When did Brexit become a ‘thing’, an end in itself? During the 2016 referendum campaign, Brexiteers promised a bright future for the UK outside the EU. Now, that promise has largely dwindled to delivering Brexit and fulfilling the “will of the people”, regardless of any consequences. It is as if Brexit has become a medicine we must take, even if it half kills the patient.
This is certainly the message of YouGov’s recent poll of 900 Conservative Party members. Most put the achievement of Brexit above the unity of the UK, the strength of the economy or the future of their own party. I guess a majority would also choose serious damage to the countryside and wider environment over staying in the EU.
In fact, the UK’s departure from the EU will resolve little. It is only the end of the beginning. Ahead lies the whole complicated, tortuous process of resolving the UK’s future relationships with the EU and the rest of the world, and the rather fundamental question of what sort of country we want to be. But for now, all that seems to matter is achieving Brexit. The revolution has become everything, the causes that spurred it forgotten. This is the familiar story of the French and Russian revolutions, but it is surprising to see British Conservatives behaving like Jacobins or Bolsheviks.
The risks of no deal should worry environmentalists
The EU has plenty of faults and Brexit has given a welcome boost to UK environmental policy making. From its beginning, Greener UK has been ‘Brexit neutral’, intent only on achieving the best possible outcomes for the environment. To that end, we have worked particularly closely with Brexit-supporting ministers such as Michael Gove and George Eustice. But the reification of Brexit and fetishising of 31 October as the last possible date for our withdrawal from the EU should worry environmentalists, however they voted in the referendum.
A no deal Brexit is highly risky for air pollution, chemicals, climate and energy, farming and land use, fisheries, nature protection, waste and resources, and water. Co-operative mechanisms with the EU will be lost before domestic replacements are fully established. The farming, fisheries, environment and trade bills are all currently stalled; none will be enacted by 31 October, leaving big gaps in policy and governance (the Institute for Government has warned about this “legal mess” in the event of no deal).
The costs of decarbonisation are likely to increase, and it will be harder for the UK and EU work together in support of increased global ambition, particularly if Brexit turns acrimonious as a result of the UK withholding the £39 billion it has already agreed to pay the EU. There is the risk of environmentally damaging trade deals being hastily agreed; of serious damage to UK farming as a result of high export tariffs; of air pollution around ports as lorries queue for clearance.
On the whole, these are risks, not certainties, though I know of no serious commentator who doubts that a no deal Brexit will be harmful. At the very least, it will be a huge political distraction. Just as the public and politicians begin to grasp that we are deep in a twin crisis of climate and ecological breakdown, the government’s priority will be on dealing with the many consequences of crashing out of the EU. While the Brexit drama continues, everything else is an afterthought, including the future of the planet.
“If you want peace, understand war”
The hope is that when Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt downplay the dangers of no deal, they are bluffing, acting on the principle, “if you want a deal, prepare for no deal”. This thinking is based on the old Roman adage, “if you want peace, prepare for war”. But I prefer the twentieth century version of this principle, coined by the British military thinker, Basil Liddell Hart: “if you want peace, understand war”.
In the current context it is not enough to prepare for no deal and hope that the EU buckles. It is necessary both to understand the consequences of no deal and to break the 40+ years habit of the British political class of willfully failing even to try to understand how the European Union works. The argument within the Conservative Party is entertaining, up to a certain point, but Brexit will not be resolved within the Conservative Party: it requires a serious engagement with 27 other EU states, the EU institutions, and the devolved administrations within the UK.
As we wait for Conservative Party members to choose our next prime minister, I hope the two candidates’ insouciance about no deal will be probed. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, made a good start when he punctured the idea of some easy refuge in trading on ‘WTO terms’ post-Brexit. David Lidington and David Gauke have both probed Boris Johnson’s proposals. I hope Jeremy Hunt will be put under equal scrutiny.
Beyond that, we should seek not only to avoid unnecessary harm as the UK leaves EU, but also to forge a future relationship that truly benefits society and the environment. As suggested by Pascal Lamy in his April speech to Green Alliance and the European Climate Foundation, the aim should be a UK-EU trade deal that sets a global gold standard for future trade deals.