15 May 2019

Open Europe’s Head of Brussels office, Pieter Cleppe, gave evidence to the House of Commons Exiting the EU select committee on 15 May. He discussed level playing field guarantees in the Withdrawal Agreement and in the future UK-EU relationship alongside George Peretz QC, Sara Ogilvie from the Trades Union Congress and Dr. Emily Lydgate, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Law at University of Surrey. You can view a recording of the proceedings here.

Cleppe explained that under the Irish backstop protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK has committed to a non-regression principle for environmental and labour regulations, but if the UK violates the arrangement and diverges from EU regulations, the EU only has weak enforcement possibilities, as the non-regression aspect is exempted from arbitration.

Later in the session, Cleppe said that the level playing field requirements currently foreseen under the backstop are in return for the UK to be granted tariff-free access, adding that for the UK to be granted internal market access, the EU is likely to demand for further conditions.  He said,

It is quite likely that if the UK asks for more market access, the EU will ask for more stringent conditions in return.

When asked about the different arrangements on environmental or labour standard regulations the EU has with third countries, Cleppe explained that the lightest requirements can be found in the EU’s trade deals with Canada and Japan, as these are not strongly enforced.  At the other end of the spectrum are countries such as Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, which have full single market access in return for complying with all of the EU’s rules. Meanwhile, Switzerland in somewhere in between, as it has a ‘pick and choose’ arrangement whereby it selectively aligns with regulations, in return for selective market access.

Cleppe noted that the EU is unlikely to agree this type of arrangement with the UK after Brexit, mostly because:

  • It is not “dynamic,” meaning the Swiss are not obliged to take over updates of laws;
  • No judicial arbiter is foreseen and the European Court of Justice (ECJ) does not have a role in sorting disputes.

Finally, he discussed the potential of the EEA/EFTA model for future UK-EU relations, arguing that while there are some advantages “in terms of sovereignty,” compared to EU membership, “For a country with the size of the UK, this model is not a sustainable one [in the long term].” He explained that ultimately, EEA/EFTA countries were obliged to take over 100% of “relevant legislation” from the EU, and that their right of reservation is only a right to delay the adoption of laws and standards.