Brexit and the Environment

Published on May 19, 2017

One of the most important issues in the Brexit debate is the environment, but it is hardly a surprise that this Tory government does not appear to be concerned about how leaving the EU will threaten the UK’s environmental protections, given that one of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to scrap the Department for the Energy and Climate Change.


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The PM’s lack of concern for the environment was further revealed in the government’s Brexit White Paper, which all but ignored environmental protections and climate change. This was a particularly glaring omission given her claim to want to make Britain ‘truly Global’. There is nothing ‘Global’ about a Britain that seeks to ignore or play down the most important global issue there is, and to extricate itself from the one of most successful global alliances for tackling environmental issues.

How, for instance, will we better tackle air and water pollution by leaving the EU, when air and water have the nasty habit of crossing national boundaries? Or, why would green businesses invest in Britain and create the green jobs of the future if the government is not serious about climate change. Don’t forget that Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), had to be ‘persuaded’ that climate change was real and, before she became the DEFRA minister, lobbied the government to cut subsidies for wind farms and criticised an EU target for member states to have 15 per cent of their energy needs coming from renewable sources by 2015.

Alarm bells sounded in Parliament

Meanwhile, a mountain of evidence on the danger Brexit poses to the environment has been collated by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in the House of Commons and the House of Lords European Union Committee (EUC), who interviewed experts on environmental legislation from government agencies, academia, environmental groups, business and industry. Unfortunately, we all know this government’s attitude towards evidence and experts.

In its numerous reports, the EAC has warned that there is a very real danger that the so-called Great Repeal Bill, whose purpose is to transpose EU legislation into UK law, will water down environmental protections guaranteed by our membership of the EU. Indeed, in evidence to the EAC, Ms Leadsom admitted that copying up to a third of EU environmental legislation will simply not be possible through the Great Repeal Bill because there will be no UK bodies in place to apply or update the legislation. Thus, vital legislation such the Birds and Habitats Directives, which help protect our wildlife, natural landscapes and marine environment, could be disapplied without a second thought.

The EUC’s report on the environment and climate change has made clear that withdrawal from the EU will affect nearly every aspect of the UK’s environmental policy, from climate action to emissions trading, to waste and recycling, to support for low carbon technologies.

In light of this, both the EAC and the EUC have called on the government to introduce an Environment Protection Act before we leave the EU to ensure that we have the same or better environmental protections in place as currently exist under EU legislation.

But it’s not just committees in the Houses of Parliament that are calling on the government to ensure that our environmental legislation is protected.

Key economic interests also affected

The National Farmers Union (NFU), in its response to the EAC report, was clear that ‘farming and the environment go hand-in-hand and … producing quality, home-grown food is critical to the future of the country’. In order to sustain all this, the NFU has put great emphasis on the need to maintain environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards so that British farmers can continue to sell to the rest of Europe (which will insist on such standards). But they also want to avoid having to compete with farmers in other parts of the world who do not have to maintain the same high standards – a real danger if the government, desperate for trade deals around the world, concedes access for agricultural products from, say, the Americas, to the British market in exchange for the British financial sector being able to access their markets.

The NFU also deems it essential to maintain ‘access to a flexible, competent and reliable workforce’ (such as seasonal workers from other EU countries) and ‘unfettered access to the single market’. The latter is particularly important given that 75% of British agricultural produce is exported to the EU and the food and drink sectors combined are worth £180 billion to the British economy, supporting 3.9 million jobs.

Meanwhile, the chemicals industry, the second largest manufacturing industry in the UK with an annual turnover of £32 billion and total exports of £26 billion, has warned that establishing a separate UK system for chemicals regulation would most likely be a very costly exercise. Doing this would also create additional bureaucracy for the industry, as companies with bases in the UK and the EU would be forced to comply with two different sets of regulation. So much for the cutting of ‘red tape’ which the Leave campaign made so much of during the referendum!

These regulations protect the environment, consumers and workers, and by having a common set of rules for the whole European market, also cut costs and red tape for industry. The chemicals industry has therefore called on the government to make clear what its plans are in relation to the UK’s relationship to the Single Market, both in terms of the generally damaging economic impact that leaving it will have, and specifically on what will happen to the current system where all chemicals in Europe are tested and authorised (or not) through a common agency. Will Britain set up a separate agency, at great cost, and negotiate for it to be recognised as equivalent, or will it ask to remain in the EU one, even after Brexit?

Our environmental legislation does not exist in a bubble; it is woven into various sectors of the British economy and affects how we trade within the EU and with the wider world. That the government has already given up on the Single Market and most likely the Customs Union must be a source of grave concern for these industries and the millions of people employed in them.

Trade is crucial of course, but how will the UK government negotiate an ‘ambitious new trade deal’ with the EU if it refuses to accept environmental standards that will be a prerequisite for such a deal? Or what about the difficulty of striking a new trade deal that protects the environment with a country like America, when its President is even more skeptical than Ms Leadsom about whether climate change is a real thing or not.

And much more besides

This is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how Brexit threatens our environment, our quality of life, and the stability of our economy.

What will replace the provision in the Common Agricultural Policy that requires Member States to put aside 30% of direct payments to farmers for practices that are beneficial to the environment?

What will replace the Water Framework Directive, which has vastly improved the UK’s drinking and bathing water?

What will replace the Air Quality Framework Directive, which has reduced sulphur dioxide emissions and therefore significantly improved in the UK’s air quality?

These pieces of EU legislation, together with a wide range of others on emissions trading, energy efficiency, renewable energy and biodiversity (to name but a few), have all helped to take the UK from a position of being the ‘dirty man of Europe’, to a country with comparatively high standards in environmental protection.

Britain also continues to benefit significantly from EU funds that encourage environmental best practice. For the period 2014–2020, the UK will receive more than €5.8 billion for projects that support the environment and help tackle climate change. Moreover, since 2000, the UK has received more than €37 billion in European Investment Bank loans for energy infrastructure development.

The question is: what are the government’s plans for replacing the legislation and investment that will protect our environment to the same standards that we have become accustomed to throughout the 40 years of our membership of the EU?

Of course there will be areas where the transposition of EU environmental legislation into UK law and the matching of funds can be realised, but how can we have any confidence in the ability of Theresa May’s government to tackle the complexity of the issues involved when there isn’t even an environment team in the Department for Exiting the European Union?

This displays a staggering disregard for the environment and a complacency towards the Brexit process more generally that is symptomatic of the government’s approach thus far.

With 80 per cent of the UK’s environmental laws having been developed with the EU, the task is a considerable one. And it is clearly a task for which this government is wholly unprepared.

The British public will not, however, accept such complacency on the environment. Indeed, eighty per cent of the public support having the same, if not higher, levels of environmental protection for the UK if it leaves EU. If Theresa May and her Brexit ministers do not get their act together on their plans for environmental protection, then perhaps the public will consider this to be another reason to reconsider leaving the EU.

This article was first published on the website of Richard Corbett MEP, Deputy Leader of the EPLP and vice chair of the European Movement UK. Click here for more blogs about the EU or in depth Brexit Briefings.

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