CBI and TUC write joint letter warning PM "we cannot overstate the gravity of this crisis for firms and working people"
With just over a week to go until the UK is scheduled to crash out of the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement, the technical process of delivering a post-Brexit environmental governance framework is quietly edging forward even as fears grow over the potentially "disastrous" impact of a 'no deal' exit on the green economy.
Theresa May's attempt last night to rule out a long extension to Article 50, attack MPs for failing to deliver the Brexit she insisted the public wanted to see, and position the next vote on the Withdrawal Agreement as a straight choice between her deal and a 'no deal' exit, appeared today to anger both MPs and business groups in equal measure. Consequently, fears are growing that a 'no deal' exit - either next week or at the end of a short extension until late May - remains a clear possibility, despite MPs voting against such an outcome.
The CBI and the TUC today joined voices to again call on the Prime Minister to rule out such an eventuality, declaring that "we cannot overstate the gravity of this crisis for firms and working people".
"Our country is facing a national emergency," the letter states. "Decisions of recent days have caused the risk of no deal to soar. Firms and communities across the UK are not ready for this outcome. The shock to our economy would be felt for generations to come." It adds that 88 per cent of CBI members agree a meaningful extension of Article 50 is better than a no deal scenario and calls on the government to now present a Plan B that moves beyond the binary choice between May's deal and no deal.
The stark warning echoes the position of green NGOs and business groups, which have repeatedly warned a no deal scenario would be "catastrophic" for the environment and the green economy.
The most recent Risk Tracker analysis from the Greener UK coalition of campaign groups warned that the risk of a no deal exit had increased and that "leaving without a deal poses potentially dire consequences for the environment, in the short and longer term". "From chemicals, where a recent statutory instrument fell short of ensuring the same protections as the EU, to agriculture, where the US has been lobbying for lower UK food standards after Brexit, the absence of a strong legal and institutional framework is stark," it added.
The same report concluded that all areas of environmental governance that it analysed - which covered air pollution, fisheries, chemicals, climate change, water, farming, waste and conservation - were at "high risk" of being weaker after Brexit, despite repeated government assurances that environmental standards would not be weakened.
Separately, a group of five green NGOs - Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace UK, Green Alliance, E3G, and ChemTrust - earlier this month called for an extension to Article 50 arguing the UK had failed to put in place the mechanisms required to honour the government's pledges that environmental standards would be maintained.
"This time last year, Theresa May solemnly promised - and Michael Gove has solemnly promised - to maintain and enhance environmental protections after Brexit," Friends of the Earth boss Craig Bennett told the Guardian earlier this month. "But the way things stand, with just a few days to go, they are going to clearly fail on delivering that promise… Although the country's very divided at the moment, the one thing that unites us, whether you voted leave or remain, is that no one voted for the environment to be worse off as a result of Brexit. We need to extend Article 50 to at least give the extra time in place to put these measures before we Brexit."
No deal technical notices from the government have warned that if the UK does leave the EU without a deal it would result in significant disruption impacting areas such as cross border energy trading, the emissions trading scheme, and chemicals regulation. A recent report from the Institute for Government warned a 'no deal' exit could leave the UK without the government's promised independent Green Watchdog for at least two years, resulting in significant gaps in the UK's enforcement of environmental regulations. Experts have also warned that reversion to WTO trade rules will result in new tariffs for green business, as well as significant border disruption and new administrative burdens for exporting firms.
In addition, green groups remain fearful that without the Withdrawal Agreement's commitment to ensure environmental standards are maintained the government could move swiftly to water down regulations in a bid to boost short term competitiveness and secure a US trade deal. Commentators have repeatedly noted that a number of Cabinet Ministers and former Cabinet Ministers have called for a roll back of environmental rules post-Brexit.
However, while green business leaders await the high drama of next week's 11th hour parliamentary stand off and continue to reflect on how they have no guarantee what their trading arrangements will look like next month, the technical process of delivering a post-Brexit governance framework is edging forward.
This week there was a modicum of good news for the green economy as the government backed two amendments to the Trade Bill in the House of Lords that underscored its repeated assertions that environmental protections will be maintained post-Brexit.
Specifically, Ministers backed a Labour amendment that would require the government to seek a trade deal with the EU where close co-operation is maintained with a number of EU agencies, including the European Chemicals Agency. Industry bodies and green groups have consistently argued that the UK should aim to continue to comply with the REACH regime and work with the European Chemicals Agency in order to reduce administrative duplication and ensure UK and EU chemicals rules remain aligned.
Ministers also introduced a new government amendment that tweaked an amendment initially put forward by Green Party peer Baroness Jenny Jones and seeks to ensure environmental protections, workers and animal rights contained in the existing trade deals with third countries that the UK is seeking to roll-over post-Brexit are maintained.
A statement on Baroness Jones' website hailed the adoption of the amendment as an important step forward for UK environmental protections. "The government had seemed reluctant to accept it, even though the Prime Minister had committed herself to not weakening existing standards in future trade agreements," the statement read. "At the moment it would be possible for ministers to use statutory instruments to change the rules on this, but this amendment would guarantee these minimum standards were kept for rolling over all the trade deals that we currently have as a result of EU membership. It's a crucial political decision as the right wing freemarket types in the conservative party didn't want their hands tied."
Ruth Chambers of Greener UK agreed the new amendment goes "some way to fulfilling the government's pledge to maintain standards". But she also warned that it did not deliver the wide-ranging non-regression commitment green groups have been calling for.
"For instance, while it covers the regulations that will roll over existing EU deals, [the amendment] does not address imports that may be produced using less stringent processes and to weaker standards," she said. "This fails to assuage concerns around cheaper imports creating downward pressure on the standard of domestically produced goods. There are also ongoing concerns about the Environment Bill. The inclusion of a strong commitment to non-regression would help to provide reassurance that UK standards will not be weakened."
Campaigners are continuing to push for that Environment Bill to be enhanced on multiple fronts to ensure the government delivers on its repeated promises to maintain and strengthen environmental standards, embed environmental principles, and deliver robust and independent enforcement mechanisms. Defra ministers have repeatedly stressed that they are open to suggestions for improving the draft bill, but reports suggest proposals to strengthen governance structures continue to face resistance from other parts of government.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen when the Bill will be finalised as parliamentary time continues to be dominated by the headline-grabbing debates over the Withdrawal Bill and the government seeks to prioritise the no deal planning that may have to be enacted as early as next week. Indeed, a number of statutory instruments (SIs) covering REACH and the Common Fisheries Policy will be discussed in the Lords next week as Ministers seek to secure the powers that the government insists will be needed in the event of a 'no deal' Brexit. Commentators have warned that some of the SIs that have already passed represent a power grab by ministers that could lead to a watering down of environmental standards, and fears remain that upcoming SIs covering everything from chemicals to agriculture could similarly dilute current rules.
It is just one of many examples of why businesses and campaigners are so nervous that a no deal exit could undermine much of the green economic and policy progress secured over the past decade.
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