With the pandemic using up most of the oxygen in our national and European debates, Brexit still remains as a topic that we should focus on as negotiations enter their final stretch, ostensibly by next week, and at the latest by the end of the year. And no area deserves greater scrutiny than whether the two parties maintain the EU’s current environmental high standards, the so-called acquis, including our seminal Birds & Habitats Directives, to which the UK contributed so much to develop and deliver 40 years ago. Not to mention helping to save them from the Juncker hatchet just four years ago. Their record has been enviable.
One hears much about the EU’s insistence on establishing an unambiguous level playing field, in trade especially, but which also has implications in many other areas, not the least of which should be our current environmental protections.
Although the UK is a channel and a sea away, birds and biodiversity, of course, do not recognize our man-made borders. The UK has celebrated the benefits to them of Brexit, and has included in that being liberated to go further and higher in their environmental laws than current EU law. However, the course of recent negotiating strategies, the actual economic implications of Brexit compared to the side-of-the-bus promises, and most recently the proposal of the Internal Market Bill, EU trust in the UK to honour any of its oral commitments has eroded even more dramatically. In addition to its prima facie breaching of international law, proudly acknowledged by a UK Minister, the bill has a concerning provision in an arcane area called ‘market access principles’. Like much in the discussion this sounds benign. But it could actually mean that, for example, Scotland could not apply higher environmental standards to products than England.
As a final doubt-inducing step, the UK negotiation team has consistently been reluctant to provide guarantees to at least include the principle of not regressing on environmental standards.
Ideally, a potential deal should set a floor, not a ceiling, for environmental protection. It should follow a logic of dynamic alignment of EU and UK environmental policies by taking into account the evolving nature of environmental issues, emerging challenges, and the growing ambition of the EU to improve its environmental policies in the framework of the EU Green Deal. The EU’s proposals in this regard are fiercely opposed by the UK as another purported threat to British sovereignty. The idea is not complicated. Future access to the European market should require respecting existing and future EU environmental legislation.
Alignment of environmental legislation is all the more important as the UK and the EU, of course, share the same ecosystems. For instance, UK coasts support large populations of seabirds and migratory wading birds of Europe-wide importance. Unsustainable use of these areas could have knock-on impacts for marine biodiversity in shared seas. Over 100 species and over 75 habitats of community interest that are listed under the EU Nature Directives are present in the UK.
A number of recent actions by the UK government raises concrete worries that a deregulation agenda might already be in full swing, such as:
The Nature Directives are a pillar of environmental protection in Europe. The Habitat Directive alone protects around 1200 European species, in addition to birds. Yet, the British Ports Association (BPA) has already called on the British Government to revise the Nature Directives so ports can ignore the precautionary principle and their requirements to assess the impacts of their activities in Marine Protected areas.
Water Framework Directive
Back in August, Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the UK Environment Agency raised with the London Chamber of Commerce the prospect of a UK repeal of the Floods Directive and a reform to weaken provisions of the Water Framework Directive, one of the backbones of EU environmental legislation that protects some of the most fragile ecosystems in the UK.
UK Fisheries Bill
Since the beginning of the negotiations, fisheries have been a strong bone of contention for both parties. With the EU focusing on guaranteeing its fishers access to British waters, the UK sees limiting EU access as a profoundly important assertion of its new ‘sovereignty’. The fragility of the 100 shared fish species and their declining stocks have been ignored. Although the House of Lords passed two strong amendments to improve the UK fisheries bill to make sustainability the prime objective of UK fisheries, the UK government rejected them in the Commons.
UK Environmental Bill
The Environmental Bill, meant to lay the foundations for environmental policy in the UK and establish a new domestic environmental governance system following EU exit, is still not back in the UK Parliament after more than 200 days of silence. Therefore, there is currently no legal framework nor trustworthy body in place to replace EU laws and the scrutiny of the European Court of Justice.
The EU must stand firm on its commitments to environmental protection
As part of the EU, the UK and the EU have decades of working together to successfully deliver stronger nature protection. With the EU Green Deal putting Europe at the forefront of international environmental protection, as well as urgently fighting the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change, failing to protect the EU environmental acquis in any future deal will clearly undermine environmental protection and sustainability across our continent and shared ecosystem. What’s good for the EU goose must definitely be what’s good for the UK gander.