HomeBrexitWhat Brexit could mean for future EU environmental action

What Brexit could mean for future EU environmental action

Flag of the European Union waving in the wind on flagpole against the sky with clouds, bannerThis blog is by Nigel Haigh, founder member and former chair of Green Alliance, and honorary fellow at IEEP. It is taken from a speech he gave recently at the Environment Ireland 2018 Conference.

Before I look forward, I want to take stock of the EU’s environmental achievements in the past 40 years. If it is well known that the EU has brought the weaker member states closer to the standards of the stronger, it has also:

  • Promoted economies of scale. States have learnt from each other’s policies, with the benefit of data from the European Environment Agency (EEA).
  • Created other EU wide institutions, such as the Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki; and the IPPC Bureau in Seville, which provides guidance on best industrial practice.
  • Been original. Some EU legislation is unlike anything that previously existed as it had to deal with problems that demand collaboration.
  • Developed concepts and principles. The ‘precautionary principle’ came from Germany and is now in the EU treaties to enable action to be taken in advance of proof that the threats are sufficiently serious. And there are others.
  • Had global impact. EU environmental policy is now the most mature and coherent in the world and is regarded as a point of reference by other countries. The EU influenced global treaties on the ozone layer and climate change, and many countries model their chemicals laws on the EU’s REACH.

The EU has clearly enabled its member states to achieve results which they could never have achieved on their own: the main message of my 2016 book, EU environmental policy: its journey to centre stage.

EU policy won’t stop evolving
Forty years after EU environmental policy began, one would expect it to be fairly mature.  But it will not stop evolving. New topics such as the circular economy are still being developed. And a linked subject needing attention is surely sustainable production and consumption.

Forty years ago, we were still largely focusing on local or regional problems. To look 40 years ahead is perilous, but one thing that can be said with certainty is that environmental problems will increasingly be long range and long term.

Climate change will not go away. Demand for food, water and natural resources will increase.  Reversing biodiversity loss will only get more difficult as a growing world population aspires to the standards of consumption that the middle classes in the developed world take for granted: just look at China over the last decades. Pollution of the seas will rise on the agenda. Air pollution kills millions worldwide. Environmental policy can only grow more important internationally. The UN Sustainable Development Goals underline that we are all interdependent so that sustainable development is only achievable at a global level.

The EU will be weaker internationally
Brexit will weaken the EU’s ability to act internationally. Not only is the UK one of the most populous and economically most powerful member states – and, after Germany, the second largest net contributor to the EU budget – but it also has a greater global reach than any other member state. Only France has a comparable diplomatic service: both France and the UK, acting in concert with EU officials, played a major role in getting so many countries to agree to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Outside the EU the UK will become a bit player on the world stage dominated by the future big players: China, India, Russia, Brazil, and the EU too. The US, which was an environmental leader in the 1970s has now become a brake, let us hope only temporarily.  Of these big players, only the EU has such an environmentally engaged public, and only the EU has an institutional culture in which environmental policy is so central. The UK’s departure can only diminish that.

The possibilities for EU internal policy without the UK
The UK’s departure will also influence the EU’s internal environmental policy. It has often been seen by other member states as excessively cautious to the extent of being a drag on high standards, so much so that some think the EU will be more ambitious without the UK. There may be some truth in that, but the other side of that coin is that the pragmatic British have always insisted that EU legislation should be workable. Other member states have often shielded behind UK objections and, if future EU policy is to be well grounded, other states may have to take on the British mantle. So one possibility is a more aspirational, but less practical, EU.

Another possibility is that a post-Brexit deregulatory British government, eager to strike trade deals with third countries, will have a chilling effect on the EU which will not want to be undercut by an economically important offshore neighbour.  That pressure could lead the EU to trim back its environmental ambitions. India has already said it wants weaker standards for chemicals in any trade deal with the UK, and plenty of Brexiteers welcome the import from the US of cheap chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-treated beef. Anticipate storms ahead both within the UK and in the dialogue between the EU and UK that will certainly continue.

Much of this speech, not featured in this blog, is about the impact of Brexit on environmental management in Ireland, north and south of the border. The full text is available on IEEP’s website.



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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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