MPs have warned that a controversial trade deal being negotiated between the European Union and the United States risks an unacceptable "race to the bottom" on environmental standards.
The transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) could weaken European and UK regulation in areas including genetically modified crops, chemicals in cosmetics and meat treated with growth hormones, as a result of efforts to align standards between laxer US rules and the EU.
A report by the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee also suggested it could make it harder to strengthen rules on issues such animal welfare or climate change in the future - particularly if the deal allows US companies to sue government for bringing in new regulations that harm their businesses.Campaign groups including trade unions and 38 Degrees have been protesting against TTIP, claiming the deal would lead to the privatisation of NHS services.
But the Government maintains it would give a huge boost to business, creating jobs, cutting red tape and opening up new markets, especially for smaller firms.
The focus in TTIP has been on its potential for boosting transatlantic trade, but that must not be at the expense of throwing away hard-won environmental and public health protections. As the TTIP negotiations proceed, the next government will have to get itself involved, and ensure that the EU negotiators do not engage in a race to the bottom as it combines the two bloc's regulatory systems. Europe must retain its right to regulate. That needs to be embedded in any treaty text. But more importantly any dispute settlement must unambiguously deny US companies any opportunity to sue us when we look to introduce necessary environmental or public health safeguards.
One of the most contentious areas of the EU-US trade deal concerns the potential dispute procedures governments could face if they introduce new regulations that make it harder for foreign companies to sell their goods and services in the EU.
This report confirms that fears about the potential impact of TTIP on our environment are justified. At a time of planetary emergency, it is reprehensible that the UK Government continues to promote a trade deal that threatens a regulatory race to the bottom and undermines Europe-wide efforts to protect our environment, health and the climate.
The EAC said a compelling case for such a process in the trade deal had not been made, and any that was included must not allow US companies to sue EU governments for bringing in necessary environmental or public health safeguards.
The UK Government and European Commission have both been clear that the environmental and food safety standards we enjoy on this side of the Atlantic are not up for negotiation. We agree with the Committee that we must retain the right to regulate, and the EU chief negotiator has already made clear there can be no compromise on this. We have been holding regular meetings with environmental groups and other campaigners, and we are also making more documents available to Parliament to increase transparency and reassure people.
The committee's report said environmental concerns over aligning standards could be addressed, but there was not enough transparency at the moment on the deal to see if the risks would be dealt with.
The UK government, along with other EU member states, must be more closely involved with the negotiations from now on, and engage with environmental groups and agencies to make sure environmental concerns are addressed alongside economic and trade considerations, the committee said.