment, and consumer protection - meaning we would not let standards fall below their current levels".
Yesterday's Brexit White Paper further firmed up the 'Green Brexit' strategy, detailing how the UK regards action on climate change as a "shared interest" with the EU and proposing that any new UK-EU trade deal would see the two parties "commit to the non-regression of environmental standards"
"There should also be a reciprocal commitment to ongoing environmental cooperation, including in international fora, to solve shared global environmental challenges," it added.
The EU remains a much larger trading partner for the UK than the US and the fear that a relaxation of environmental and wider standards would torpedo a EU trade deal appeared to have won out during Cabinet discussions.
The move prompted the resignation of Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis, as well as fierce criticism from some Brexiters who argue that acceding to a common rulebook with the EU would impinge on UK sovereignty. There were also fears the adherence to EU standards would dent hopes of trade deals with other countries.
Shaun Spiers, chair of the Greener UK coalition of environmental NGOs, said Trump's comments had further exposed one of the key dividing lines within the Conservative Party over Brexit. "The government has promised not to lower environmental and animal welfare standards after Brexit," he said. "Indeed, it has pledged to raise standards. Whether we have high standards or a race to the bottom now appears to be one of the big Brexit dividing lines. Environmentalists stand alongside most UK businesses and farmers in backing high standards. If Donald Trump wants us to lower our standards and sacrifice trade with our nearest neighbours in order to secure a trade deal with the US, that is unacceptable."
He added that Trump's stance now presented a major test of the government's new negotiating position. "The next few months will tell us which side the government is on," he said. "Chlorinated chicken and hormone implanted beef, anyone?"
The government had hoped its proposed customs arrangement would allow the UK to pursue trade deals with other countries, including the US, alongside a new trade deal with the EU. But Trump's intervention has provided a firm reminder that regulatory alignment is a critical component of all modern trade deals. As such if the UK wants a US trade deal it increasingly looks as if it would have to ditch its commitment to a 'high standards', Green Brexit - something the Prime Minister and her Cabinet have said they will not do.
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