openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Why the EU’s request for a level playing field is in all our interests

The UK’s current negotiating mandate for EU trade puts workers’ rights at risk, hinders efforts to tackle climate change and threatens British agriculture.

Laura Bannister
4 March 2020
European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (R) and the UK chief Brexit negotiator David Frost pose for a photo before the start of the first post-Brexit trade talks between the EU and the United Kingdom
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Dati Bendo/DPA/PA Images

This week the long-awaited second stage of Brexit finally gets started, as the UK begins its formal trade negotiations with the EU.

Tensions are already evident. The UK government made clear in its negotiating mandate published last week that it is refusing to lock in any minimum standards on labour rights, food quality or environmental protection, claiming the UK leads the way in these areas and will not accept “the compulsion of a treaty”. Campaigners are concerned that these could be eroded after Brexit, especially if the UK bends to lower US standards through a free trade deal.

Meanwhile the EU considers these minimum standards (known as the ‘level playing field) to be a vital pre-condition for an agreement. If the UK won’t sign up to them, the EU insists it will not grant the UK tariff-free, quota-free trade with the bloc.

The stand-off is intense, and could lead to no trade deal at all if neither side backs down.

The picture is no less complex at the national level, as UK civil society groups and farmers are deeply concerned about our government’s stance. Groups representing millions of UK residents, including our largest trade unions, leading environmental campaigns, and major health, human rights and global justice groups, have come together to demand a different approach. A joint briefing released this week outlines the groups’ priorities. Top of the list is that we lock in place a ‘floor’ for social, environmental and food standards by agreeing a solid level playing field with the EU, while carving out clear space above it in which we can create our own higher standards.

Our alignment with EU minimum rules has ensured that UK workers get equal pay for work of equal value, paid time off for maternity appointments and holiday pay for part-time and agency workers. It has protected us from dozens of unsafe food additives and agricultural chemicals that are banned in the EU but allowed elsewhere where standards are lower. It has improved our water quality, recycling rates and carbon emissions. For some issues, such as air pollution, enforcement at the European Court of Justice has been vital to ensuring our public health is protected. In these areas, it is clear that life in the UK has been improved as a result of our alignment with EU standards.

It is for these reasons that UK civil society sees the level playing field, coupled with clear space to go beyond it, as a good way to protect our social and environmental standards while maintaining our flexibility and independence.

This should not be a controversial demand. Given the Prime Minister’s assurances that the UK has no intention of starting a ‘race to the bottom’, it should be straightforward to agree shared minimum standards as part of a treaty.

Johnson and his government are keen to paint any such co-operation as a humiliation for the UK. This argument is disingenuous, as the entire point of making a treaty relationship is to co-operate and fix baselines.

The level playing field that is on offer for the EU-UK deal should be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. It certainly goes further than what is required in the EU-Canada agreement, but unlike many trade measures, it does not attempt to block improvements in regulation; rather it prevents deregulation. For social and environmental standards, this can only be a good thing.

Although, as Boris Johnson has noted, the UK is ahead of the EU in some areas of labour law and on several important animal welfare measures, there is a real concern that many in the Conservative Party want to use Brexit as an excuse to drive down standards. In particular, the UK will be under pressure to do this in a US trade agreement. The government is already indicating that it hopes to adopt the US’ ‘science based’ approach to regulation. This phrase sounds innocuous, but it is trade-speak for an approach that assumes products and processes are safe until proven otherwise. This system is much less stringent than our current ‘precautionary principle’ approach, in which we require chemicals and other high-risk products to demonstrate their safety before they are licensed. This is the system which Boris Johnson has dismissed as “mumbo jumbo”, which rather undermines his assurances that “we will not engage in some cut-throat race to the bottom”.

This is not a question of loyalty to the EU or sovereignty for the UK. All governments face pressures, and the temptation to relax regulations will always be present. There is no doubt that the US will put pressure on the UK to lower standards for a trade deal with Trump. Wherever we are protected by minimum international standards - whether with the EU or elsewhere - we want to maintain those safeguards, to ensure that workers, society and the environment are protected when times are tough.

We should therefore not waste this opportunity to ensure that our labour rights, food safety and environmental standards receive binding treaty protection. The level playing field will be no constraint if the government is serious about remaining ahead of the curve. It is simply a sensible way to ensure we use our new independent trade policy to keep moving in the right direction.

Laura Bannister, Senior Adviser for EU-UK Trade

Trade Justice Movement

The Trade Justice Movement is a network of nearly sixty civil society organisations campaigning for trade that works for people and planet.

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