Prime minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street for crunch EU talks. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images Prime minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street for crunch EU talks. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Brexit deal: UK says it will aim to uphold ‘level playing field’

A new Brexit deal between the British government and the European Commission would see the UK and EU sign a declaration aiming to uphold environmental protections as part of any future free trade agreement.

The non-binding political declaration, which will require sign-off from both the EU27 and the British parliament, sets out an aspiration for the EU-UK future relationship to encompass “robust commitments to ensure a level playing field”.

That would include “maintain[ing] environmental, social and employment standards at the current high levels provided by the existing common standards,” the declaration reads. “In so doing, they should rely on appropriate and relevant Union and international standards, and include appropriate mechanisms to ensure effective implementation domestically, enforcement and dispute settlement.”

The government’s plans for an Office for Environmental Protection, set out in the Environment Bill published on Tuesday, seek to establish a mechanism enforcing green protections after Brexit.

However, green groups expressed dismay that the bill does not include a binding commitment to maintaining existing protections.

The political declaration states that “the precise nature” of level playing field commitments will depend on “the scope and depth of the future relationship”, which would be negotiated during a transition period if the deal is approved. 

Commentators were quick to point out that the new deal removes level playing field provisions from the binding Withdrawal Agreement.

“Firm obligations have moved from the withdrawal agreement and become looser words in the political declaration,” noted Sam Lowe, a trade expert at the Centre for European Reform, a think tank. “The EU has kicked the can,” he said. “It has decided that it can bring back its level playing field concerns when negotiating the future relationship.”

Seb Dance, a Labour MEP, warned that moving level playing provisions to the non-binding political declaration “is as sure a sign as any [that] Johnson has no intention of honouring them”. 

German chancellor Angela Merkel warned this month that the UK will become an economic competitor to the EU after Brexit, with any free trade deal requiring stronger level playing field provisions than those agreed with more distant partners such as Japan and Canada. 

A Commission spokesperson said that, beyond a reworked section relating to the Northern Irish backstop, most aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement remain “unchanged in substance, as per the agreement reached on 14 November 2018”.

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