Prime Minister declares 'I have always been clear that Brexit should not be at the expense of workers' rights or environmental protections'
Theresa May has effectively rejected Labour's proposals for a cross-party Brexit deal, arguing the UK should not seek to remain in a Customs Union with the EU post-Brexit but should make strong commitments to retain workers' rights and environmental protections.
In a written response to Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn's letter last week setting out the terms the opposition could support the government's Brexit deal, May argued the Political Declaration the government has brokered with the EU "explicitly provides for the benefits of a customs union" in terms of avoiding tariffs, while giving the UK the freedom to develop an "independent trade policy beyond our economic partnership with the EU".
"I am not clear why you believe it would be preferable to seek a say in future EU trade deals rather than the ability to strike our own deals?" she asked.
However, critics have warned the Political Declaration that would form the basis for future trade talks is non-binding and the EU is highly unlikely to allow for the full replication of the benefits of a Customs Union without the UK signing up to a full customs agreement. Last week, EU officials indicated that Corbyn's proposals could provide the basis for a new deal that would break the current deadlock in Parliament.
But May remains under intense pressure from her own MPs and some Ministers to ensure the UK leaves the Customs Union and delivers an independent trade policy, despite the failure to date of Liam Fox's International Trade Department to line up the raft of trade deals he once promised would be ready for when the UK leaves the EU.
In her letter May also provided a further sop to the Hard Brexit wing of the Conservative Party, rejecting Corbyn's proposal for automatic 'dynamic alignment' between EU and UK rules governing the environment and workers' rights post-Brexit.
May reiterated her commitment to maintain strong environmental standards post-Brexit, stressing that commitments on workers rights and environmental protections had been made and were included in the Withdrawal Agreement.
"I have always been clear that Brexit should not be at the expense of workers' rights or environmental protections," she wrote.
But she also stressed that future alignment with EU rules should be open to debate. "The government does not support automatically following EU rules in these areas because, given their importance, we believe these decisions should be taken in our parliament by our elected representatives," she said. "We have, however, made legally binding commitments to no regression in these areas if we were to enter the backstop… and are prepared to consider legislating to give these commitments force in UK law."
She added that "in the interests of building support across the House" the government was "also prepared to commit to asking Parliament whether it wishes to follow suit whenever the EU changes its standards in these areas".
And she stressed that alignment with EU standards was not required for the UK to "lead the way - as we have done in the past under both Conservative and Labour governments."
The proposal could be enough to secure the backing of some Labour MPs who have signalled they could vote for May's deal if stronger commitments on environmental standards and workers' rights are given a legal footing.
However, the plan to allow Parliament a vote on any future changes to EU rules raises the prospect of the UK either converging with or diverging from EU environmental rules on a case-by-case basis.
As such, future attempts to break with EU rules could complicate any trade deal that is finalised between Westminster and Brussels, given EU member states would be reluctant to approve an agreement that allows UK firms to potentially undercut their neighbours on environmental and workplace standards.
It also remains unclear precisely how any shared EU-UK standards would be policed and enforced post-Brexit. The government has proposed the introduction of a new Green Watchdog, but critics have warned that under current plans it would not enjoy the same powers as EU agencies and courts, which have in the past dished out multi-million Euro fines for violations of environmental rules.
The latest developments come as parts of the Conservative Party continue to flesh out plans that could result in a watering down of environmental standards and cuts to environmental spending post-Brexit.
For example, a new report today on international aid spending from Conservative MP Bob Seely and James Rogers of the Henry Jackson Society think tank, provided further evidence of some of the priorities the Hard Brexit wing of the party is keen to pursue post-Brexit. It argues the Department for International Development should be scrapped and the UK's target to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas aid should be redefined to include peacekeeping activities and an expanded budget for the BBC World Service - a move that could see aid budgets for other priorities, such as climate-related programmes, cut.
The report, entitled Global Britain: A Blueprint for the 21st century, features a foreword from former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who voiced his approval for the plan. It follows comments from a host of leading Tories in recent months speculating on cuts to the international aid budget and plans to rollback a raft of environmental policies and rules post-Brexit.
At the same time a leaked WhatsApp exchange between Energy and Clean Growth Minister Claire Perry and a group of Conservative women MPs provided further evidence of the tensions within the Party.
BuzzFeed reported that Perry contributed to a conversation on the move by controversial Tory backbench MP Christopher Chope to block a bill on FGM. "Is anyone else bored to sobs with fighting this posse of old buffers who have achieved their dream of taking over the party again?" she asked, before adding "here's my prediction: mass exodus of Tory talent at the next election just like the last (both voluntary and involuntary) so we can retreat to being an oppo party of the white shires and Shores and we can talk to each other all day long about utter bollocks!"
Meanwhile, Huffington Post reported over the weekend on a wish list US business groups had provided the country's trade department ahead of any US-UK trade deal, underscoring how many US firms wish to see a raft of UK rules governing food safety, environmental impacts, and the precautionary principle ditched as part of any future trade agreement.
With less than six weeks to go until the UK is scheduled to leave the EU either with or without a deal, environmental and business groups are becoming increasingly agitated about the lack of clarity about both the short and long term outcomes from the on-going negotiations.
May's letter stressed that her priority remained seeking changes to the EU's position on the Irish backstop, but there has been scant evidence from Brussels that the EU is willing to countenance such a move.
Ministers have signalled MPs will get another opportunity to vote on amendments that could seek to avert a no deal Brexit, but business groups are increasingly fearful that an economic crash could yet result and are warning that many organisations are already diverting or delaying investment plans as a result.
These fears have been further amplified after the government issued a series of updates on 'no deal' planning for businesses in recent weeks, warning firms they need to prepare for the prospect of significant disruption to the EU emissions trading scheme, the administration of chemicals regulation, and cross-border energy trading arrangements, among many other areas.
Speaking on Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday show CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn said the UK was "in the emergency zone of Brexit now" and even if a no-deal crash was averted economic repercussions were already being felt.
"I think that the bigger thing that is going on is that there is also a real recalibration, if you like, of what the UK is like as a place to invest," she said.
Her comments came just ahead of the ONS releasing its latest GDP figures this morning. It confirmed GDP growth for the last quarter of 2018 reached only 0.2 per cent, well down on the 0.6 per cent seen in the third quarter of the year. All the main sectors of the economy shrank in December, with manufacturing completing its sixth consecutive month of contraction. The vast majority of businesses and economists will be blaming the on-going confusion over Brexit for the downturn.
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