Brexit’s impact on environmental policy will be felt not just in the UK but also in the European Union. While the UK risks sliding towards a lowering of its standards, the EU will be losing a Member State that has been extremely active in this field.
While Brexit has put the strongest spotlight on its political and economic consequences, we would like to shine a light on its potential effects on environmental policy in both the UK and the European Union. After full implementation of Brexit, the set of EU environmental standards – currently far more rigorous – will no longer be applicable in the UK. When planning for the future, with the new relationships between the EU and the UK, the European Commission made it clear that no trade agreement with the EU would ever lower the European level of protection of consumers, food safety, or environmental protection.
The Brexit campaign was full of extremely controversial rhetoric, much of which had very little connection with reality. A rapidly convened new group called Clexit (contraction of the words Climate and Exit) has been formed, which openly called for the UK to come out of the historic Paris Climate Agreement signed last December. “Clexit is our answer to the push for global control through climate hysteria, said the group.
Voices from civil society
In an open letter to the then Secretary of State for Environment, Liz Truss the Green Alliance, one of the most renowned environmental thinktanks in UK, expressed concerns about the possibility of leaving the EU and the anticipated damage to the UK’s environment. The letter’s authors also listed the benefits of being part of a European system with high standards of environmental protection. Concretely, it stated that “being part of the Union has enabled us to coordinate action and agree policies that have improved our quality of life, including the air we breathe, the seas we fish in, and have protected wildlife which crosses national boundaries. Higher European manufacturing standards for cars, lights and household appliances have lowered consumer energy costs, and stimulated business innovation.”
Three months before the June 2016 Referendum, the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) produced an extensive report exploring the potential environmental implications for the UK if it chose to leave the Union. The consequences of departure would mean facing a combination of greater risks to its own, current, domestic decarbonisation ambitions. It would mean a reduction in its influence on international climate negotiations and the door would be closed on its exerting the same level of influence on decision-making at European level (and thus on the constraints facing UK industry’s competitors in other EU Member States). “It is likely that a UK departure from the EU would leave the British environment in a more vulnerable and uncertain position than if the country were to remain as a member of the EU,” says the report.
GReen10 represents the ten most prominent NGOs working on environmental issues in Brussels. In its letter addressed to the EU institutions after the Brexit vote, this group of NGOs remind them of the EU’s responsibility – and its powers – to take the lead in dealing with environmental issues; even though it is losing an important member, this should not reduce its engagement: “It is crucial for the EU to show it is united, not paralysed, and remains willing and able to act for the benefit of its citizens and their natural environment. The EU remains uniquely placed to lead in tackling the global challenges of climate change.”
In August 2016 the UK House of Commons published a detailed briefing paper warning about the lowering of environmental standards after Brexit as there will be fewer incentives for the UK Government to comply with environmental standards without the EU’s enforcement mechanisms. One more voice from the ‘Remain’ campaign,Barry Gardiner MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, highlighted the importance of the EU in coordinating the management of transboundary environmental issues: “The fact is that fish and birds and insects do not carry passports; pollution is oblivious to the strictures of national airspace or inshore waters. If we wish to manage all of these, whether as pests, problems or resources, then it is better to do so in concert with our regional neighbours.”
Probably nothing provides better evidence of our current global interconnectedness than the environment. Brexit will show that isolation is a totally unrealistic option as a life choice. While the UK may not want to live inside the EU, it had better move fast to find some sustainable strategies for relating to its continental neighbours. In turn, the European Union has to demonstrate, once more, that it has the capacity to accommodate diversity, although in this case, this action would not represent a desirable objective, but much more a mutual need.