Just wishing Brexit done is not a recipe for future environmental success

It’s hard to blame people for invoking Groundhog Day at this point in the Brexit process. Indeed, a lot of people have clearly been feeling like Bill Murray for at least two years. Every day there is a new important phone call. A crisis summit. A storming out. Things have changed. And then things haven’t.

There is another film that comes to mind as (at least somewhat) representative of where we might be, at 23:59 in the Brexit story. In 1962, Michelangelo Antonioni released L’Eclisse, a film that traversed, very slowly, societal and personal shifts, crises and conflicts in post-war Rome. The film is wracked with indecision and high stakes and, amidst its denouement, the camera ascends above a crossroads surrounded by half built buildings, with a bit of wood floating in a barrel.

Antonioni’s films in this period were known for their characters suffering existential crises and ennui; Brexit, surely, has partly prompted the former on a national scale and, through its ceaseless passage to a place still unknown, it undoubtedly caused many to feel the latter. The big danger is that people are so tired, or bored, that they have become desensitised and disinterested. You can see this in the stark possibility of ‘no deal’ – once considered utterly reckless – now looking like a viable outcome, in under a month, and facing little to no public opposition. Wishing something over is not a recipe for future success.

The more important point now, however, is that, as the camera ascends, the UK is still at the crossroads. If there is a deal, it is likely to be basic, and we will still have decisions to make.

Across areas that affect the environment, as with other sectors, there are big choices ahead. In trade, for example, we have extolled the virtues of an independent trade policy while reducing the amount of scrutiny government policy must undergo. In leaving the EU, we have also reclaimed a sovereign right to sign trade deals, but without being clear what our central objectives are. Which industries are priorities, and which are not?

On chemicals, we are leaving the EU’s gold standard regulatory regime, REACH, to set up our own body called UK REACH, at the potential cost to industry of £1bn. The very name of the UK body does not suggest divergence but, if standards are weakened, crucial market access and environmental, human and animal health protections will be at risk. What are the future opportunities the government wants to secure by going its own way on chemicals? If protections are to be maintained, why not seek strong co-operation with the world leading EU system which the UK helped to establish?

On the dry, but vital, topic of green governance, there are other questions. The government recently weakened the independence of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), the body being set up to replace the EU Commission and Court in overseeing our environmental laws. Further to concerns that ministers will choose the body’s budget and board, the government will now be able to issue guidance to the body on how it should enforce the law. The OEP will not enforce legally binding targets until 2037, leaving 17 years for governments present and future to fail on environmental protection without adequate redress. In the light of this, it is worth asking how committed the government is to creating a body fit for its claims of world leadership on the environment, particularly in the event of no deal?

On climate change, where the government has recently published impressive plans and targets, its approach to the relationship with our nearest neighbours will be a major factor in defining or undermining the success of the climate conference in Glasgow next year. A bad deal or no deal could make achieving the net zero goal much more expensive.

For over four years the government has been promising to maintain or even enhance environmental standards. And yet, in that time, it has both resisted all calls to put this commitment into law and made it considerably easier to change the rules.

recent report from the Future British Standards Coalition (FBSC) welcomes the government’s moves to strengthen its Trade and Agriculture Commission, a body set up to advise ministers on agricultural aspects of trade. But, it also says the government has spent time discussing the difficulties of stronger regulation rather than the opportunities of building new markets through high standards. The report reveals the extent to which standards are far from secure and scrutiny is being stripped away. For instance, some rules governing antibiotic use have already been deleted. That rules are now easier to change indicates a desire for flexibility, without a clear idea of why the government wants that.

This is, perhaps, a microcosm of the Brexit story so far. Four and a half years in, we remain at a crossroads. But understandable fatigue – and we all need a rest from it – cannot obscure the fact that decisions made over the next few weeks and months will define the UK for generations, as well as its efforts to build a healthier country for people and nature. There is still a path to higher standards, stronger protections and genuine international leadership. We’ll be urging the government to take it.

This article was originally posted on Business Green.

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