Columnists: Fiona Brocklehurst/Jeremy Tait,

Published on: 29 Jul 2016

After Brexit, will UK product policy ‘Remain’?

The UK referendum vote to leave the EU, “Brexit”, has shaken the policy landscape. Already in its build-up, concerns about Brexit had allegedly delayed adoption of the Ecodesign working plan for 2015-2017. It was, frankly, embarrassing to hear ill-informed and flustered Brexit politicians pointing to ‘ecodesign’ when pressed hard on exactly what EU “red tape” they took issue with.

UK direction and leadership have changed since the referendum and so have priorities, at least in the short term. Whilst other policy areas will inevitably take centre stage for a while, product policy is important to both climate change and international trade agreements and so should not be forgotten in the melée. The many enthusiastic supporters of product policy amongst EU and UK industry, NGOs and political parties need to make sure of that.

But how much change in the established product policy is now likely, given Brexit and other political rethinking in Brussels? There are several levels at which change could happen to energy labelling and ecodesign: to the pan-EU framework directives, to their EU product scope, and to UK product law as it applies in the short term and long term. We find good cause for hope in each of these, but also some worrying signs.

Things look very positive at the framework level: the EU Parliament’s support was made clear on 6 th July when MEPs voted to support a major overhaul of energy labelling in the EU. So the EU is on track to a revitalised energy label and we assume this will proceed hand in hand with ecodesign. From the EU regulatory perspective, product policy will proceed – winning through with strong support from industry and very tangible results .

There may be a reaction to the populist ‘less EU control is better’ view demonstrated by Brexit, in terms of product scope.  We will probably see curtailing of the expansion to cover consumer products with relatively low energy impacts but high consumer awareness, like toasters or kettles. And more focus on commercial and industrial products where there is scope for higher savings and which are less controversial to the average voter.

And when it comes to individual product groups regulations? ‘Brexit’ will mean that in future the UK has no direct involvement in the eco-design and energy labelling negotations.  The UK has generally argued for more ambitious standards and so there will be one less voice seeking higher stringency.

But what of UK product policy? In the short term at least, meaning during the ‘Article 50 period’ that lasts up to two years or more, there will be no change because existing labels and MEPS continue to apply in the UK. Even after that period, all relevant products sold by the UK into the EU will have to comply.

Post formal Brexit, the UK government will be fully occupied with rebuilding UK law outside the EU for many years to come. The expectation has to be that the UK will adopt all the current EU product regulations wholesale in the first instance, and then re-process them in some sort of prioritised order, editing if/as required.

In the longer term, there are persuasive arguments for the UK to adopt both existing and new EU product regulations whatever trading agreements may exist in future:

  • The UK must not become a dumping ground for poor efficiency and poor quality appliances (having been amongst the first to ‘ban the bulb’, the ignomy of a return to 100W incandescent lamps would be hard to bear!);
  • UK policy-makers will not have the resources to create their own product regulations, particularly in the medium term when government resources will be spread across the myriad consequences of Brexit;
  • Products exported to EU member states will still need to meet EU standards anyway, so if the UK is not ‘going it alone’ it would make economic and administrative sense to harmonise with the standards of our EU trade partner. Adopting the standards of another region, such as the USA or China, is possible but considerably less attractive - UK manufacturers already work fully within EU regulations;
  • The UK has very ambitious climate goals and product policy is a cost effective tool to help achieve them. Early indications of the new Government’s attitudes to energy efficiency and climate change are mixed so far – the dedicated Department of Energy and Climate Change has been abolished but the new Chancellor of the Exchequer has spoken positively about mitigating climate change over many years.

And the UK is already under pressure to stick to it’s climate goals – for example by the UN environment chief, who has requested that the UK remain committed to EU environmental policy , in the same way that his native Norway is.

The broad options for trade agreements and the associated requirements have been neatly summarised by the UK Institute for Government. The UK press has often mentioned ‘the Norway model’ and ‘the Swiss model’; those of Singapore and Canada are other possibilities.  These all have pros and cons. The Swiss model gives potentially useful flexibility, allowing more stringent ecodesign requirements within its borders, which may be politically attractive in the UK (‘taking back (some) control’!). However the Swiss agreement also includes the free movement of people (politically unattractive to some in the UK) and there are logistical concerns as each regulation requires a separate, bi-lateral agreement. This is very labour intensive and could be slow.

Nevertheless, we think that there is there is a strong case for the UK adopting EU product policy into the future, whatever trade agreement is signed.

The views expressed in this column are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of eceee or any of its members.

Other columns by Fiona Brocklehurst/Jeremy Tait