How will Brexit affect the environment?

16 November 2016

By SW of NorthHerts&Stevenage Green Party


Following a recent survey carried out by North Hertfordshire & Stevenage Green Party in the Walsworth ward of Hitchin, over 90% of respondents said that “Protecting the Countryside” was very important or important. In this article, one of our members considers the possible environmental effect of leaving the European Union (EU).


Any reader of this article looking for a definitive answer to the question posed in the title will be disappointed. We can look at the influence our membership of the EU has had on environmental policy to date, we can consider what our relationship with the EU might look like after we leave, and we can even try to ponder what our own Government’s priorities might be over the coming years but there will be a lot of guesswork. There are two things we can say with a degree of certainty. The first is that a desperate scrabble for global trade deals is unlikely to provide a helpful backdrop to the development of farsighted environmental policy. The second is that nobody voted for Brexit because they wanted dirtier water, more polluted air and less wildlife.

When the EU was first established the focus was inevitably on economic and trade policy and the environment was afforded little attention. Over the years this changed so that now it has one of the most influential bodies of environmental law anywhere in the world, with countries as far afield as India looking to incorporate European approaches in their own environmental legislation. The UK was no passive bystander as European environmental policy developed. Our politicians were a driving force behind many of the most important developments, including the heroic efforts of one Stanley Johnson who drafted much of the Habitats Directive, which, along with the Birds Directive, forms the foundation of European efforts to conserve wildlife and their habitats. How strange that two and a half decades later, his son led the campaign to remove us from the EU and potentially from the environmental protection it provides.

It is no accident that the EU project saw environmental law evolve in this way. Many of the issues threatening our environment, from pollution of air and water to the conservation of wildlife, require cooperation across borders. The single market itself required a set of common standards around how products are brought to market, in order to avoid member states cutting costs by eliminating environmental safeguards. The so-called ‘race to the bottom’ by which states produce as much as they can for the lowest cost in order to drive international trade deals is a race we are now in real danger of joining.

The British press often presents the EU as a single body, unelected, drawing up unnecessary new laws and imposing them against the will of member states. In fact it operates through a system of checks and balances, with new legislation subject to scrutiny and approval by elected officials, in much the same way as in other democracies. The Commission is the EU’s civil service, with each department headed by a Commissioner nominated by a member state. Legislation is passed from the Commission to the Parliament, where elected MEPs sit and the Council, where all the heads of state have a vote. The ability of the Commission to initiate legislation, along with the need for shared consensus between states, tends to result in a degree of stability and long-term policy direction that allows governments and investors to plan ahead with a greater degree of confidence than is the case in countries acting unilaterally.

EU environmental policy has been instrumental in setting up the biggest network of protected areas for wildlife anywhere in the world, it has driven demand for more energy efficient goods, improved recycling rates, reduced the risk of chemicals affecting human health or the environment and ensured that citizens have access to information and justice including, critically, the ability to hold their own government to account when it breaks the law.

Whatever relationship we have with the EU in future, we will no longer have to comply with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) or the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which over the years have driven significant environmental degradation. However, recent reforms of the CFP have seen it move from a policy simply designed to carve up fishing quotas to one that aims to provide a pathway to more sustainable management of shared fish stocks. It is not universally popular with British fishermen but it’s moving in the right direction. The same cannot be said of the CAP, which costs £45 to 50 billion per year (43% of the total EU budget) and whose only significant reform has seen a move from damaging production subsidies to massively unfair payments based on how much land you own, rather than the service you provide for society. If Brexit offers one great opportunity for the development of a more enlightened environmental policy it is to break free from CAP rules and ensure that payments of public money demonstrably deliver public benefit. What is more, the budget restructuring that will be necessary within the EU after we leave must prompt member states to take a firmer line on CAP reform and ensure that it also delivers much better value for money.

The Prime Minister has announced that she will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by the end of March 2017. She has also announced that a Great Repeal Bill will end EU supremacy over UK courts and move all EU legislation into UK law unless specifically amended otherwise. Given the complexity of our dependence on EU law, this was the only sensible course of action but the real battle will be ensuring that this is done properly and that it is used as a foundation for a new and ambitious approach to environmental policy. The real risk is that ministers pull apart a framework of law that has been built up over decades to protect the environment, without parliamentary and public scrutiny. However, that is not inevitable. If future generations enjoy cleaner water, less polluted air and abundant wildlife, then will we have gone a long way towards making a success of Brexit.

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