874 days after the UK voted to leave the European Union, the UK Government and the European Commission have published the long-awaited text of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the accompanying Outline Political Declaration on the likely shape of the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
The basic premise, as expected, is that EU law will apply in full – with some specific exceptions – during a transition period beginning on 30 March 2019 and ending on 31 December 2020. The transition period may be extended once only, for an as yet unspecified period, provided the decision to extend is made before 1 July 2020. A “single customs territory” consisting of the EU and the UK (including Northern Ireland) applies until the end of the transition period.
On a quick run through of the 585 pages, the main points for those interested in Brexit’s impact on the environment during and after the transition period are as follows:
Regulatory alignment: Goods may continue to flow, but whether or not border checks are required after the end of the transition period will depend on the extent to which rules are aligned. Whilst that could mean that UK rules and EU rules are the same, it could also mean that mutual recognition agreements would be put in place between the UK and the EU. This is important because almost all of the environmental standards applicable to products throughout their lifecycle (from chemicals in components through energy efficiency through to end-of-life management) come from EU directives and regulations. During the transition period, market surveillance authorities are to continue to engage in a high level of cooperation as they do today.
“Level playing field”: The political declaration contains a statement that the future relationship will involve a level playing field in respect of environmental standards and climate change. This is far short of the specific language on non-regression in environmental protection that would apply to Northern Ireland if the “backstop” arrangement needed to be invoked.
Energy: European electricity will still be available to the UK - in the future the two parties expect to agree mechanisms to ensure security of supply and efficient trade over interconnectors. The UK will not be able, before the end of the transition period, to award any renewable energy or other subsidies that would contravene the EU’s state aid rules (though it is unlikely to want to do so).
Emissions trading: The UK will continue to be bound in the transition period by its existing commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Effort Sharing Decision (406/2009/EC) and to report them under the Monitoring Mechanism Regulation (525/2013). The political declaration implies that the UK intends to set up its own emissions trading system which may be linked to the EU ETS; the UK has said previously that if a no-deal Brexit caused the UK to be excluded from the EU ETS, it would be replaced with a carbon tax.
Climate change: No big ambitions in respect of climate change, since the declaration refers to cooperation in international fora and commitment to international agreements, such as the UNFCC and the Paris Agreement; the UK would be bound by its international obligations under such agreements whether or not a future trade deal was reached with the EU (some agreements signed by the EU only on the UK’s behalf will require additional steps).
Nuclear energy: During the transition period the UK must implement a safeguards regime equivalent to the EU’s. The UK retains responsibility to handle spent fuel and radioactive waste in accordance with Euratom obligations which was generated in the UK and present in a member state at the end of the transition period. In the future, the declaration envisages a wide-ranging nuclear cooperation agreement between the UK and EURATOM provided the UK maintains existing standards of nuclear safety.
It now remains to be seen whether the UK Parliament will approve the Withdrawal Agreement, which is by no means certain. A failure to do so would dramatically increase the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.
Photo: ilovetheeu / CC BY-SA 4.0