EU, UK Negotiators Begin Prep for Next Chapter in Brexit Talks

12 April 2018

The next phase of the Brexit talks is due to get underway in the coming weeks, with EU and UK negotiators looking to wrap up some final details of the transition process, in line with an existing political deal in this area, and begin charting their future relationship for when the transition ends on 31 December 2020.

EU negotiators hope to agree on a withdrawal treaty by October’s European Council summit, given the need to ratify the deal domestically for it to take effect upon Brexit in late March 2019. They also aim to have the outlines of a trade deal and other agreements on key areas ready, which both sides would then finalise following Brexit.

Meanwhile, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier outlined on Tuesday 10 April a series of questions that Brussels considers essential in the forthcoming talks, including on what changes might be in the pipeline for the UK’s regulatory framework and what these might mean for environmental protection and other objectives.

Another issue to consider is what Brexit will mean for non-EU countries who have trade agreements with the bloc, which has been the subject of some ministers’ level meetings in recent days.

Regulations, long-term plans

Questions about the future of UK’s regulatory approach, including on environmental and social issues, have drawn the interest of leaders, activists, and other stakeholders since the beginning of the country’s exit process.

UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove has pledged that London will continue to prioritise strong environmental regulations after leaving the EU.

“We have the chance to set the gold standard for environmental science and become a home to centres of environmental excellence. A new independent, statutory body and a strong statement of principles will ensure that outside the EU, we become the world-leading curator of the most precious asset of all: our planet,” the environment ministry leader wrote in 2017.

In January, the UK’s environmental agency released a proposed 25-year plan on this policy area. The document, which outlines targets such as eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042 and planting 180,000 hectares of woodland by the same date, proposes to shape UK environmental policy over the coming decades.

EU officials have welcomed the move, along with other statements from UK leaders regarding their continued commitment to strong environmental policies. However, they have indicated that they will need to see certain objectives met on this front during the upcoming negotiations.

“What we hear from the UK could be seen as reassuring … This is reflected in the UK’s proposed 25-year plan on the environment. This is welcome but my responsibility as EU’s lead negotiator is to remain extremely vigilant,” EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told the European Parliament on 11 April. 

Barnier also told EU parliamentarians that any future EU-UK deal would need to feature “precise provisions on a level playing field, especially in environmental matters,” in order to avoid instances where London may move towards more lax policies in a bid to gain a “competitive” edge, and that the UK would need to continue its commitment to high ambition on climate action.

The UK and EU would also need to work out the sustainable management of shared fish stocks and cooperate on other environmental objectives of mutual interest, he said.

Domestic officials have also raised questions about environmental governance in the United Kingdom following Brexit.

In a statement to the House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee, Chair Mary Creagh MP noted concern over the “one in three out” principle, which calls for three pieces of legislation to be annulled for every new one legislative act. Previously, this approach did not apply to environmental regulations since these fell under the EU umbrella; however, with environmental regulations coming under domestic rule with Brexit, she questioned what this change would mean for policymaking going forward.

“As we leave the EU, we are concerned that the ‘one in, three out’ principle could have a chilling effect on future environmental laws and regulations. It is vital that the UK’s environmental protections are in no way weakened outside of the European Union,” Creagh said.

Existing trade deals

The United Kingdom will officially exit the EU in March 2019, with a provisional transition period continuing to the end of 2020. What this might mean for existing trade deals with non-EU nations remains uncertain, however, despite expressed hopes by UK officials that these can be carried forward intact through the transition.

Whether current trade deal partners would accept the continuation of current arrangements – or instead ask for some modifications – remains to be seen. According to sources cited by Politico earlier this year, South Korea and Chile have already indicated that they may seek concessions from the UK in implementing their existing trade deal.

Meanwhile, Norway, which participates in the European Economic Area but not in the EU customs union, has recently indicated that it may be open to continued trade with the UK under existing terms. Norwegian finance minister Siv Jensen told the Financial Times this week that Oslo had “no objections to a transition period” with “flexible solutions.”

In a speech in London on 6 April, the Scandinavian finance official emphasised the importance of continued dedication to the Basel Accords, which regulate banking, and close economic ties to the UK throughout the Brexit period.

“The UK has played an important role in developing the European single market for financial services. Norwegian and British views have often been aligned. We will miss the British voice in the EU. Independent of Brexit there will be a need for close cooperation and coordination on financial market issues in Europe also in the future,” Jensen said.

ICTSD reporting; “Key dates in Brexit process,” REUTERS, 2 February 2018; “Norway offers to roll over UK trade agreements after Brexit,” FINANCIAL TIMES, 10 April 2018; “EU will seek ‘non-regression’ clause to tie UK to environmental standards,” THE GUARDIAN, 10 April 2018; “EU approval of Brexit blueprint come with Irish border warning,” THE GUARDIAN, 23 March 2018; “Norway gives Britain Brexit backing to continue trade without EU interference,” EXPRESS, 10 April 2018; “EU trade partners demand concessions for Brexit transition rollover,” POLITICO, 2 February 2018. 

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