UK Approach to Trade Negotiations with the EU: a Disappointing Start

Date Posted: Thursday 27th February 2020

Professor James Harrison from the University of Warwick explains why the Government's approach is disappointing for those who want to see labour and environmental regulations front and centre of all future trade deals.


Today the Government has published it’s ‘Approach to UK-EU Negotiating.’ Our immediate response is here. Professor James Harrison who co-authored our 2018 briefing ‘Gender impacts of Trade and Investment Agreements‘ has set out what the language contained in this document means for labour laws in the UK:

“The UK government’s negotiating objectives for its future relationship with the EU, published today, contain what it would like to see in relation to joint commitments on labour standards and the environment. The objectives are set out in a couple of short paragraphs and so more detail is needed in order to fully evaluate what is being proposed. But based on what is available, it is clear that the UK government envisages labour and environmental commitments being included within a future UK-EU trade deal, rather than in a separate treaty. The UK is asking for ‘chapters’ on trade and labour which appear to follow the approach taken by the EU in all of its recent trade agreements, including with Canada and Japan. They are often badged as ‘trade and sustainable development chapters (TSD chapters)’.

For those who want to see ‘level playing field’ provisions on labour and environment as the bedrock of a future UK-EU relationship, such an approach is likely to be a disappointment. The commitments in TSD chapters are enforced only through a very ‘soft’ dispute settlement process. If a complaint is made, experts provide recommendations but they can’t impose any sanctions if the parties do not comply. Key obligations are themselves quite slippery. In particular, the commitment not to weaken or reduce the level of protection afforded by labour or environmental laws is accompanied by the caveat that is only prohibited if it is done ‘in order to encourage trade or investment’. Proving that laws were weakened in order to encourage trade or investment is always going to be very hard. There will always be a number of different reasons policymakers will have for a change in the law.

I have been involved in extensive empirical research which has documented the limitations of the EU’s TSD Chapters in previous trade agreements. The lessons from this practice should be learnt in devising a mechanism for effectively addressing labour and environmental issues as part of the UK and EU’s future relationship.”