This post is by Viviane Gravey, lecturer in European Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. She recently co-led an expert review of the environmental implications of Brexit, funded by the UK in a Changing Europe Initiative.
The result is in: the Supreme Court has ruled that the government needs parliamentary approval, through legislation, to trigger Article 50 and start the Brexit negotiations. The Supreme Court’s judgement further found that the government need not consult the devolved administrations. The judgement is thus the least surprising of all options: in the end, the Supreme Court simply confirmed the two November rulings: the government’s loss regarding parliamentary approval in front of the High Court in London and its win regarding devolution in front of the High Court in Belfast.
Even with a parliamentary vote on Article 50, it is extremely unlikely that MPs would choose to oppose triggering the start of Brexit negotiations. What matters with this judgement is not whether, but how and under what conditions, will the negotiations start?
Second best option
From an environmental perspective, a parliamentary vote is a second best option. It increases the likelihood that environmental matters will be discussed, but clearly not to the extent that involving the devolved administrations would have done. Both Scotland and Wales have made clear in their respective Brexit plans that they want to, at least, maintain current environmental standards (it is one of five main interests to defend for the Scottish government and one of six key areas for Wales). They have also made clear their objective to secure environment as a devolved competence with limited interference from Westminster after Brexit, and proposed alternative governance arrangements , including independent arbitration.
Conversely, concerns about the environmental consequences of Brexit have not broken into mainstream discussions in the House of Commons. This was demonstrated, earlier this month, by the publication of the first report from the Committee on Exiting the EU on the UK’s negotiation objectives. The environment was scarcely mentioned, only in relation to Defra’s administrative capacity problems. This was not due to a lack of expertise or evidence on the matter – the Commons’ Environment Audit Committee published a comprehensive report on the governance and policy challenges of Brexit for the UK environment in early January, and evidence was submitted to the Brexit Committee (notably by the Greener UK coalition) reaffirming these concerns – but to a political choice. The House of Lords EU Select Committee appears to be taking environmental issues more seriously, with concluded or ongoing work on agriculture, fisheries, environment and climate change.
What happens next?
The government needs now to prepare draft legislation (expected to be very short), to be tabled in front of the Commons and the Lords. The bill could, theoretically, be adopted swiftly but, as Hazell and Renwick explain, that “can only happen if both chambers recognise the urgency, and support the bill.” What is more likely is that both chambers will seek to amend the bill, irrespective of the government’s self-imposed deadline. Labour has already pledged to amend it and the government has no majority in the House of Lords. Looking at the Committee on Exiting the EU’s report we can expect amendments asking the government to conduct and publish costings of the different Brexit options, and amendments on the Brexit process itself, to set the conditions for a vote on the Brexit deal. With 179 MPs signed up to the Greener UK coalition pledge we may also expect amendments demanding environmental guarantees, but whether they will garner sufficient cross party support is yet to be seen.
An opportunity, but no guarantee
In conclusion, today’s Supreme Court judgement is a mixed bag for the environment. By rejecting to involve the devolved administrations in triggering article 50, it is keeping two of the strongest advocates for a green Brexit (the Scottish and Welsh governments) out of the loop. By requiring a vote in parliament, it offers an opportunity, but no guarantee, for environmental issues to influence the Brexit negotiation mandate. But we should not read too much into this judgement. The Brexit deal will depend as much, if not much more, on what the EU offers than on what the UK seeks to achieve; and the contours of a post-Brexit UK, in terms of policy objectives and governance arrangements, will be sketched out to a much fuller extent in the Great Repeal Bill than in the Article 50 bill.