Economy and Trade, Long Reads

Environmental protection after Brexit: A race to the bottom?

Environmental protection in the UK is largely influenced by EU legislation which traditionally sets high standards across Member States. Brexit will allow the UK to divert from those higher standards, thus introducing a more liberal approach in relation to environmental protection.

The EU Withdrawal Bill indicates that current EU legislation will initially be transposed into the UK legal framework on exit day in order to guarantee some legal certainty in the short term. These retained laws are then capable of being reviewed and repealed over time, thus allowing for a more flexible approach in the long term. Further, environmental loopholes are present in the Bill. The Bill currently removes environmental principles, such as the polluter pays principle and the precautionary principle, from playing a role in the UK.

In practice, this could mean that the UK might introduce lower standards in environmental protection with a view to attracting international trade despite Environment secretary Michael Gove calling for a green Brexit. The EU’s restrictive approach has previously aggravated or even obstructed free trade negotiations (see e.g. TTIP Agreement with the U.S.). Lower standards could thus be a competitive advantage for the UK when negotiating free trade deals.

The danger of introducing more liberal rules on environmental protection is that it may lead to a race to the bottom if there are no minimum standards defined. The need to attract further trade may thus tempt the UK to undercut previously agreed standards and consequently undermine currently existing trading relations with countries requiring higher standards.

Most importantly, this will have an impact on the UK’s ability to negotiate any trade relations with the EU post-Brexit. Any products or services accessing the EU single market will have to comply with the EU’s higher standards in environmental protection. Facing a potential race to the bottom, the UK’s negotiating position with the EU will be significantly weakened if it cannot guarantee that certain minimum standards will be met post-Brexit.

In addition, the UK’s approach post-Brexit could have an impact on the devolved settlements and the powers granted to the devolved administrations. Environmental matters are devolved. Currently the devolved administrations can set their own agendas and requirements. For instance, Wales is at the forefront of environmental protection by promoting concepts, such as the sustainable management of natural resources or the circular economy, at its core. With Brexit it is now hard to imagine how region-specific standards would be allowed when the ultimate Westminster goal is to avoid the fragmentation of the UK single market.


Dr Annegret Engel, Lecturer at Cardiff Law School. Annegret specialises in the area of EU law and international agreements, with a particular focus on the delimitation of competences (email:

Dr Ludivine Petetin, Lecturer at Cardiff Law School. Ludivine specialises in EU environmental law, including the area of agriculture, and international trade law (email:


This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Welsh Brexit blog, nor Cardiff University.


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