"MPs need the courage to save our environment and kill the Brexit Bill", Stanley Johnson

Published on January 17, 2023

It was only a matter of time before the Government invited full-blown rebellion in its attempts to scrap standards and protections that originated in the European Union. MPs have finally woken up to what all this means for legislation we take for granted and what it will do to our environmental protections. 

As an architect of the EU Habitats Directive and former vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Environment Committee during my time as an MEP, I take a great interest in this Government’s commitment to protecting the environment. As Environment Secretary Therese Coffey said in reply to the Director General for Democracy at the Council of Europe, we should be “maintaining and, where possible improving, environmental standards and continue to deliver international obligations”. 

Today (17/01/23) I will be speaking at the Castle Environment Debate summarising the critical outcomes of the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Montreal last month as they appear in the Kunming-Montreal Global Framework Agreement. 

This framework establishes a global commitment to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, protect 30% of global land and ocean, and restore 30% of degraded land by 2030. This a much-needed and welcome step to restore biodiversity across the globe. 

A link between climate goals and nature-based solutions is the key to a meaningful response to the climate emergency. The agreement brokered last month sets out a commitment to end human-induced-species extinctions of known threatened species by 2030. It establishes a new international fund to tackle the nature crisis and agrees to install a new multilateral system to share the benefits arising from the use of genetic information. 

And while global leaders take the steps required to answer the significant environmental challenges of our lifetime, the UK Government is threatening to weaken and diminish legislative protections and standards that originated from our time in the European Union. 

The Retained EU Law Bill, which will be debated in the House of Commons on Wednesday, gives ministers and civil servants unprecedented power to revoke and amend standards and regulations that we have taken for granted. 

Almost 4,000 individual pieces of legislation are at risk, nearly 1,000 of which are vital environmental and wildlife protections that my colleagues and I worked tirelessly to establish in the European Parliament. 

The Retained EU Law Bill proposes a ‘sunsetting’ mechanism meaning that these laws that have not been rewritten, amended, or retained by the end of 2023 will simply disappear. 

When Jacob Rees-Mogg first introduced the Bill, over 79 environmental organisations warned that this could put legal protections for 600 Areas of Special Conservation at risk. They create uncertainty for businesses, shatter long-term sustainability of our economy, and unleash environmental losses that could reduce the quality of life for millions of people here in the UK. 

Where is the Government’s consistency?

(Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA)

This Brexit-at-any-cost-Bill will run roughshod over critical EU-derived environmental measures already in the statute book. Vital protections such as the UK Habitat and Species Regulations – which are the legal underpinning of the Emerald Network, the ecological network made up of Areas of Special Conservation – will be crucial for the UK’s ability to deliver the agreement reached in Montreal last month. 

Of course, there is more that we can do, and I will go on record tomorrow calling for a package of specific, agreed scientific indicators to track our progress globally for the first time in history. We need legally binding requirements to report transparently and take stock every four years to ensure we remain on track. But this builds on the work of the United Kingdom championed during our time in the European Union. We must avoid undoing what we have already achieved. 

Key to all of this is closer cooperation with our friends in key European and international scientific bodies, not less! To achieve our global aims, the UK should rejoin bodies such as the European Environment Agency at the earliest possible opportunity. 

As part of their “Battle for the Soul of our Country”, I have supported the European Movement’s campaign to stop the Bill and instead call the Government to provide legal minimum standards guarantee for legislation affected by it. 

If this Government’s manifesto commitment to build “the most ambitious environmental program on Earth” has any truth to it whatsoever, it must protect those standards and kill the Retained EU Law Bill.

Stanley Johnson is an author, former MEP and environmental campaigner. In the run-up to the 2016 EU Referendum, he co-chaired Environmentalists for Europe with Baroness Barbara Young.

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