Britain’s post-Brexit agreement with the European Union could leave workers rights and environmental protections at risk of erosion and will slow the economic recovery, experts warn.
Early analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) shows that the “level playing field” safeguards the bloc thinks it secured — one of the key stocking points that threatened the deal — will be “difficult to enforce.”
The think tank’s assessment, published on Sunday, says that by Britain “watering down” the level playing field requirements to secure “only limited benefits in market access” will cause a blow to trade.
But on Sunday in his first interview since announcing the Brexit deal, prime minister Boris Johnson said that the UK will not regress the issue, and pledged to use the “legislative and regulatory freedoms to deliver for people who felt left behind.”
The deal announced on 24 December by Johnson, forced the UK to accept an independent dispute resolution process if labour, consumer and environmental protections are diluted, to prevent unfair competition.
“The protections it offers on labour and environmental standards are surprisingly weak and appear to leave considerable scope for a UK government to weaken EU-derived protections,” warned Marley Morris, IPPR associate director for immigration, trade and EU relations.
Morris says as a result, “this leaves protections for workers, climate and the environment at serious risk of being eroded.”
He added: “This thin deal is better than no deal at all, but still creates major trade barriers with our closest neighbour, which will inhibit growth and slow the economic recovery.”
The analysis shows that there could be disruption to trade flows, including at the border, in the short-term while barriers to trading with Britain’s biggest partner will “likely lead to slower growth and a more prolonged economic recovery” from COVID-19.
IPPR highlighted three important benefits among the gains made by the agreement, such as tariff-free and quota-free trade in goods, continued social security coordination between the UK and the EU, including healthcare coverage, and continued data-sharing for security purposes.
While all three are preferential to a no-deal scenario, the UK economy will still take a hit, it said.
But under the agreement, to be debated by MPs in the House of Commons on 30 December, commitments on workers’ rights and environmental standards to maintain fair competition are considerably weaker than expected.
The think tank says that there is only a commitment not to lower current levels of protection in a way that affects trade or investment — “which would be difficult to prove.”
IPPR says that the agreement for the UK keeping up with any future strengthening of such rights and protections by the bloc is even weaker, instead it could be more difficult to prevent differing standards over time.
Additionally, the requirement for Britain to keep pace with improvements in protections across the Channel — “ratchet clause” — was even weaker.
“Any assessment of the impact of divergence must be based on reliable evidence and not mere conjecture or remote possibility, the agreement states. Even then, proposed rebalancing measures — sanctions in the form of tariffs, designed to compensate one side for an unfair disadvantage — face being referred to a complex arbitration system before they can be introduced,” IPPR says.
The think tank says that “rebalancing measures are only likely to be used in a rare number of scenarios.”
There could be some bickering over wording of the agreement as Johnson has urged backbenchers and Tory Eurosceptics to back the nearly 1,250 page Brexit deal a day before the transition period ends on 31 December.
Watch: Tory Eurosceptics examine Brexit trade deal with EU after PM’s plea