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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Brexit deal leaves workers’ rights and environmental protections at serious risk of erosion, warns IPPR

Despite improving on a ‘no deal’ outcome, agreement leaves wide scope for key rights and duties to be rolled back 

The new process agreed for safeguarding a “level playing field” between UK and EU businesses after Brexit sets such a high bar for proof that key elements are likely to be enforced only rarely, according to detailed new analysis by IPPR published today. 

The delicate compromise, designed to secure UK sovereignty while also meeting the key requirements for tariff-free trade, will be especially difficult to enforce if the UK fails to keep pace with improved EU levels of labour or environmental protection, the think tank finds. 

Over all, IPPR highlights three important benefits among the gains made by agreeing the deal: tariff-free and quota-free trade in goods, continued social security coordination between the UK and the EU, including healthcare coverage, and continued data-sharing for security purposes. All these make it preferable to a no-deal outcome, the paper says, even though the UK economy is still expected to take a hit. 

But under the agreement, to be debated by MPs this week, commitments on workers’ rights and environmental standards to maintain fair competition are considerably weaker than expected. There is only a commitment not to lower current levels of protection in a way that affects trade or investment - which would be difficult to prove. 

On the UK keeping up with any future strengthening of such rights and protections by the EU, the agreement is even weaker, IPPR says, making it more difficult to prevent differing standards over time. Any assessment of the impact of divergence must be based on “reliable evidence” and not mere “conjecture or remote possibility”, the agreement states. Even then, proposed “rebalancing measures” - sanctions in the form of tariffs, designed to compensate one side for an unfair disadvantage - face being referred to a complex arbitration system before they can be introduced.  

This makes the prospect of such a sanction even more remote. As a result, the IPPR paper says, “rebalancing measures are only likely to be used in a rare number of scenarios”. 

Marley Morris, IPPR Associate Director for Immigration, Trade and EU Relations, said: 

“This thin deal is better than no deal at all, but still creates major trade barriers with our closest neighbour, which will inhibit growth and slow the economic recovery.

“The protections it offers on labour and environmental standards are also surprisingly weak and appear to leave considerable scope for a UK government to weaken EU-derived protections.

“This leaves protections for workers, climate and the environment at serious risk of being eroded.”


Marley Morris is available for broadcast interview 


David Wastell, Head of News and Communications: [email protected] 07921 403651 


  1. IPPR’s briefing paper The Brexit EU-UK trade deal: A first analysis by Marley Morris is available to download at:  
  2. In 2018 IPPR was one of the first organisations to produce analysis of the implications of the Withdrawal Agreement. This is available here:  
  3. Recent IPPR research also showed the negative impact the new points-based immigration system was likely to have on the recovery from Covid-19. Research revealed that 80 per cent of current EU-born social care workers and two-thirds of all EU-born workers would have been found ineligible for work visas under the new system. The full report is available here:  
  4. IPPR is the UK’s pre-eminent progressive think tank. With more than 40 staff in offices in London, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh, IPPR is Britain’s only national think tank with a truly national presence.