Should we worry that the UK will crash out of the EU without a deal and in an atmosphere of acrimony and ill will? That was the question I recently asked Sir Ivan Rogers at his inaugural Henry Plumb Lecture for the National Farmers’ Union. His answer was not reassuring. The risk, he said, was “still quite high”. In January, Sir Ivan was forced to resign as the UK’s permanent representative to the EU for his unwelcome prediction that the Brexit negotiations would prove much more difficult than most people thought. His concerns have been vindicated and he is worth listening to.
Continued mutual misunderstanding
Sir Ivan believes that, while both sides want a deal, the chances of getting one are undermined by continued mutual misunderstanding. Time moves on, irritability grows and, if we do not get to talk about trade in December, the value of a transition deal will reduce as businesses will already have made plans for a ‘no deal’. Those UK politicians who positively want us to crash out, or who do not regard the prospect as catastrophic, will grow in influence. Even if we do move to phase two of the negotiations in December (which is looking more likely than it did a week ago) there is plenty of scope for things to go wrong. Trade talks, Sir Ivan warns, can turn nasty very quickly.
In my last blog, I wrote about the failure of the British political class over many years to understand or even try to understand how the EU works. This has never been more evident than in the current negotiations and the media commentary on them. In particular, the UK keeps appealing over the head of Michel Barnier and the Commission’s negotiators to national leaders. But Brexit is not a top concern for any of the EU27 member states, with the exception of Ireland. Their national leaders have their own problems. The hope that Angela Merkel will ride to the rescue is particularly fanciful. There is no evidence that Mrs Merkel would want to cut a favourable deal with the UK, even if she could.
Now the government wants to deny itself the flexibility it may need by setting in statute the time and date of our departure from the EU: 11pm GMT, 29 March 2019. This is a matter of political calculation and it can be argued that to secure a good deal, we must persuade the EU that we are willing to jump over the cliff edge. But there is a danger that we will be allowed to jump.
The consequences of a no deal Brexit
The likely consequences of a no deal Brexit are explored in a good, though gloomy paper from the research group, UK in a Changing Europe. There are, of course, variants on no deal and the Institute for Government has set out various options, including an “amicable no deal”. Here, I will discuss what a worst case would mean for the environment, partly because it is arguable that “there’s no amicable no deal”, and partly because some of our newspapers and politicians seem to be willing on a harsh and sudden break from the EU.
If the negotiations fail, there will be an immediate hard border with the EU. Overnight, we will go from being a member of the EU and the single market to a third country like, say, Yemen (Sir Ivan’s example). This will have an obvious impact on the economy. Tom Burke argues that we will be “exposed to an economic hurricane” and that economic pressures will “wash away all the warm words and environmental ambition we have been promised in a tsunami of deregulation”. Some argue that this is precisely why some influential Brexiteers are so keen on a hard Brexit: they want a low tax, low regulation future, not one which broadly follows the European social and economic model.
This is speculation, but one can point to some immediate and tangible likely consequences for the environment and the countryside of a no deal Brexit.
New lorry parks in Kent
There is a risk that countryside around our ports will be turned into huge lorry parks. This is a particular threat to Kent, as five million trucks pass through Dover each year. EU trucks are checked electronically, which takes about 40 seconds. Non-EU trucks are physically checked, which takes around 40 minutes. It only takes a couple of hours’ delay at Dover (or, indeed, at Calais or other EU ports) to cause a huge backlog of trucks. Setting up physical customs checks at UK ports will have a big environmental cost in terms of air pollution and loss of countryside, as well as a large economic cost. The government has abandoned plans for a lorry park in Kent, but it will need much more than one lorry park if physical checks of lorries are introduced between the UK and the continent.
The waste problem
We risk having to open new landfill sites or build incinerators to take the 3.6 million tonnes of waste that the UK currently sends every year to EU countries. The waste problem is set to grow worse in any case because, in a few weeks, China will refuse to accept our low quality recyclable waste.
Threat to upland farming
The imposition of tariffs of over 50 per cent on exported lamb and beef could have a severe impact on already hard-pressed farming businesses, particularly in the uplands. Some environmentalists want to rewild these areas, but the consequences of sudden abandonment are unlikely to be environmentally positive and would certainly be socially harmful.
In the longer term, dropping out of REACH, the system for regulating European chemicals could be environmentally harmful, and will certainly be economically damaging. And dropping out of the internal energy market and the Emissions Trading Scheme will put up energy prices and set back progress on renewables.
Environmentalists understand that Brexit offers opportunities to do things better. We have seen nature decline in the UK throughout our period of EU membership, sometimes as a direct result of EU policies. “Taking back control” really does present the chance for big improvements in farming, fisheries, some aspects of environmental governance and in other areas. Michael Gove, a leading Brexiteer, is determined to prove that Brexit will be good for the UK environment and that is encouraging.
But all the good things that could follow our departure from the EU assume a reasonably orderly exit. The environmental consequences of crashing out will be severe. Many of them will be felt most severely in those areas of the country that voted to leave. We need to challenge those politicians who, on the basis minimal thinking and excessive faith, pretend that no deal will be pain free.