Boris Johnson is scrapping a commitment by Theresa May to stick to EU rules on the environment, safety standards and workers’ rights – to raise his chances of getting a trade agreement with Donald Trump.
The “level playing field”, included in the Brexit deal negotiated by the former prime minister, was a commitment to abide by rules similar to the EU’s in exchange for market access.
But right-wingers in Mr Johnson’s new cabinet want the commitments downgraded to give the UK more flexibility to lower its standards for American goods.
EU officials say that British negotiators are particularly keen to jettison EU restrictions on genetically modified foods – a key demand of American trade negotiators.
One EU official with knowledge of the Brexit talks suggested US trade officials appeared to have been in contact with British negotiators and told them standards would need to be slashed if there was any chance of a US trade deal.
Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, said scrapping the protections was “vital for giving us the freedom and flexibility to strike new trade deals and become more competitive”.
A cabinet source also told The Sun newspaper: “The level-playing-field promise has to go, and Boris is very clear about this.
“It would seriously restrict our ability to deregulate and do trade deals with other countries.”
The withdrawal agreement signed by Ms May contains pages of annexes of EU rules that the UK would align with under the backstop. UK negotiators had also indicated that such commitments would be a starting point for a future trade agreement.
The annexes include commitments to implement anti-tax avoidance measures, and to make sure environmental standards are “not reduced below the level” the UK follows in the EU – with similar commitments on labour rights, social standards and state aid.
Phil Hogan, the EU’s incoming trade commissioner, suggested earlier this week that the UK’s rejection of the plan would make it harder to do a free trade agreement after Brexit.
“Prime minister May and the EU had a very good agreement and it certainly reassured the European Union with regards to state aid, the level playing field, standards, on environment, labour rights, food quality, consumer protection – all of those issues are very important to us,” he said.
He added that EU leaders would have “the level playing field high on their minds” when considering how much access British businesses could have.
Explaining the move to scrap the safeguards, a UK government spokesperson told The Independent: “The key point here is that unlike other EU trading partners we start from a shared basis of exceptionally high standards, which we have no intention of lowering.
“The UK has an excellent track record in the field of social and employment law and environmental regulation. There are numerous examples of where the UK is a global leader on standards, and already exceeds EU standards such as on the length of maternity leave, shared parental leave and greenhouse gas targets.”
At this stage, the paragraph on the level playing field in the future relationship document had not been entirely stripped out, but UK negotiators are seeking to downgrade its content and make it less stringent.
Last year, Mr Trump told Ms May publicly that her deal with the EU was “very good for the EU” and could stand in the way of an agreement with the US.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies