HomePolitical leadershipBrexit: time to get serious

Brexit: time to get serious

European Union and British Union Jack flag flying in front of Big Ben and Westminster Palace, London, in preparation for the Brexit EU referendumOne of Mrs Thatcher’s governments’ most enduring achievements was the European single market, steered into existence by the Conservative European Commissioner, Lord Cockfield. In his memoirs, Cockfield recalled the time he had to tell the prime minister that introducing the single market would entail a degree of tax harmonisation to prevent trade barriers.

“I said that I had not invented harmonisation of indirect taxation, it was accepted European policy long before we joined the Community and indeed was specifically provided for in the Treaty of Rome. The following conversation then took place.

Myself: It was in the Treaty of Rome.
The PM: It was not.
Myself: It was.
The PM: It was not.
Myself: It was.

This unproductive conversation was brought to an end by the Private Secretary being sent to find a copy of the Treaty of Rome. I asked him to read out Article 99, which reads as follows:

‘The Commission shall present proposals for the harmonization of indirect taxes…’.

This was greeted in complete silence…. I was to learn over the years that the Prime Minister’s hard knowledge of European matters was somewhat lacking. And that when at a loss, in Burke’s words she ‘depended on her imagination for her facts’.”

The same can be said of British politicians of all parties. In Lord Cockfield’s words, “they recall little of its history, know nothing of its philosophy; and even more striking is the virtual complete absence of hard, factual knowledge. Perhaps the most trenchant criticism of all is that they were and remain unaware of these deficiencies.” These criticisms also apply to most political journalists.

Conference season didn’t leave us wiser on Brexit
The unwillingness of the British political class to engage seriously with the EU has hampered our ability to get the best from it. As we struggle to disentangle ourselves from a close relationship of over 40 years in just 18 months, this lack of seriousness may prove catastrophic.

In this respect the main UK party conferences were depressing. At Labour’s, there were lots of serious, anguished meetings about Brexit. But they were fringe events. There was little debate from the main stage or in the many packed meetings of the left wing groups that now dominate the party. For Labour’s leadership, Brexit appears to be a sideshow, not the great issue of our time that could bury any chance of a Labour government delivering its programme.

The Conservatives also had two quite separate conversations about Brexit. Some, including the environment secretary, talked seriously about replacing the Common Agricultural Policy, improving the Withdrawal Bill etc. But the energy was with the hard Brexiteers. Moggmania was a sight to wonder at: “This is Magna Carta… it’s the Great Reform Bill, the Bill of Rights … It’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crecy. And we win all these things…. This is a liberation, it’s a freedom, it’s an inspiration.…. Be of good cheer, we won, it’s happening!” This was a knockabout version of Boris Johnson’s ‘believe-and-all-will-be-well’ shtick.

In the real world, achieving a good Brexit will be all about detail, hard work and compromise. And for the environment – the places we live, the food we eat, the air we breathe – the stakes are huge. Eighty per cent of UK environmental laws are derived from the EU, and the European Commission and European Court of Justice (ECJ) have been crucial to enforcing them. The Withdrawal Bill proposes no adequate substitutes.

Major questions need serious engagement
There is complexity and difficulty in every sector and every area of policy. And make no mistake: people will notice if things go wrong.

Many questions need to be answered. Nuclear safety, for instance, is guaranteed by Euratom; the safety of chemicals and viability of our chemicals industry is ensured by REACH: how should we replace these institutions, if the government really is determined to replace them? We are part of a single European energy market which aids the deployment of renewable energy and helps keep prices down: do we want to get out of it and, if not, will we be willing to accept oversight by the ECJ? The all-Ireland energy system sits within the European system: what will happen to it post-Brexit?

The EU is our most important trading partner. It has high product standards, environmental standards, rules on food safety etc. How can we develop new trade deals in a protectionist world without dropping standards and subjecting British people to shoddy products and food they will not trust?

And so on. The risks to the environment are being monitored by Greener UK’s Risk Tracker which is checking the status of policy during the Brexit process. The September update of the tracker shows that the signs are not good; air quality and chemicals are particular areas of high concern but over the past quarter, indications on waste and climate policy have also deteriorated. No area has seen improvement since we began tracking after the referendum in 2016.

Brexit also presents great opportunities for the environment, particularly in the area of agricultural reform. Some politicians, including Brexiteers, are grappling with the issues. But too many seem to view Brexit either as a lark or a distraction, rather than the most important issue facing the country and, in particular, our environment. Nothing will be achieved unless we get serious and engage with the detail. And we do not have long.

Written by

Executive director of Green Alliance ( and Chair of the Greener UK board (