Almost a year on from the UK’s exit and five and a half years on from the Referendum, we are starting to see what the UK government has in store in terms of overhauling retained EU law. Lord Frost has now made two speeches where he expounded on the necessity of amending, replacing or repealing retained EU law. Lord Frost argued that to remain aligned with EU legislation and regulation would be to render Brexit pointless. In a speech to the Margaret Thatcher Conference at the Centre for Policy Studies, he said, “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the European Union from Britain with Brexit, only to import that European model after all this time… if we stick to EU models, but behind our own tariff wall and with a smaller market, we obviously won’t succeed.”
As the UK begins to negotiate trade agreements with other countries, it will become increasingly necessary for the UK to amend current regulations in order to fit those new agreements; as the EU will still be our closest trading partner, it remains to be seen whether current and future governments will prioritise new global relationships over the EU.
Increasing and continued divergence from EU law would have numerous consequences for the UK’s success as a third country. Lord Frost has specifically mentioned drawing up new regulations in areas such as data protection, gene editing, and AI.
In terms of data protection, the EU’s GDPR are some of the most stringent in the world, but some argue that the burden on small businesses is too large, and this could be something that the UK government could change. However, the EU has already said that in the case of the UK diverging significantly from EU GDPR rules, the adequacy agreement which allow data to be exchanged freely between the UK and the EU could be jeopardised. This in turn would have a huge impact on how businesses operating across the EU and the UK are able to be run, which in turn could have a large impact on daily life for ordinary people.
Gene editing predominantly revolves around food technologies but could also be an important tool in areas such as public health. If UK standards around genetically modified foods differed substantially from EU regulations, then the UK would potentially be unable to sell that food in EU markets, including in Northern Ireland under the current Protocol on Northern Ireland.
This divergence of standards in important areas could lead large businesses having to make a decision on which market they cater their products to. For many businesses, it will not be economically viable to create two versions of the same product to cater to both markets. Even if the UK’s standards become easier to meet, the EU market is always going to be larger.
In addition, the devolved administrations in the UK have competence over the majority of legislative areas; it is possible, for example, for Scotland, where the majority voted to remain in the EU, to continue to follow EU regulations when introducing new legislation. This could create increasing tension within the UK. Northern Ireland is in a unique position, as it currently has access to both markets; while there are various issues with the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol at the moment, there are a number of opportunities available to businesses and individuals in Northern Ireland that cannot be accessed from elsewhere in the UK. If businesses in Northern Ireland capitalise on this, they could be disproportionately affected by any sudden or increased divergence.
As things stand, we are only a year into a post-Brexit world. The political relationship between the UK and the EU will inevitably grow and change as both parties settle into their new statuses. We will have to see how events play out over the coming months and years, but hopefully compromises can be found to avoid any worst-case scenarios.