Tag Archives: Brexit

In post-Brexit trade plans it’s all talk and no action on the environment

post Brexit trade smallThis post is by Hatti Owens, ClientEarth UK environment lawyer

From the UK’s global carbon footprint to the quality of the products we import, trade deals have real world impacts on the environment. How the UK decides its future trade policy outside the protection of the European Union is of real importance.

With some politicians and groups – such as the Institute for Economic Affairs – calling for deregulation, environmentalists might, therefore, take heart from the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, which states that “environmental sustainability should be at the very heart of global production and trade”.

It’s a lovely sentiment, but unfortunately yet to be borne out by reality. Read more

In a Brexit compromise, MPs must consider what’s best for the environment

no deal smallThe prime minister’s announcement that she will work with the opposition to try to reach a compromise on Brexit is very welcome. Both sides need to be flexible. And when MPs get to vote again, they must show a greater willingness to compromise.

Brexit means Brexit, but we still do not know what Brexit means. If we are to find out, MPs must stop asking themselves, ‘what is the best outcome from my point of view?’ and ask instead, ‘what outcomes can I live with?’ Look down the list of how MPs voted on Monday and you will see some of the brightest and best from all parties, including some who care deeply about the environment, who made the best the enemy of the not-wholly-unacceptable. And the not-wholly-unacceptable is probably the best most of us can hope for now, given the pickle we are in.

Brexit is about many things, above all the big question of what sort of country we want to be. It is about culture, identity, nationhood, sovereignty, democracy, migration, citizenship and citizens’ rights, the economy, labour standards, food and product safety, trade, fishing, farming and much more. But it is also about the environment. What follows is a brief canter, from an environmental perspective, through the main options MPs will be talking about in the coming days. These are my personal views, drawing on analysis by Greener UK.

No to no deal
First, no deal must be avoided. It carries significant risks for farming, upland farming in particular; landscape and air quality, as lorries queue for miles around our major ports (“Kent, sir — everybody knows Kent — apples, cherries, hops,” …and a huge car park); chemical safety; environmental governance; clean energy; and much else. In the longer term, as Siemens UK’s chief executive Juergen Maier has pointed out, the loss of faith in the UK as a functional polity threatens our ability to forge a low carbon, high tech economic future. One of the many depressing things about Brexit is the insouciance with which some sensible and well-meaning people (as well as some who are rather less sensible) downplay the dangers of no deal.

The prime minister’s deal has promising language on the environment. The backstop section of the Withdrawal Agreement includes a mutual commitment to non-regression in most areas of environmental law. The accompanying Political Declaration says the future relationship will build on the Withdrawal Agreement. This is positive but, as a whole, the declaration is too vague. It needs to be underpinned by much stronger domestic enforcement. The UK government’s proposals on environmental enforcement in England (which could apply to Northern Ireland) fall short of the requirements set out in the Withdrawal Agreement. The Scottish and Welsh governments’ proposals lack detail.

What the deal choices mean for the environment
Greener UK has set out how the Political Declaration can be improved. Not least, it needs to say explicitly that one of the key purposes of the future relationship is to ensure a high level of environmental protection. If Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn take a version of the current deal back to the Commons, changes along these lines are essential. We also want the government to commit to report on changes to EU environmental law and give parliament the right, at the very least, to keep pace with them.

But it is unlikely that the prime minister will be around to lead the next stage of negotiations and some of her would be successors have made clear that they would adopt a radically different set of negotiating priorities. Boris Johnson, for instance, wants a Canada (or Korea or Mongolia) style free trade agreement with the EU; the UK would diverge from EU standards and potentially pivot towards US standards as the price of reaching a US-UK trade deal. So small improvements to the Political Declaration now cannot guarantee a future government’s commitments to high standards.

A customs union or ‘Norway-plus’ (‘Common Market 2.0’) relationship have both been proposed as ways to a softer Brexit, with fewer risks of divergence from high EU standards. A customs union would enable goods in the low carbon supply chain to travel freely within the EU, making decarbonisation more cost effective.

A Norway-plus agreement would be a closer form of UK-EU co-operation, requiring continued alignment with EU standards and enabling participation in EU agencies and programmes such as REACH, the Emissions Trading System and Natura 2000. The UK would be able to develop independent agriculture and fisheries policies, and we could decide to abide by the Birds and Habitats Directives. However, the UK would become a ‘rule taker’ from the EU, with a significant impact on citizens’ rights to participate in environmental decision-making.

The upsides and downsides of staying
Requiring a confirmatory public vote on any outcome gives the option of remaining in the EU. For many environmentalists, this seems obviously desirable. In fact, there are downsides, not least a loss of the energy that has come with having to decide our own environmental policies, rather than leaving them to protracted negotiations with 27 other countries. We would also remain in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Commons Fisheries Policy, though it is worth noting that the CAP is being reformed to allow member states more scope to develop their own policies.

More positively, within the EU, the UK would benefit from strong environmental governance and would participate in EU agencies and programmes with full voting rights. We would be able to influence trade negotiations and global discussions on issues such as climate change.

MPs get little sympathy, but most are having a rotten time at present. Brexit is messy. There are few wholly good outcomes available. Compromise is the order of the day, often with a side order of eating one’s words or reneging on manifesto commitments. But as well as asking themselves what is best for business or trade or workers’ rights, I hope MPs will also consider what is best (or least bad) for the environment. A soft Brexit or no Brexit look like the least risky options, followed by the prime minister’s deal. A Canada-style trade arrangement carries great risks. But worst of all would be no deal

 

 

 

What would ‘Norway’ mean for nature laws?

RSPB smallThis post is by Donal McCarthy, senior policy officer at the RSPB.

On Monday night, MPs approved a motion providing parliament with the chance to hold a series of indicative votes on alternatives to the current Brexit deal. One of the alternative options that is being promoted by a cross-party grouping of MPs is a ‘Norway-style’ agreement (also known as ‘Norway Plus’ or ‘Common Market 2.0’).

This option would see the UK negotiate a future relationship with the EU similar to that enjoyed by Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, the three members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) that participate in the EU single market under the terms of the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement. But what might this mean for the laws governing species and habitat protection across the UK?

Dynamic alignment with most EU environmental standards
The preamble to the EEA Agreement sets out a commitment “to preserve, protect and improve the quality of the environment” and to uphold the EU’s core environmental principles. The three EEA-EFTA states are required to comply with the majority of EU environmental rules, as listed in Annex XX. The EEA Agreement is also dynamic, meaning that new or revised EU legislation that is ‘EEA-relevant’ must be incorporated into the related annexes and protocols.

As is the case for EU member states, the EEA-EFTA states are free to develop more ambitious environmental policies than the EU if they so choose. In other words, the agreement acts as a floor rather than a ceiling for the parties’ domestic environmental ambitions.

Compared to the current Brexit deal, a ‘Norway-style’ agreement would potentially provide stronger guarantees that environmental standards will not be weakened after Brexit. As well as locking the UK into most existing EU environmental legislation, a ‘Norway-style’ agreement would also require the UK to update its domestic statute book so as to mirror future changes in relevant EU laws and standards. The UK would still be able to contribute to the EU legislative process but would no longer be formally represented in the EU institutions and so would have a diminished role in the development of new EU laws relative to the EU member states.

More robust oversight and enforcement
EEA-EFTA state compliance is monitored by the EFTA Surveillance Authority and enforced by the EFTA Court. These bodies perform similar functions to those carried out by the European Commission and European Court of Justice (ECJ) in relation to EU member state compliance. In fact, except for the important lack of a power to impose fines, the EFTA Court has similar enforcement powers to the ECJ.

Overall, the EEA Agreement has stronger mechanisms for enforcement than any standard free trade deal. It is therefore expected that enforcement of environmental standards would be more rigorous under a ‘Norway-style’ arrangement than under the current Brexit deal, which relies heavily on the robustness of the UK’s new domestic arrangements for securing compliance with environmental standards. As things stand, the UK government’s proposals for environmental governance reform fall considerably short of the effectiveness of current EU derived systems.

Potential gaps in coverage
Although most EU environmental legislation is incorporated into the EEA Agreement, there are some notable gaps, including the EU’s nature conservation rules (although there are strong arguments for adding them). This means that the EEA-EFTA states do not currently have to comply with the Birds Directive or the Habitats Directive, two key pieces of EU legislation that are considered to be the driving force for conservation across Europe. More than 100 species and 75 habitat types listed under these directives currently occur in the UK.

There is a risk that we could see a  roll-back of the protections these directives currently provide if they are not covered by the EU-UK future relationship. At the very least, there is a risk that future governments across the UK might opt for greater flexibility on certain elements of this legislation, such as relaxing the protection afforded to Natura 2000 sites or removing certain species from the lists requiring strict protection. In such a scenario, we could very quickly see damaging divergence across the four UK nations and between Ireland and Northern Ireland as well.

Of course, international biodiversity commitments, notably the Bern Convention, would continue to apply to the UK, but these do not offer anywhere near the same level of protection. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that numbers of certain key species are significantly higher and trends significantly more positive in countries covered by the EU’s nature legislation compared to those such as Norway that are merely bound by the Bern Convention.

Similarly for habitats, it has been argued that Norway’s protected area network does not sufficiently cover all relevant habitat types, with the proportion of Norway’s forests that are fully protected comparing unfavourably with  its closest EU neighbours (Sweden and Finland).

EU is likely to insist on safeguards for nature
Right from the start of the Brexit process, the EU has expressed a degree of concern that the UK might seek to undercut its social and environmental standards post-Brexit in an attempt to gain a competitive economic advantage. Given that the UK economy is over five times bigger than the combined size of the three EEA-EFTA economies, such concerns are unlikely to diminish in a scenario in which the UK seeks to negotiate continued access to the EU single market via a ‘Norway-style’ deal. The EU will also be keen to avoid a situation in which the UK is perceived to gain additional flexibility over the implementation of key environmental rules whilst also retaining the benefits associated with EU single market access.

In January 2018, the European Commission set out its initial thinking on this issue, signalling that nature conservation should be considered for inclusion in the list of key areas of environmental policy where it would be necessary to secure a ‘level playing field’ in the EU-UK future relationship. Then, in November 2018, the draft Withdrawal Agreement was endorsed by the European Council, committing the EU and the UK to maintaining existing levels of environmental protection in areas including nature and biodiversity conservation post-Brexit.

Although these commitments are contained within the Ireland/Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ and relate to non-regression, as opposed to regulatory alignment, their real significance is that they probably represent the baseline model for the treatment of environment and ‘level playing field’ issues that the EU is likely to accept under any form of future trade agreement with the UK. Indeed, the accompanying Political Declaration calls for a set of commitments in the future trade relationship that “build on” those in the Withdrawal Agreement.

As MPs debate these issues in the coming days, they should feel reasonably confident that a ‘Norway-style’ future relationship has the potential to deliver some significant environmental improvements over the current Brexit deal, including for nature.

How Brexit is already watering down environmental protections

This post is by Libby Peake, senior policy adviser at Green Alliance, and Ruth Chambers, senior parliamentary associate for Greener UK. It was first posted on Business Green.

Hidden amongst the dramatic politics of Brexit, a little noticed but nonetheless highly significant process has been unfolding: the transfer of 12,000 pieces of EU law into our domestic statute book. This has great significance for the environment as 80 per cent of environmental laws come from the EU. While the process is intended to ensure a smooth Brexit through the technical transfer of laws, the pace at which it has been done, as well as the challenge of faithfully replicating European laws at a domestic level, have meant this process has been far from straightforward. Read more

Time is running out for Wales to protect its environment after Brexit

brecon beacons smallThis post is by Sarah Graham of WWF Cymru.

With 22 days until we leave the European Union, the Welsh government’s plans for how it intends to retain and improve environmental protections remain a mystery. Unlike its counterparts in England and Scotland, it has not published any consultation proposals or draft legislation. Leaving the EU without these plans in place could have very damaging implications for people and nature. Read more

The government must not be allowed to mark its own homework on environmental standards

big ben smallThis post is by Lord Robin Teverson, chair of the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee. 

Back in February 2017, our committee published the report of its inquiry on Brexit, the environment and climate change. While covering a wide range of issues, one of the key findings was the vital role that the European Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union play in ensuring that member states (including the UK) comply with environmental legislation. We heard evidence that the effectiveness of EU regulation was due, in part, to the deterrent effect of the power of EU institutions to hold member states to account and to levy fines upon them for non-compliance. From recycling targets, to air quality plans, to nature conservation, we heard that the threat of EU infraction had shaped the UK’s environmental policy. Read more

Brexit: where do we go from here and what does it all mean for environmental politics?

theresa may smallWith parliament apparently unable to agree how to leave the EU, a second referendum and a decision to stay in the EU becomes a serious possibility. Most environmentalists I know were strongly pro-remain in 2016. They know how important the EU has been in raising environmental standards and pushing action on climate change. Read more

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