It’s over and we are out of the EU

24th June 2016

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What does Brexit mean for the UK's environment?

After an acrimonious campaign in which the environment barely featured, voters have decided that they no longer want to be part of the European Union (EU). In the short term the vote to leave will trigger a request from the UK government to invoke Article 50 of the Treaties on European Union (TEU) for the UK to withdraw. This article allows for a two-year period during which the remaining EU states negotiate an exit settlement (without the UK being present in the room) that they will present to the UK on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. There is scope to extend the withdrawal timeframe, but only by mutual consent.

Assuming that UK policy-makers are able to agree on the broad, strategic direction they wish to take, there are essentially two options: to join the European Economic Area (EEA) like Norway (the ‘Norwegian Option’); or to pursue an independent free trade relationship with the EU and the rest of the world (the so-called ‘Free Trade Option’).

The Norwegian option

Under the Norwegian option the vast majority of EU rules and regulations will remain in place and business will continue as usual, with one major difference – the UK will no longer have an active input into shaping EU decisions – it will become a policy taker rather than being a policy maker. The UK government has enjoyed the right to implement higher environmental standards as an EU member and that right will be retained under this option.

However, the UK will have no ability to weaken EU rules, which means that for policies such as REACH where the UK government has been pressing for less stringent rules, the UK will have lost its ability to shape policy. Moreover, while EU rules and regulations will generally continue to apply in the UK under this option there are some notable environmental exceptions. The habitats and birds directives, which have been widely recognised as protecting the UK’s most precious flora and fauna are not covered by the EEA agreement and will therefore cease to apply. Key figures from the ‘Brexit’ camp have made clear their commitment to roll back wildlife regulations so it seems likely that the current protections will be weakened.

The bathing water directive, which has played a key role in transforming the UK’s reputation from being the ‘dirty man of Europe’, will also cease to apply. While it seems unlikely that the British public will accept a return to sewage-strewn beaches, maintaining high levels of protection may become an issue for future NGO campaigning, especially in view of the UK’s ongoing problem in meeting ambitious new standards.

On climate change, the UK currently participates in effort-sharing to meet the global EU greenhouse gas goals but again this legislation will no longer apply, raising questions about both the UK’s longer term climate strategy and the ways in which remaining EU states can try to reach their planned targets. On climate it seems likely that while the UK will gain the right to negotiate separately from the EU in Conference of the Party (COP) negotiations that it will nevertheless follow the EU’s lead on the position adopted at COP meetings as other EEA states currently do, not least because it will have to implement EU legislation as an EEA member.

Some environmentalists will rejoice when they discover that the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will no longer apply. On fisheries it is inevitable that the UK will have to negotiate a replacement set of agreements due to overlapping fishing grounds with neighbouring states. Expert analyses suggest that the impact of Brexit will be broadly neutral but there will have to be long and complex negotiations to put in place an alternative set of arrangements (albeit ones that are likely to be very similar to the CFP).

On CAP, there is the possibility of greater devolution of agricultural matters to the nations of the UK and a good deal of uncertainty about what kind of package will be offered to farmers, and the extent to which existing agri-environmental measures will be retained.

The Free Trade Option

Under the free trade option, which seems to be the preferred model for the leave camp the UK, like many non-EU states, will still have to maintain a host of EU standards in order to access the Single European Market, but again as a policy taker. While as an EU member the UK enjoys the right to implement higher environment standards, under this option there will also be scope for the UK government to implement lower environmental standards, and as indicated above, leading brexit campaigners want to scrap key EU environmental regulations.

The UK will gain the right to negotiate on its own over international environmental agreements but here again it seems likely that it will follow the EU’s lead. Of particular note here is the likely impact of a brexit upon the EU’s position on climate change – the UK has played a leading role in developing and pushing the climate change agenda at the European level. The leadership role played by the EU in global negotiations is therefore potentially at risk without the UK there to act as a counterweight to the more climate-sceptic governments in the Council, and the UN has even suggested that Brexit has put the Paris agreement at risk.


Overall then the future for UK environmental policy outside the EU is potentially bleak. However, much depends upon the composition of the future cabinet; the broad exit strategy the government decides to pursue; and the type of offer the EU is prepared to make to its erstwhile member. In the meantime, in the miasma of uncertainty shrouding our Brexit options, experts and NGOs can mobilise to identify those rules we should retain and to remind legislators and the British public why the environmental rules we have adopted via the EU are important. That way we may be able to ensure that the environmental gains made since joining the EU are retained.

Dr Charlotte Burns, University of York, Dr Viviane Gravey, and Professor Andy Jordan, University of East Anglia.


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