The environment secretary, Michael Gove, has argued with a top EU official over proposals to ban plastic drinking straws.

Mr Gove suggested the EU was holding back UK ambitions to ban them.

But First Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, responded by claiming the EU was “one step ahead”.

So what’s the truth about plastic straws and the EU?

The context

The row emerged after Michael Gove appeared on a Telegraph podcast.

He did not explicitly claim the EU was stopping a the UK ban plastic straws. But he did say that it made “some steps” not possible.

He was asked: “Why not ban plastic straws after Brexit?”.

“Watch this space,” Mr Gove replied.

“Can you [ban them]? Rwanda’s banned plastic bags,” the Telegraph journalist asked, adding: “It works very well. Ban stuff, go on!”

“If it is bad, then banning it is a good thing,” Mr Gove said. “We have to take a balanced approach towards the EU.

“There are some good things about the EU, but one of the things about being inside the EU is that there are some steps that we might want to take environmentally that we can’t yet.”

News reports about these comments led Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans to tweet at Mr Gove, saying: “One step ahead of you. EU legislation on single-use plastics coming before the summer. Maybe you can align with us?”

But the environment secretary hit back, claiming: “There has been no specific proposal – as yet – from the EU to ban straws.”

The analysis

Being in the EU doesn’t necessarily stop the UK from introducing its own ban. But it does create obstacles which could – in theory – get in the way of a ban.

An EU directive requires Member States to inform the EU Commission about any new technical regulations or standards before they become national laws.

“The prohibition of quantitative restrictions on the movement of goods… is one of the basic principles of the Union,” it explains.

After informing the EU, there would then be a “standstill period” – usually for three months. During this time, the Commission and other Member States could raise concerns and objections, if they feel the ban could be a barrier to free trade.

The EU Commission told us that, in general, if a Member State wants to ban a product, this would be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Broadly, it would need to be justified on the grounds of public morality, public policy or public security, the protection of health and human life, animals or plants or other overriding requirements of public interest.

The EU Commission also said there was precedent for this: France has just notified it of a proposed ban on disposable plastic cups, glasses and plates, and some cotton buds.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government has already announced it is “working towards implementing controls on the use of plastic straws”, independent of Westminster – though the EU Commission says it has not yet been formally notified.

But would a UK ban be needed? In his tweet to Michael Gove, Frans Timmermans suggested the EU was already working towards restricting plastic straws.

He was referring to the European Strategy for Plastics, which aims to make sure “all plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner by 2030”.

But this is still in the planning stage, with a recent consultation looking at various different options. The final proposals from the EU Commission are scheduled to be put before the EU Parliament this summer.

The EU Commission confirmed to Factcheck that the precise details of its strategy had yet to be settled on and an outright ban on plastic straws has not been confirmed. An earlier press release said it would “promote alternatives to single-use plastic items”.

In the UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The EU has promised ‘analytical work’ on the ‘scope of a legislative initiative’ to ‘reduce’ single use plastics. No proposal to ban plastic straws has been brought forward yet.”

The verdict

Neither side has told a lie. Both are trying to suggest that their respective institutions – the British government and the EU – is doing more to cut the use of plastics. But we don’t know enough about their plans yet to say which one will go further.

The environment secretary has said voters should “watch this space” for news on a plastic straw ban, while Brussels has yet to confirm the details of its plastics strategy.

It is fair to say that in theory, the EU could obstruct plans for a UK-only ban on plastic straws, but we don’t know how it would respond in practice.