The Daily Telegraph is reporting what has been an open secret for some weeks: senior Cabinet ministers are sabotaging the government’s promise of a “green Brexit”.
Before the EU forced us to act, the UK had a lousy record on many aspects of environmental policy. Remember dirty beaches, polluted rivers, acid rain? It is now essential that institutions and laws are in place when we leave the EU to prevent future governments from turning the clock back to those bad old days. But the chancellor and other senior ministers are blocking such measures.
I have resisted a ‘crush the saboteurs’ headline, but this is big news for anyone who cares about our countryside and wider environment, or who wants post-Brexit Britain to secure a decent free trade agreement with the EU.
In a recent speech, hosted by the Green 10 coalition of European environmental groups and supported by Greener UK, Michel Barnier emphasised the need to address “the governance of the Withdrawal Agreement”. The government’s commitment to put all existing EU law into domestic law through the Withdrawal Bill was welcome, he said, but “what happens on [exit] day plus-10?” When the UK starts to diverge from EU environmental rules, will this “become a tool for… environmental dumping?” Any such prospect, he warned, will make it harder to get agreement on a new EU-UK free trade deal.
The fact is that European institutions have played a vital role in forcing successive British governments to comply with environmental laws. As the Institute for Government has shown, the UK has a poor record of losing cases in the European Court for breaching environmental law. Michael Gove, to his credit, has engaged with this evidence and is persuaded of the need to set up a powerful new watchdog to hold the government to account for upholding environmental law and policy. He also accepts the need to enshrine the EU’s environmental principles, such as the precautionary principle, in domestic law.
That is good, but so far all we have is promises. A consultation was first promised in November and we have been waiting ever since. We were assured it would come out, at the latest, by 11 April, the last possible date before the civil service ‘purdah’ period that lasts up to the local elections on 3 May. The fact that it has not appeared is profoundly disappointing.
Time is running out. We are due to leave the EU in less than a year and the withdrawal agreement must be concluded by the end of October. This is an extremely tight timetable. The British people need to know how the environment will be protected after Brexit. And, as Barnier makes clear, the EU also needs reassurance.
This is not about Michael Gove’s personal commitment to this agenda. I am not short of people telling me not to trust him, but I believe he is sincere in wanting to address the environmental governance gap. It is also not about distrusting the prime minister’s sincerity when she says that protecting and enhancing the environment is “a central priority for this government”. The problem is that other ministers have fought back because they want a free hand to prioritise economic growth and development over environmental protection.
Basically, the departments who want to build things – the Treasury, the Department for Transport and the Business Department – do not want a new body getting in their way or requiring them to justify the environmental impact of developments. But they are misreading the purpose of the new watchdog. It is not about frustrating government policy. It is about ensuring that this government and future governments obey the law (a role currently played by the European Commission and Court of Justice) and advising when them when their policies are breaching their environmental commitments.
Two things now need to happen. Parliament must amend the EU Withdrawal Bill so that it includes the EU environmental principles and requires the government to publish proposals for the establishment, before exit day, of an independent institution to ensure compliance with environmental law. Second, the prime minister must face down those of her colleagues who are opposing a green Brexit and undermining her government’s credibility. If she does not, she will endanger both the environment and the prospects of a future trade deal with the EU.