The UK car industry has run a good race in the post-Brexit lobbying stakes. But Britain’s chemical industry looks to be making a late run, if recent coverage in the Financial Times is accurate.
The issue for the industry is the post-Brexit regulatory regime and how this is to be disengaged from the current European model. The government plans to set up a UK agency to record the safety registrations for industrial chemicals.
But industry lobbyists are worried that this process – duplicative as they see it – could cost up to £1 billion, unless there is access to the test data held by ECHA (the European authority). And EU negotiators are apparently not that forthcoming on what the price for helping out might be.
Now the industry pleading might be completely accurate, but it’s unlikely to be the whole picture.
It’s quite plausible that industry costs would be reduced if UK negotiators made concessions to ‘buy’ this specific EU cooperation. But the key question is surely the extent to which the UK seizes the opportunity to examine its regulatory regime, and determine how it can most efficiently dovetail with external regimes, such as the EU’s.
The industry ought perhaps to be taking this opportunity to argue for a more focused and less costly regulatory regime for the benefit of UK consumers, while also making the case for cheaper workarounds, such as mutual recognition of products already registered with ECHA. But this approach would reduce the competitive advantage of the incumbent businesses lobbying the government, putting them on a more even footing with new entrants to the market.
Observers might also see in this episode an illustration of the evolution of the EU-UK negotiations.
The immediate issue is the separation of a formerly shared process. Brussels does not seem inclined to recognise any UK contribution to the existing regulatory enterprise and indeed seems minded to charge a high price for a share. This might be standard practice in an acrimonious divorce but is less common in a negotiation where the parties anticipate a productive ongoing relationship.
And the continuing European hostility to a win-win approach seems to mirror a change in the British position. In this instance, rather than looking to negotiate a continuing relationship with ECHA, the UK’s preference is to establish its own agency with some duplicative processes. Underlying this would seem to be a reluctance to rely on the EU or its assurances.
If so, it is a useful example of how far the attitudes of UK ministers and officials have changed since the days of former PM Theresa May’s abortive Brexit deal at the end of 2018. She bet her political future on a deal which would have left the UK with a high level of dependence on such EU institutions and decisions – and lost.
Britain’s negotiators do now seem to understand that the EU is not offering great terms for a relationship based on mutuality. So their starting point needs to be how to maximise the benefits of separation, and conjointly open the UK more to the world beyond Europe. The likely result: a more independent UK – a goal apparently shared by the EU leadership and Brexiteers. Who would have thought that?