Post-Brexit trade deals should have high environmental standards

Supporters are lauding Britain’s exit from the European Union as an opportunity for the UK to forge trade relations with new partners, and create better regulatory standards and agencies that are firmly grounded in British law and in the interests of Britain. While it is correct that this offers an opportunity, there are challenges associated with leaving well-established, definitive, and respected regulatory frameworks.

One such group we will be leaving is the ‘EU action plan against wildlife trafficking’, which offers a robust, if imperfect, response to the illegal trade of ivory, plants, bird, and furs, amongst other things. This action plan has gone over and above the international standards set by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and while it has led to an enormous number of seizures of wildlife products at Europe’s borders, it is patchily enforced and fails to comprehensively address demand-side issues.

While it is possible that Britain could craft a better response to this problem, some conservationists have already expressed concern. In particular, the Government should avoid the approach outlined in a recently leaked document to water down its commitment to stopping illegal wildlife trade in the interests of better trading relations with developing countries. As the Government moves into the Brexit process and begins to negotiate trade deals with other nations, ministers should note that it is possible to have a robust stance in opposition to the illegal wildlife trade, and forge dynamic, expansive trading relations with developing countries around the world.

Negotiating trade deals with high environmental standards

Writing for Conservative Home, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Andrea Leadsom, stated it was the Government’s intention to make “UK rules on trading ivory amongst the toughest in the world”. While the illegal trade of wildlife was absent from the 2017 Conservative manifesto, the previous two manifestos included pledges to totally ban the sale of all ivory in the UK.

One way the Government might seek to do this is through environmental clauses in any future trade agreement with the EU. The Prime Minister has outlined her plan for a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU, as opposed to joining a preexisting arrangement like the European Economic Area (EEA), and the number of FTAs that include environmental provisions has skyrocketed since the 1990s.

The most basic of these provisions falls into the broad category of ‘measures to protect or enhance the environment’. This clause has become standard practice in FTAs, and includes a commitment to not weaken environmental regulatory regimes in order to undercut competitors or attract investment, which would prevent the Government from pursuing the rumoured deregulatory agenda on climate change or illegal wildlife trade legislation.

Cooperation clauses in trade agreements

Should Britain wish to make its rules the “toughest in the world”, there are other potential clauses of an FTA with the EU that the Government could pursue. A cooperation clause would allow the UK to maintain the current level of cross-border customs cooperation that allow agencies across Europe to detect and impound illegally imported wildlife goods such as ivory, while also compelling the EU to more stridently enforce its current rules on the illegal trade of wildlife.

Under the current system, governed by the multinational CITES, the EU is registered as a Regional Economic Integration Organisation (REIO), which means that it acts in the organisation on behalf of its members, and is accountable to CITES’ rules and standards. However, as the problem of illegal trade in wildlife is concentrated in several EU countries, namely Spain, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Ireland, which predominantly act as transit sites to larger Asian markets, the EU struggles to hold its individual members to international standards without violating its commitment to national sovereignty.

With the inclusion of environmental standards in an FTA with Britain, both groups would be held accountable to the highest possible standards, with governments being able to bring action against other states at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that are failing to meet their environmental obligations. In one example, in a case brought by India, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Thailand against the United States over seafood imports, the WTO ruled that nations should be able to take measures to conserve exhaustible resources, a precedent that would apply in cases of illegal trade in wildlife.

Some free trade agreements establish independent bodies of their own to monitor environmental standards across signatory parties. In NAFTA, environmental clauses established a Commission on Environmental Cooperation, which is obliged to investigate complaints from citizens and non-governmental organisations that signatory states are not adhering to their environmental standards. This would hold governments accountable for rules pertaining to the illegal trade in wildlife not just to the international community, but also to expert organizations such as WWF.

These same principles could be worked into trade agreements with developing countries, establishing clauses that will make sure China is held accountable to its recent commitment to banning the ivory trade, and potential trade agreements with ASEAN members in South East Asia, which currently act as a gateway to the larger Chinese market for ivory through their significantly weaker regulation of the trade.

While some in the Government may believe such clauses would reduce the willingness of potential trade partners to work with Britain because of supposed economic costs, on the contrary, the willingness of China to work with the international community on environmental issues has shown the potential benefits of further regulation. Indeed, China may be a valuable regional partner on halting the illegal trade in wildlife, as well as environmental issues more broadly, as they have recently emerged as one of the most committed global environmental leaders. The illegal trade in wildlife has been shown in numerous studies to be tied to dissident groups, terrorism, social unrest, exploitation, and drugs – all issues that developing governments in the region are seeking to tackle.

As Britain embarks on a new role in the world, with an ambitious plan for its trading relations, it’s worth bearing in mind how broad and flexible trade agreements can be, and the enormous potential for Britain to lead the way in environmental protection and the crackdown on the illegal wildlife trade by combining its trade agenda with its environmental commitments.

Neil Reilly is a research assistant at Bright Blue