Brussels and Britain clash over climate conditions in trade deal

The UK is resisting EU moves to incorporate guarantees on respecting international climate change commitments in a future trade deal, adding to mounting disagreements on both sides over how to forge their post-Brexit relationship.

EU officials said that the most recent negotiating round with the UK had revealed a clear rift over co-operation in the fight against climate change.

The split is emblematic of broader difficulties both sides have identified after two rounds of future relationship talks, with negotiators at odds on the conditions that should be attached to a far-reaching trade deal.

While the EU wants to nail down guarantees about shared green ambitions, Britain argues that it should not have to make such legal commitments in exchange for preferential access to the European market. 

The officials said that, during last month’s negotiations, a particular point of disagreement arose over how to weave the international climate deal struck in Paris in 2016 into the future-relationship talks.

The EU wants to identify the emissions-reduction pact as an “essential element” in a future EU-UK trade deal, a status normally reserved for core principles such as respect for human rights and the rule of law. The move would create a legal justification for the EU to suspend preferential trading arrangements if Britain walks away from its Paris obligations.

“The commission had already foreseen to include the Paris agreement upfront as an essential element,” said one EU official. “This means de facto that both the EU and the UK commit to respect the Paris agreement, and in case one does not, the other party can take measures. For now, the UK does not seem to want this.”

Britain has made clear that it rejects the EU’s vision of an overarching future-relationship agreement covering everything from trade to foreign affairs, with a single system for settling disputes. It has argued that any trade deal must respect the UK’s regulatory independence, and said that it will not sign up to conditions that go beyond those in the EU’s existing trade pacts with other countries.

A UK government spokesperson said that Britain was “absolutely committed to tackling climate change”, adding that the country would use its presidency of the next UN climate change conference to drive forward implementation of the Paris accord.

Last June the UK adopted a net zero carbon emission target for 2050, making it the first major economy to pledge to cut emissions to close to zero.

But the spokesperson confirmed Britain’s opposition to embedding legally-binding pledges into any deal with the EU. 

“The agreements we reach with the EU should reaffirm both parties’ commitments to the Paris agreement and recognise both sides’ right to decide their own regulation to meet our respective climate goals,” the spokesperson said. “This does not require an additional binding international legal commitment.”

The EU argues that the volume of trade flows with Britain, coupled with the extensive market access that a tariff-free trade deal would provide, require guarantees to make sure that the bloc’s businesses are not placed at a disadvantage. 

In addition to linking the Paris climate deal to market access, the EU is also seeking a regulatory “level playing field” covering labour market rights, competition policy, state aid and environmental law. 

The third round of future-relationship negotiations will take place next week. Both Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, and David Frost, his UK counterpart, have stressed the need to make progress ahead of an EU-UK summit in June

The talks come at a time when Brussels is under intense public pressure to show that the bloc’s trade policy and its green agenda are not at odds.

The European Commission said in December that the Paris climate deal should from now on be included in the “essential elements” clauses of any trade agreements that the EU negotiates with other countries around the world. Such clauses set out fundamental principles shared by the partner countries, including respect for democracy and human rights.

France and the Netherlands also called for the step in a joint paper this week. 

Brussels officials complain that the future climate co-operation foreseen by Britain is in general less developed than the partnership envisaged by the EU with the UK instead focused on a narrower set of issues. These include how to remain linked to the EU’s emissions trading system, which establishes a price for carbon emissions for polluting industries. 

“It limits its timid ambition to energy only, whereas climate change requires a comprehensive approach,” complained one EU official. 

The UK government spokesperson said that the country’s national legislation “will continue to set our direction as a global climate leader as we work towards net zero emissions”.