The UK is particularly vulnerable to weakening its pesticide regulation through trade deals. This is due to a combination of political pressure to conclude trade deals in order to recoup lost EU market access and ‘make a success’ of Brexit, pressure from some UK lobby groups, and the fact that EU exit has led to a ‘governance gap’ in terms of UK institutions, systems and staff.
In addition, the UK regulatory system is already in flux and subject to fewer checks and balances than the EU provided. So, rather than having a settled domestic regulatory framework as its starting point, the UK Government is scrambling to bring EU rules into the UK lawbooks. In doing so, it has replaced a system of EU checks and balances with discretionary powers for UK Ministers to amend, revoke and make regulations. This makes it much easier for the UK to change its pesticide regulations to accommodate trade partners.
This is particularly concerning as the UK Parliament already has a weak influence on UK trade negotiations as compared to, for example, the EU or US. The rules governing trade in the UK offer no meaningful role for parliamentarians or opportunities for public scrutiny. Currently, no one outside the UK Government can even access the text of a trade deal until it is being ratified, let alone amend it.
The current lack of transparency makes it much more likely that countries with lower pesticide standards will be able to force down UK pesticide protections. In addition, there is a question around whether the UK Government, which hasn’t negotiated a trade deal since the 1970s, has the capacity or expertise to withstand attempts to lower pesticide standards, especially given the political pressure to conclude agreements quickly.
In March 2020, it was reported that the UK Department for International Trade needed to fill job vacancies for 135 trade experts. With the perfect storm of inexperienced UK trade negotiators, staff shortages, more powerful and well-resourced negotiating partners and a shroud of secrecy enclosing the entire process, trade deals are arguably the most likely route through which the UK’s pesticide standards will be undermined.