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Brexit progress? Draft Political Declaration mentions EU chemicals agency ECHA

Today saw the publication of a draft Political Declaration, setting out the framework for a future relationship between the EU and the UK. The declaration, which will guide negotiations following the UK’s departure from the EU, includes a commitment to ‘explore the possibility of co-operation of the UK with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA)‘, and states that the UK ‘will consider aligning with Union rules in relevant areas‘.

CHEM Trust warmly welcomes this commitment, and has been calling for the UK to maintain close alignment to REACH since negotiations commenced two years ago. The UK Government has already called for associate membership of ECHA, in a speech by Theresa May in March. In our view, if the UK does commit to be fully aligned with EU chemicals laws, then it is in the EU27’s interest to permit UK (non-voting) participation in REACH.

The Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration

The draft Withdrawal Agreement, published on the 14th of November, is a 585 page legally-binding text that covers the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. This Withdrawal Agreement is now being discussed in parallel with a much shorter non-binding ‘Political Declaration’ which sets aspirations for a future EU-UK framework.

The Withdrawal Agreement includes ‘no change’ transition ending at the end of 2020. During this initial transition, before July 2020, there is planned to be a review of progress, leading to a decision on which of three options will happen at the end of 2020:

  • An agreement on implementing a new trade deal, which avoids a hard border in Ireland, thus making the backstop unnecessary;
  • An extension of the transition period (for one or two years) to allow more time to negotiate;
  • In the absence of any agreement on the above, then a temporary customs union must come into force at the end of 2020

The draft Withdrawal Agreement spells out, in legal text, how this temporary customs union plan will work. This plan will keep Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) in a customs union with the EU, while Northern Ireland will be in an even closer relationship (including applying many EU laws on products) until a more permanent solution is agreed.

Implications for REACH

From the text of the customs backstop, it is clear that if Great Britain ever enters the temporary customs union then it will not be in REACH, as there is no commitment to continued alignment with EU laws in this area, just a weaker commitment to ‘non regression’. In contrast, Northern Ireland would remain fully subject to REACH.

This means that there are three scenarios under which the UK as a whole will be in REACH after 2020:

  1. Brexit doesn’t happen
  2. The UK is still in the Transition; or
  3.  A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is in place which includes REACH.

The text of the draft Political Declaration shows that there is a willingness on both sides to negotiate an FTA including ECHA and therefore presumably REACH – however, this does not mean that these negotiations will be successful.

Next steps and the risk of ‘no deal’ Brexit

Kate Young, CHEM Trust’s Brexit Campaigner, said:

“CHEM Trust welcomes the fact that the UK staying linked to world-leading EU chemicals regulation REACH features in the draft political declaration and therefore is on the agenda for any post-Brexit trade talks.

There are clear benefits to both the EU and the UK of the UK remaining within the REACH system, including protection of human health and the environment, preventing damaging deregulation and facilitating trade.

However, there is more work to be done to develop the vague language into solid commitments, and to agree which chemical-related laws the UK will need to remain aligned with.

The final Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration are expected to be agreed by EU27 and UK Governments on Sunday 25th November.

Both documents will then be discussed by MEPs and UK MPs and both must back them in order for them to come into force.

If the withdrawal agreement is not passed then the UK risks having a ‘no deal’ Brexit at the end of March 2019. CHEM Trust’s has already been highly critical of the UK’s proposals for chemicals regulation in the event of a no-deal Brexit.