An important part of the political battle surrounding Brexit has nothing to do with the terms of divorce. Instead, it’s about what the future UK-EU relationship might look like.
That’s why there’s been a lot of talk about “the level playing field” – it refers to the extent to which the UK might diverge from EU regulations in the future and become an economic competitor.
EU regulations cover things like:
- The working time directive, which limits the number of hours people can work
- Maximum amounts of particular pollutants there can be in the air
- Requirements for workers doing the same jobs to be paid equally.
They set minimum standards below which government cannot go. After Brexit, UK governments would no longer have to abide by these minimum levels.
The EU’s position is that the closer the UK chooses to stay to EU regulations after Brexit, the easier it will be to give it full market access.
State aid (the amount of assistance governments can give to struggling businesses) is one area in which the EU wants to maintain a level playing field.
There are also concerns about social and environmental policies, including workers’ rights and regulations covering things like air pollution, or the use of chemicals.
If a UK company has to follow less stringent regulations than an EU one, then it may have to spend less money and therefore gain an advantage.
Boris Johnson has made it known that he wants a slightly more distant economic relationship with the EU in the future than Theresa May did.
She talked about the “broadest and deepest possible” economic partnership. He wants a more basic free trade agreement, with zero tariffs (taxes on imports) or quotas, which gives the UK more opportunity to go its own way.
Too many level playing field commitments could get in the way of that.
In the new Brexit deal finalised this week, references to a level playing field were removed from the legally-binding withdrawal agreement.
Instead, they appear in the non-binding political declaration on the future relationship – as an aspiration, but not a legal commitment.
The revised political declaration says that the UK and the EU should “uphold the common high standards… in the areas of state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environment, climate change, and relevant tax matters”.
But if words of that kind do not appear in a binding treaty, then this or any future government could opt to change its mind.
The EU is well aware of that – and some countries are more concerned about the nature of the future relationship in this area than in the precise details of the divorce agreement.
“With the departure of Great Britain, a potential competitor will of course emerge for us,” Angela Merkel said on a visit to Paris in the run-up to this summit.
“That is to say, in addition to China and the United States of America, there will be Great Britain as well.”
The UK is a far smaller economy than the US or China. But it is right on the EU’s doorstep, intimately connected to European markets, and thus is seen as a potential threat.
The dispute about the level playing field is also part of the political debate in the UK.
The Labour Party has warned that the Conservatives are a threat to workers’ rights, and that is one of the reasons it intends to vote against Boris Johnson’s new deal.
Mr Johnson insists the UK will “maintain the highest possible standards in social protections and the environment” – and he hopes that will be enough to win support for his version of Brexit.