UK trade negotiators should prioritise economic growth over the environment in trade deals, according to a leaked official document.
The paper, drawn up by officials at the Department for International Trade, says environmental safeguards should not be treated as a red line when other countries do not want to include them in agreements.
It comes a month after it was revealed that the UK secretly dropped climate promises to get a trade deal with Australia’s government, which is hostile to action on climate change.
In the latest document, circulated to around 120 officials this week before being leaked to Sky News, department bosses say the “economic case” for reducing trade barriers should take precedent.
The UK is currently trying to negotiate a trade deal with Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right Brazilian government, whose policies on Amazon deforestation have caused an international outcry.
Campaigners have suggested that the UK should use trade deals as leverage to encourage Brazil’s government to stop its deforestation policies.
But the leaked document says: “[The government] should not refuse to liberalise on products of environmental concern where there is an economic case for liberalisation, or partner interest is so strong that not doing so would compromise the wider agreement.
“In these cases, we should continue to liberalise and address carbon leakage risk (in general, as well as any marginal additional risk from the fair trade agreement) using those FTA levers outlined in this note and non-FTA levers outlined elsewhere.”
It adds: “HMG should not pursue a conditional liberalisation approach. This is due to the very high negotiability challenge (little precedent and proven difficulty of raising with partners on related issues) and WTO compliance issues/creating double standards with trade partners.”
The overall economic case for free trade agreements is relatively weak, with the government’s estimates putting the benefits of even the largest agreement with the US at less than 0.16 per cent of GDP over 20 years.
But the government has effectively accepted that this deal will not happen under president Joe Biden, and is instead focusing on other deals with even smaller economic benefits.
Yet ministers are politically desperate to be able to point to concrete wins from leaving the EU, with other benefits so far few and far between.
The Department for International Trade downplayed the significance of the leaked document, but trade experts say the approach it outlines is clearly already being pursued by civil servants.
Opposition parties also criticised the approach.
“It’s really shocking to see a document going round government where they’re essentially saying, ‘never mind about climate change, never mind about the environment, Bolsonaro is a difficult guy, if you want a trade deal from Brazil, and he wants to sell us stuff from a rainforest, we probably shouldn’t get in the way that much because otherwise we won’t end up with a trade deal’ – really?” said Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow international trade secretary to Sky News.
A Department for International Trade spokesman said: “This is not government policy, and is not being considered by ministers.”