Research Paper on the Level Playing Field - EU-UK Trade Relations: Why environmental policy regression will undermine the level playing field and what the UK can do to limit it

Andrew Jordan, Viviane Gravey, Brendan Moore, Colin Reid

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


The so-called ‘level playing field’ has emerged as a make – or – break issue in the trade negotiations between the European Union (EU) and the UK. In this research paper, we explore how a playing field in international trade might or might not be considered ‘level’, and explain why the environment is perceived to be especially important in EU-UK trade negotiations. We explain why and how the EU has created a regulatory level playing field in environmental policy matters over the last 50 years and discuss how the resulting harmonisation between the UK and EU could be disrupted if one side decides to raise its existing standards (policy progression) and/or reduce them (policy regression) after Brexit.

We find that the EU has been consistently clear in its desire to preserve the existing level playing field. It wants detailed and enforceable commitments on non-regression to be inserted into the text of the final agreement with the UK. The UK has stated that it does not intend to regress its standards – although without actually using that term or the term level playing field – but has not yet offered to make its commitment legally binding. Furthermore, the EU would like both sides to make a legal commitment to continuing policy progression; the UK has not yet agreed to reciprocate.

We then explore how environmental policies in the UK could conceivably regress after Brexit. Of the many different forms that policy regression could take, deregulation (the active removal of existing legal protections from the statute book) has attracted a good deal of public comment, but is the least likely to occur in practice. The academic literature recognises three other forms of policy regression – ‘by default’, ‘symbolic’ and via ‘arena shifting’ – that are more subtle and arguably more likely to occur after Brexit.

Policy makers can adopt a number of strategies to limit policy regression. At the end of the transition period, UK policy makers will enjoy the regulatory autonomy to choose what they want to do. We identify a number of strategies that the UK Government can implement within and outside the framework of the EU-UK agreement that would limit policy regression. Crucially, we show that the UK does not have to wait for the EU to act first; it can even respond if no trade deal at all is struck with the EU (i.e. a ‘no-deal’ situation).

We conclude that even if the UK and EU manage to square their current differences and strike an environmentally ambitious trade deal, the debate about level playing fields and non-regression will almost certainly continue. It will re-appear in relation to UK devolution, because post Brexit (and absent new UK wide common frameworks), the four nations will enjoy new opportunities to pursue independent policies that could disrupt the internal level playing field within the UK. And it will also flare up when the Government attempts to strike new trade deals with countries that have lower environmental standards than the UK’s. At that point, the tables are likely to turn and the UK Government will find itself under pressure to adopt strong level playing field standards to prevent its producers from being undercut by competitors out with Europe.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherFriends of the Earth
Number of pages28
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Brexit
  • Non-regression


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