This post is by Mike Walker, Brexit advisor to the Irish Environmental Pillar and Donal McCarthy, senior policy officer at the RSPB and member of Greener UK’s ‘EU-UK negotiations group’.
The past few days have seen a frenzy of activity in Brussels as negotiators have burrowed deep in the ‘tunnel’ (the term used to describe intense negotiations without third party disclosure) to seek agreement on the controversial Ireland/Northern Ireland backstop, seen by the EU27 as essential to preventing the re-emergence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland post Brexit in the absence of other solutions.
With a deal still some way off, it is looking increasingly likely that the so-called ‘political declaration’, setting out the framework for the future EU-UK relationship (ie the trade deal that the UK hopes will ultimately negate the need for the backstop), will by necessity be short on detail. There is an acute awareness in Brussels of the need to avoid ruffling any feathers in Westminster ahead of the crucial meaningful vote on the final deal.
There must be no divergence of environment standards
Although the political declaration may turn out to be a rather short document, for the sake of the environment on the island of Ireland it is critical that there is no backtracking on what has been a central principle of the EU’s negotiating position, namely the need for any future trade relationship to ensure the maintenance of a ‘level playing field’ (or ‘fair competition’) on environmental standards.
The impacts of any significant future divergence in environmental standards between the EU and the UK would be acutely felt on the island of Ireland. Nature does not recognise political borders, and the island of Ireland is … an island.
While the UK has been an EU member state, both parts of the island have been part of a commonly agreed system for the protection of nature and the management of shared natural resources, including cross-border river basins and protected species and habitats; the vast majority of environmental standards in place on the island are currently based on EU rules.
The draft backstop agreement doesn’t offer enough protection
And yet, the draft backstop provides for continued north-south alignment with only a subset of these rules, namely those for which regulatory compliance would otherwise need to be physically checked at the Ireland/Northern Ireland border post-Brexit.
It is for this reason that the two largest environmental NGO networks on either side of the border have called on the negotiators to commit, in the expected political declaration, to the continued alignment of environmental standards across the island. This will be essential to reduce the risk of any future pressure to undercut the robustness of implementation, compliance checking or enforcement of environmental rules.
For the sake of Ireland’s shared natural heritage, it is imperative that the future EU-UK relationship guarantees the continuation of close environmental co-operation. When the draft text of the agreement eventually emerges from the depths of the negotiating tunnel, we very much hope that this message will have been discovered.