French President Emmanuel Macron is reportedly leading calls for key political declaration to strengthen UK-EU ties on climate action
Westminster is braced for another week of high drama, as Prime Minister Theresa May attempts to build parliamentary support for her proposed Brexit deal and head off a potential leadership challenge from Hard Brexit-backing MPs.
And environmental factors could yet play a major part role in the unfolding internal battle within the Conservative Party, after it emerged the French government is pushing for action on climate change to form a key plank of the political declaration that is set to be finalised this week alongside the controversial Withdrawal Agreement.
The Observer reported yesterday that France is leading a push for the political declaration to be fleshed out to ensure EU climate change directives are automatically adopted by the UK as part of any future trade deal.
The UK government has repeatedly said it is committed to delivering a 'Green Brexit' centred on high environmental standards and ambitious climate policies, underpinned by the existing Climate Change Act and a new Environment Act.
The Withdrawal Agreement and draft political declaration released last week both attempted to firm up this commitment with fresh pledges on environmental issues.
Specifically, the Withdrawal Agreement includes a section committing the UK to ensuring the "non-regression in the level of environmental protection" and retaining EU environmental principles.
Meanwhile, the short political statement pledges that both parties will maintain co-operation around "areas of climate change, sustainable development, cross-border pollution, trade protectionism and financial stability", and reaffirms the UK and EU's joint commitment to maintaining a level playing field and delivering on international environmental treaties, specifically referencing the Paris Agreement.
However, The Observer reported that a large number of member states fear a change of government could herald a change of strategy whereby the UK seeks to undercut its closest neighbours by slashing environmental regulations - an approach that has been publicly and privately endorsed by a number of UK government ministers leading Hard Brexit campaigners.
Some UK environmental campaigners and trade experts harbour similar fears. Writing on Twitter last week, Marley Morris, senior research fellow and Brexit lead at the IPPR think tank, explained the Withdrawal Agreement provided the UK with the flexibility to diverge from EU environmental policies as long as it sought to deliver the same outcomes.
He said the non-regression safeguards were stronger than those found in a standard Free Trade Agreement and covered a wide array of environmental issues. But he also noted that "the non-regression clauses do not require the UK to adopt the EU environmental or social acquis".
"Instead the UK simply has to ensure the 'level of protection' is not reduced below current levels," he explained. "This is a more elastic concept. So the UK could legitimately change EU-based environmental and employment legislation as long as it can argue the new legislations provides the same level of protections as now."
The UK government has long argued that EU environmental directives should allow member states more flexibility over how they cut greenhouse gas emissions or reduce waste levels, claiming that they should have more freedom to pursue different policies to deliver the same outcome.
But some green industry groups and environmental campaigners have countered that without specific targets for renewable energy and recycling rates, for example, governments can more easily sideline environmental policies.
Morris argued that the high degree of flexibility on offer to the UK under the Withdrawal Agreement could lead to disputes with the EU. He also noted that there was "no provision for dynamic alignment" in the Agreement, meaning the UK and EU could see their environmental policies diverge over time.
It is this outcome that Macron and other EU leaders seem to fear, and as such next weekend's scheduled summit for finalising the political declaration could see a renewed push for stronger language to be included on the UK's on-going commitment to the Paris Agreement and wider EU green economy goals. It is also expected to try and lock in more clarity on the controversial issue of how shared access to UK and EU fishing waters will be managed post-Brexit.
However, any attempt to further align UK and EU environmental and climate policy is likely to infuriate those members of the European Research Group (ERG) of pro-Brexit MPs who are currently plotting against the Prime Minister and are convinced they are close to triggering a confidence vote.
They will also have been angered by this morning's suggestion by Business Secretary Greg Clark that the transition period agreed under the Withdrawal Agreement could be extended by up to two years until 2022.
And May is expected to take a combative stance in her speech to the CBI Annual Conference later today, where she is expected to defend her proposed deal and reiterate her argument that a leadership challenge will not change the underlying forces that resulted in the current proposed deal.
As members of the ERG mull a leadership challenge a group of Brexit-backing Cabinet Ministers, led by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, are reportedly seeking to develop a new plan to renegotiate the deal with the EU. But May is resisting calls for an 11th hour rethink and Clark reiterated on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning that changes to the proposed deal were highly unlikely. "If you think about the time that's gone into that negotiation, and the detail it comprises, I think this deal - which is a good one in my view - is the one that will go to the European council," he said.
May is now scheduled to travel to Brussels this week to finalise the details of the political statement ahead of a planned EU Summit next Sunday to rubberstamp the package before a Commons vote on the deal.
The UK government is hoping the declaration will provide some "sweeteners" for wavering MPs by firming up some of the details of a sweeping new trade deal with the EU. It remains to be seen whether May will concede to the calls for stronger language on the UK's environmental pledges, although she has repeatedly asserted her commitment to delivering a 'Green Brexit'.
Meanwhile, the government is also facing growing public pressure to beef up the UK's decarbonisation plans after the recently formed Extinction Rebellion protest group staged some of the largest environmental protests in recent history over the weekend.
The group said nearly 10,000 people closed five bridges across London on Saturday in an act of mass peaceful civil disobedience designed to highlight the inadequacy of government climate policies.
The group, which is planning a wave of on-going peaceful protests, said around 100 people were arrested.
"Rebellion Day disrupted London," said Tiana Jacout of Extinction Rebellion. "It is not a step we take lightly. If things continue as is, we face an extinction greater than the one that killed the dinosaurs. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be a worthy ancestor. We represent a huge number of concerned citizens. Scientists, academics, politicians, teachers, lawyers, students, children, parents, and grandparents. But we have no choice. We have tried marching, and lobbying, and signing petitions. Nothing has brought about the change that is needed. And no damage that we incur can compare to the criminal inaction of the UK government in the face of climate and ecological breakdown."
The group is calling on the government to publicly acknowledge the "ecological emergency" the world faces, halt all carbon intensive policies, set a target to reduce UK carbon emissions to net zero by 2025, and appoint a national Citizen's Assembly to oversee decarbonisation efforts.
The demands may vary in terms of ambition and the approaches may be different in terms of techniques, but from street protestors to EU heads of government the pressure on the British government to strengthen its climate strategy is intensifying.
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