The UK’s withdrawal from the EU on 31 January dispelled some of the uncertainty for manufacturing industry both in the UK and Europe. But only partially. After the formal exit there remain the negotiations to hammer out a comprehensive trade agreement covering goods and services and agreements covering a number of other aspects of our relationship. So the really hard stuff has yet to be tackled. The situation has been made no easier by the UK Government self-mandating that a deal must be struck by the end of the year despite the provision in the withdrawal agreement that this can be extended. Many see this as an unrealistic timetable that raises the odds of a no-deal. The Coronavirus crisis has added immeasurably to the difficulties of sticking to such a timetable and indeed it is noticeable that in the last few weeks the news from the Whitehall Brexit front on what is being cooked up has slowed down sharply. On the other hand there has been no hint from the Government that it has any intention of changing its mind on the timetable. So it looks as if we are in for white-knuckle ride on the Brexit front as well as that on Coronavirus.
Turning to the fate of chemicals regulation in all this. during a UK parliamentary debate on 26 February, junior environment minister Victoria Prentis told MPs: “We are definitely leaving the single market and the customs union, and we will no longer participate in ECHA, or the EU regulatory framework for chemicals”. While it is too early to predict the outcome of the negotiations on the proposed UK-EU comprehensive free trade agreement, members of the government have repeatedly said that the UK wants to be able to set its own standards in areas like chemicals. That the representatives of the UK chemicals sector, other manufacturing industries, and their European counterparts all want Britain to stay in the EU REACH system, cuts no ice with the Government. Similarly, chemical company warnings on the cost of double registrations and the unpreparedness of downstream users should they acquire chemical importer status have fallen on deaf ears. Although there is a hint of a little give in one or two aspects of the Government’s position, any fundamental shift on the principle seems a far cry.