Prime minister Boris Johnson addresses parliament after the Queen's Speech. Photograph: UK Parliament Prime minister Boris Johnson addresses parliament after the Queen's Speech. Photograph: UK Parliament

Withdrawal Agreement Bill could set a course for green divergence, critics fear

The Withdrawal Agreement Bill, presented in parliament yesterday, could lock the UK into negotiating a Canada-style free trade agreement with the EU that places less emphasis on environmental protections, observers claim.

Section 31 of the bill states that the government must present MPs with a statement on its aims for a future relationship with the EU that “must be consistent with” the political declaration signed by prime minister Boris Johnson and the European Commission. 

The declaration says both parties should commit to ‘level playing field’ provisions on the environment, with the “precise nature” of those provisions depending on the “scope and depth of the future relationship”. 

But it was heavily criticised by green groups for watering down the previous declaration negotiated under former prime minister Theresa May. The new declaration removes a commitment to build on the extensive level playing field arrangements set out under the - now scrapped - Northern Irish backstop, as well as a reference to “dynamic alignment” with EU rules. 

While MPs would have to approve both the government’s negotiating objectives and the final free trade agreement before it could be ratified, they would have little power to stop it from forcing them to choose between approving the agreement or reverting to trading with the EU on World Trade Organization terms. 

Section 30 says that an extension to the implementation period - during which a free trade deal would be negotiated - can only go ahead if a minister lays before parliament “a statement setting out the length of the proposed extension”. The House of Commons would then have to pass a motion approving the government’s proposals. 

“If the government doesn’t propose an extension to the transition, MPs have no say, and therefore if negotiations on future relationship [are] unfinished by end of December next year, we’re out,” warned Green MP Caroline Lucas on Twitter. 

Labour MP Hilary Benn warned that the government’s decision not to propose an extension would mean “parliament would have no say and we would exit the transition period on the 31 Dec 2020 even if a trade agreement hadn’t been reached by then with the EU; ie no deal.”

Shaun Spiers, chair of Greener UK, expressed his disappointment that the bill did not include any specific green provisions. It “could have provided some reassurance on environmental standards”, he said, similar to a section on non-regression of labour rights that the bill inserts into the EU (Withdrawal) Act. “But it doesn’t. In fact, the environment isn’t mentioned once.”

It comes as the Institute for Government, a non-partisan think tank, warned that the limited time allocated for scrutinising the bill is “extraordinary”. 

The think tank’s deputy director, Hannah White, said in a blog that “anyone who claims meaningful legislative scrutiny is possible on this timetable is – at best – misguided… The Commons should not agree to the government’s proposed timetable for scrutiny of its Brexit deal today. It’s hard to believe the government thinks that they will.”

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