A way out of the Brexit morass?
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What would a post-Brexit climate look like?

Submitted by on 14 Jul 2017 – 09:05

Climate change is certainly beyond boundaries and initial indications point towards a ‘negative environment’ for both Britain and the EU in a post-Brexit scenario. However, Julie Girling MEP says there is a huge opportunity to design a new policy from scratch which looks at the bigger picture covering environment, agriculture, food and the rural economy

Environmental issues do not respect national borders and Brexit does not change this. Climate change, air pollution and invasive species will all continue to pose transboundary problems between the UK and its immediate European neighbours; protected bird species will continue to migrate between different European countries. These issues – and many more – will all still require coordinated joint efforts between the UK and the EU post-Brexit.

There are further environmental issues which are perhaps less transboundary in nature, but will still need to be addressed if we are to achieve the maintenance of a close trading relationship between the EU and the UK. Of existing EU environmental legislation, around 22% has an internal market dimension – that is, it has been adopted on the specific legal basis of ensuring the smooth functioning of the EU’s single market. This includes environmental standards or safety requirements for marketing certain products in the EU, irrespective of where they are manufactured, such as chemicals, electrical appliances, motor vehicles, food products and medicines.  If the UK expects to continue selling such products inside the EU then it is likely that equivalent standards would need to continue to apply at home.

Much will depend on the so-called “Great Repeal Bill”. Whilst it will ensure that existing EU environmental standards will continue to apply in the UK in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, the option for the Government to begin to modify or repeal certain measures brings both opportunities and concerns. On the one hand, there are elements of EU environmental legislation that are, I believe,  ill-thought out or not sufficiently science-based – such as the approach taken to pesticides or GMOs – which I would be pleased to see a more common-sense approach to.

However, there are also concerns that some pieces of environmental legislation may be targeted in attempts to mitigate any economic fallout from Brexit, as part of a push to reduce “red tape.” This also has a political dimension: many promises were made by Brexiteers to slash “red tape” which they feel the need to deliver, whether justified or not. An example here would be REACH, the EU’s flagship framework for regulating chemicals: it is often cited as one of the most burdensome pieces of EU legislation, but now post-referendum it appears that both industry and environmental NGOs alike are lining up to defend it as preferable to any national alternative.

A second concern is national capacity. Defra will be the department responsible for the vast majority of environmental legislation, but its ability to develop and administer new UK-specific rules and take on additional monitoring and enforcement tasks is in question given that its budget has been reduced somewhere between 17-30% since 2010. We are able to exploit economies of scale at the EU level in terms of advice, exchanging best practices and centralising data collection – particularly via the three EU  agencies regulating chemicals, food safety and medicines.

It is still unclear to what extent the UK will continue to participate in the work of the three EU agencies, or whether it will choose to repatriate their work into new or existing UK bodies.  If the latter is the chosen option, there are concerns about how funding and suitably qualified staff will be found nationally.

The third concern is oversight and fair enforcement. It has always been the case that it is for the UK competent authorities (normally Defra or its associated bodies) to monitor and enforce the EU environmental legislation. However, there is a second level of enforcement at the EU level whereby the European Commission can begin infringement proceedings against the UK if it feels the UK enforcement or sanctions are insufficient in ensuring compliance with the EU legislation. Such a system of checks and balances ensures that enforcement and monitoring is constantly being reviewed and improved; post-Brexit there will be no one “checking” that the enforcement or sanctions chosen by government are sufficient, leading to a scenario whereby the defendant is also the judge.

However, there are some areas where there is more optimism than concern. When it comes specifically to looking at agricultural policy – which evidently has a huge environmental element to it – there are opportunities to improve the state of the British countryside and the environment. Hard Brexit or soft Brexit, the UK will no longer participate in the Common Agricultural Policy and will be required to develop a national farm policy. This is a huge opportunity to design a new policy from scratch which looks at the bigger picture covering environment, agriculture, food and the rural economy.

The possibility that farmers could be paid to provide ecosystem services, or receive more results-based payments on the delivery of certain public goods or environmental objectives have been floated in initial discussions. A move towards greater investment in technology and innovative farming and breeding techniques – perhaps even opening the door to GM varieties – could also increase the efficiency of agriculture in the UK, and at the same time limit its impact on water, soil and air. This will, however, depend on the sort of trade deal Theresa May can deliver: if farmers are significantly competitively disadvantaged by a deal we may see that more money goes towards supplementing and stabilising farm incomes than in any real investments in innovation or the environment.

Initial indications seem to point towards a negative impact of Brexit for the European environment too. In certain areas such as climate change the UK is considered a leader in the EU and losing some of that ambition in the European Council – especially from such a large member state – may have implications for the future; the UK is also widely viewed as a strong proponent of science-based policy-making in technical areas such as pesticides and GMOs, which may become more politicised – possibly to the detriment of the environment, post-Brexit.

Secondly, as a net contributor to the EU budget, the UK is also indirectly responsible for a great deal of funding dedicated to environmental protection. There is the environment-specific instrument known as “LIFE” which funds nature conservation, environmental and climate mitigation projects, but there are also environmental elements of the respective funding instruments of the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies too. With a funding shortfall, it is highly likely that some of these environmental projects and measures will see funding reduced or even cut altogether.

To conclude, nothing is certain, but there is much to be concerned about. It is absolutely vital that a good deal is reached between both parties to ensure continued cooperation, and to prevent the negative fallout of a bad deal overshadowing (or in the worst case completely sidelining) environmental priorities.