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What does Brexit mean for the UK’s environment?

by Dr Charlotte Burns, University of York, Dr Viviane Gravey, and Professor Andy Jordan, University of East Anglia. 

On 24 June the UK awoke to discover that it had voted by a margin of 4% to leave the European Union (EU). Immediate concern will focus upon the stock market and the value of the pound. However, there will also be important implications for the environment, which barely featured at all in the increasingly acrimonious campaign. In the short term the vote will trigger a request from the UK government to invoke Article 50 of the Treaties on European Union (TEU) for the UK to withdraw.  When this will happen is a matter of much debate since Prime Minister Cameron announced his resignation and called for a delay in triggering negotiations until October. When it is eventually triggered, Article 50 allows for a two-year period during which the remaining EU states negotiate an exit settlement (without the UK being present in the room) that they will present to the UK on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. There is scope to extend the withdrawal period, but only by mutual consent.

 Assuming that UK policy-makers are able to agree on the broad direction they wish to take, they will select from two main options: to join the European Economic Area (EEA) like Norway (the ‘Norwegian Option’); or to pursue an independent free trade relationship with the EU and the rest of the world (the so-called ‘Free Trade Option’). It is uncertain which will be pursued – the Leave campaign seems to prefer the latter option, and for many the Norwegian option is unpalatable. But what are the broad implications of each for the environment?

 The Norwegian Option

Under the Norwegian option the vast majority of EU rules and regulations will remain in place and business will continue as usual, with one major difference – the UK will no longer have an active input into shaping EU decisions.  It will become a policy taker rather than a policy maker. The UK government has enjoyed the right to implement higher environmental standards as an EU member and that right will be retained under this option. However, as a policy taker the UK will have no ability to weaken EU rules.  In an area such as REACH, where the UK government has been pressing for less stringent rules, the UK will lose its ability to shape policy.

 Moreover, whilst EU rules and regulations will generally continue to apply in the UK, under this option there are some notable environmental exceptions. The habitats and birds directives, which have been widely recognised as protecting the UK’s most precious flora and fauna are not covered by the EEA agreement and will therefore cease to apply. Key figures from the ‘Brexit’ camp have made clear their commitment to roll back wildlife regulations so it seems likely that the current protections will be weakened. The bathing water directive, which has played a key role in transforming the UK’s reputation from being the ‘dirty man of Europe’, will also cease to apply. Whilst it seems unlikely that the British public will accept a return to sewage-strewn beaches, maintaining high levels of protection may become an issue for future NGO campaigning, especially in view of the UK’s on-going struggle to meet the EU’s ambitious new standards.

On climate change the UK currently participates in effort-sharing to meet the EU’s greenhouse gas goals but again this legislation will no longer apply, raising questions about both the UK’s longer term climate strategy and the ways in which remaining EU states reach their allocated targets. It seems likely that whilst the UK will gain the right to negotiate separately from the EU in climate negotiations that it will nevertheless follow the EU’s lead, as other EEA states currently do.

Some environmentalists will rejoice when they discover that the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will no longer apply in this option. On fisheries it is inevitable that the UK will have to negotiate a replacement set of agreements due to overlapping fishing grounds with neighbouring states. Expert analyses suggest that the impact of Brexit will be broadly neutral but there will have to be long and complex negotiations to put in place an alternative set of arrangements (albeit ones that are likely to be very similar to the CFP). As for replacing the CAP, there is the possibility of a good deal of uncertainty about what kind of package will be offered to farmers, and the extent to which existing agri-environmental measures will be retained. The fate of Scotland in particular will continue to be a source of debate, which throws the future shape of UK agricultural policies into even greater doubt.

The Free Trade Option

Under the free trade option, which seems to be the preferred model for the Leave camp, the UK, like many non-EU states, will have to maintain a host of EU standards in order to access the Single European Market, but again as a less influential policy taker.  Whilst as an EU member the UK enjoys the right to implement higher environment standards, under this option there will also be scope for the UK government to implement lower environmental standards. It became clear as the campaign wore on that leading Brexit campaigners do want to scrap key EU regulations.

As under the Norwegian option, the UK will regain the right to negotiate its own international environmental agreements, but yet again it seems likely to follow the EU’s lead, unless, that is, a radical dismantling of national policies is foreseen. Of particular note here is the likely impact of a Brexit upon the EU’s position on climate change – the UK has played a leading role in developing and pushing the climate change agenda at the European level. The leadership role played by the EU is potentially at risk without the UK there to act as a counterweight to the more climate-sceptic governments in Council. Even the chief UN negotiator has suggested that Brexit could put the Paris agreement at risk. There is potentially much work to do then to shore up both domestic and international environmental standards.

Overall the future for UK environmental policy completely outside the EU is potentially quite bleak. Much depends upon: who becomes the leader of the Conservative party; the broad exit strategy the cabinet decides to pursue; the broad negotiating mandate that UK MPs grant the government; and the offer the EU is prepared to make to its erstwhile member.

It is by no means clear that the British public has really thought about Brexit in any great detail. Some voters may be persuaded to leap to the defence of EU policies; some maybe only too willing to dispense with some EU environmental ‘red tape’. It is consequently incumbent upon experts and NGOs to mobilise to identify those environmental rules we should retain and to remind legislators and the British public why the environmental rules we have adopted via the EU are important. That way we may be able to ensure that the environmental gains made since joining the EU are retained.

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