Brexit and beyond – getting a good deal for nature

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Brexit and beyond – getting a good deal for nature

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It’s official - Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has been triggered, the EU has been formally notified of the UK’s intention to withdraw and the Brexit negotiations can begin.  

Parliament Green in London was packed yesterday with reporters and camera crews seeking reaction and comment from politicians from all sides.  My guess is that few, if any, discussed the jeopardy and opportunity that Brexit brings for nature.

At such a significant moment, I thought it would be worth stock of what leaving the EU and the eventual outcome of the upcoming negotiations are likely to mean for the environment – and what the RSPB will be doing with its partners in Greener UK and BirdLife International to make sure that nature gets a good deal.

First, here’s a reminder of what’s at stake...

For over 40 years, the EU has played a central role in setting and enforcing common standards across a broad range of environmental issues – from pollution control to wildlife protection – helping to ensure a level playing field for businesses operating across EU markets and a coordinated approach to tackling transboundary environmental challenges. It is estimated that 80% of environmental policies in the UK are currently shaped by EU law, including key rules protecting some of our rarest and most vulnerable species and habitats.

min leaving the EU, there are some big questions regarding what will happen to these standards in the UK, how they will be enforced, and how the UK Government and the devolved administrations will work together and in partnership with the 27 remaining members of the EU on environmental issues.

While the nation was divided by the referendum, I believe that we are united by our love of wildlife – millions of people watch the remarkable Spring/Autumn/Winterwatch series, visit nature reserves every year and, a staggering half a million people took part in this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch (with the results being published today). 

There remains a remarkably strong consensus that the vote to leave the EU was not a vote to lower environmental standardsResearch published just last week indicates that the vast majority of people want to see the UK continue to follow EU standards on clean bathing water – a finding that is consistent with previous polling on EU environmental standards more generally.  The EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has also made clear his view that any future deal must guarantee “high environmental, social, and consumer protection standards”, not least in order to ensure “fair competition” between businesses in the UK and the EU.

Although the UK Government has committed to carrying over all existing EU environmental legislation into domestic law via its proposed ‘Great Repeal Bill’, what happens to these standards post-Brexit will depend to a considerable extent on the deal that is negotiated between the UK and the EU.

The RSPB wants a future UK-EU partnership agreement, as sought by Prime Minister Theresa May, to include strong commitments to maintaining and enforcing environmental standards.  In particular, the EU Nature Directives – vital for protecting species and habitats across the UK – should not be traded away as part of any deal.

David Tipling's fabulous image of two turtle doves

As well as common standards, there is the issue of how we continue to work together to tackle environmental challenges. From fisheries to flood prevention, environmental issues are trans-boundary in nature. Species and the threats they face do not respect borders and leaving the EU will not change this simple fact.  To save the turtle dove, a species that has suffered more than 90% decline in the past twenty years, we need action on its breeding grounds at home, during its migration across southern Europe and onto its wintering grounds in West Africa.

But we also need cooperation within the UK. Although environmental matters are largely devolved under the current devolution settlements, the requirement to comply with the common framework provided by EU environment law has to date effectively limited the scope for a substantial divergence in approaches to arise. As we leave the EU, it is not yet clear how (or if) environmental action might be coordinated across the four nations of the UK.  The question of how future environmental action will be funded across the four nations following the loss of key EU funding streams – and how current EU policies on agriculture and fisheries might be replaced – are both topics that I will return to in later posts.

The UK Government and the devolved administrations must clearly work closely in tackling our own cross-border environmental issues, in line with their shared commitments under international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.

What happens next?

“…voters may only really appreciate what the EU did for the environment as the UK slides towards the exit.”

The environment barely featured in the referendum debate last June (see the blog from which the quote above was taken) and – despite the huge amount of discussion that has taken place on Brexit since then – it has continue to struggle to get much of a mention (recent inflammatory headlines aside). 

Nine months on, there is still a great deal of uncertainty regarding the likely environmental implications of Brexit, with many issues to be resolved that are both politically and practically complex. For example, losing the European Court of Justice will create a significant gap in our enforcement "armoury".  The European Court applies a more intense scrutiny of the merits of cases than the UK Courts currently undertake. There is also no comparable process to the EC complaints mechanism, which is the only free and easily accessible process for civil society to ensure the environmental obligations in EU Law are properly enforced.  These have been important defences against politicians (from successive governments) tempted to over-ride enivornmental concerns for short-term economic interest.   

The immediate priority will be to ensure that the proposed ‘Great Repeal Bill’ effectively carries across existing EU environmental legislation into domestic law so as to prevent a legal ‘cliff edge’ on Brexit day. A White Paper on this Bill is due today (Thursday) – we’ll be watching this complex process closely to ensure sure that no important protections fall through the gaps and that there is full parliamentary scrutiny in the case of any non-technical amendments.

In the coming weeks, months and years, it is vital that the environment is not ignored by those sitting either side of the negotiating table and we'll need politicians to use their voices for nature. The future of our shared natural heritage is at stake and is not something to be traded away.

The UK Government has committed to leaving the environment “in a better state” for the next generation. But it can only do this if nature gets a good deal from Brexit.  Our role is, with the Greener UK coalition and BirdLife International, to try and make this happen.

  • Excejjent blog Martin on a subject that is absolutely.vitally important to nature conservation and the environment. I am afraid I am full of trepidation regarding this Westminster Government and the future well being of our nature conservation laws as well as our environmental laws generally. I have to say I do not trust them " round the corner". The potential loss of legal remedities,as you set out above, Martin, is especially concerning.

    The other question is whether there will be substantial differences in the nature and environmental protection laws as a result of the devolved Governments.

    One point that may be important, thanks to the RSPB, is that at the end of 2015 the RSPB successfully persuaded the then  Conservative Government to put forward within the EU the UK's view that the EU Birds and Habitats Directives should not be altered or "watered down" in any way. This was when the EU was carrying out its own review of them. The lobbying by conservation people at the time meant that Mr Junker received over half a million signatories to a petition that the Directives should not be amended in any way. In fact this was very successful and the Directives were not changed by the EU. Surely with the Conservatives supporting this view at the time, in the form of Mr Rory Stewart, they cannot now change there stance on this, or can they? (Never trust a politician?!).

    It seems to me that we will need to watch the situation like "a hawk" in the coming negotiations and probably be prepared to lobby strongly both this Government AND within the EU, for the UK to be agreeable to retaining the full requirements of the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, and coupled with this, the retention within the UK of the equivalent legal remedities to any abuse of them that the EU has been providing up to now.

    This will be a "very tough ask" but I know the RSPB will be leading the way on all this at the earliest opportunity and making it one of their highest, if not, their highest, priority.

  • One of the striking side shows of the great Brexit fiasco is the ever growing list of interests saying 'Brexit is great but of course it doesn't include us'. Latest was Jon Johnson, Boris' brother, making the case for special exemption for foreign students. And, of course, Iain Duncan-Smith was very quick to distance himself from all the money going to the NHS - after all, farmers need it - and his family are major beneficiaries of CAP.

    Whilst environmental legislation is important I'd suggest what happens to farming could have a far bigger impact on wildlife, and the outlook is poor: most likely is a relaxation in standards (from an already dire baseline) as the political trade off to reduced financial support. That means even more intensification including dangerous pesticides, GM and attacks on wildlife like the badger cull.

    There is the alternative put forward by the Natural Capital Committee where an outcome led approach to tackling the problems we face across sectors could actually save money, replace CAP subsidies with payments for delivering eco system services and improve the environment and save money at the same time. But it is a sophisticated, technically complicated approach probably way beyond the competence of organisations like Defra, and dependant on leaving the sectoral bunkers - which even the conservation sector seems reluctant to do.