UK faces legal challenge over 'appalling' lack of post-Brexit trade deal scrutiny

WWF, Greenpeace, Trade Justice Movement, and Tenant Farmers Association among groups claiming government has breached international Aarhus Convention

The UK government has been accused of breaking international environmental law by failing to give the public a say over its post-Brexit trade deals, with a coalition of farming, trade, and conservation groups lodging a legal challenge against the controversial agreement reached earlier this year with Australia.

The Tenant Farmers’ Association, Compassion in World Farming, the Trade Justice Movement and WWF were among the groups that yesterday announced they had filed a formal complaint to the Aarhus Convention amid concerns over the impact of UK trade deals on the environment.

The Aarhus Convention is an international environmental agreement that requires public consultation on decisions by governments or public sector bodies that could impact on the environment – an obligation the UK government is accused of breaching through many of its recent Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).

It comes amid widespread concerns among farmers and environmental groups alike over the lack of environmental protection provisions in several of the UK’s proposed FTAs, including with Japan, New Zealand, and, most notably, Australia.

The groups have repeatedly warned that the latter deal will see the UK market flooded with cheaper food from Australia produced to lower environmental standards that could exacerbate deforestation and undercut British farmers.

The legal challenge – which Greenpeace, Green Alliance, the Soil Association, and Sustain are also backing – is therefore seen as a last-ditch bid to try and halt the Australia FTA, which is currently making its way through Parliament towards final approval.

The coalition claims the government has failed to guarantee any time for MPs to debate or vote on the trade agreement with Australia, heightening concerns over the lack of scrutiny given to a trade deal they argue threatens to damage the environment and leave British farmers facing unfair competition .

Dr Nick Palmer, head of Compassion in World Farming, described the lack of scrutiny and public involvement in the UK government’s post-Brexit FTAs ​​as “appalling”, noting that similar concerns have been raised by a number of Parliamentary select committee reports.

“Free trade agreements will have huge impacts on the UK’s environmental standards for decades to come,” he said. “There has been insufficient public involvement when the government should be welcoming input from a broad range of stakeholders. Additionally, the UK government should introduce a set of core standards for animal welfare and the environment that must be met for products to be included within the terms of any trade agreement.”

The move comes as the government also faces greater legal scrutiny over its Net Zero Strategy, after the High Court yesterday ruled the wrong plan for failing to include sufficient detail as to how Ministers intend to decarbonise the UK economy over the next 30 years.

Meanwhile, environmental policy concerns have intensified over the past fortnight as the Conservative leadership race has fueled fears the next Prime Minister could dilute the UK’s decarbonisation plans. After days of speculatoin all the remaining candidates yesterday confirmed their commitment to UK’s 2050 net zero goal, but they offered limited detail on how they intended to ensure the goals are met.

Emily Armistead, acting program director for Greenpeace UK, urged the Conservative leadershop hopefuls to “remember that votes risk being lost through rushing through trade deals that tough-fought environmental and social protections”.

“There’s very public support for protecting the UK’s food, animal welfare and environmental standards, yet we know that free trade deals can strong them,” she said. “This is why it’s absolutely vital that these deals are negotiated in an open and transparent way, giving the public a chance to have a say – rather than being secretly struck with a handshake behind closed doors.

“Ministers should therefore welcome a healthy dose of public scrutiny at every stage of trade deal negotiations to prevent this from happening.”

With the legal complaint having been formally lodged, the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee is now tasked with considering whether the UK is in breach of international law.

The Department for International Trade (DIT), however, argued post-Brexit trade deals were subject to “considerable consultation”, enjoyed strong public support, and “will not compromise our high standards”.

“We carry out considerable consultation on new trade deals and have always been clear this deal will not compromise our high standards,” DIT said in a statement. “The independent Trade & Agriculture Commission’s reports agrees that the UK-Australia agreement does not affect the UK’s environmental protection – and in some cases strengthens them.

“Our deal with Australia will unlock £10.4bn of bilateral trade, while also securing substantive provisions on climate change and reaffirming our commitment to the goals in the Paris Agreement – the first time Australia has included these in a trade agreement.”

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