Road to oblivion?

5th April 2019

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Jane McMillan

Nigel Haigh has spent the past 40 years observing the EU closely. He tells Huw Morris what Brexit means for businesses and environmental policy – and why the UK and EU will both lose out

“It's dreadful, a disaster,“ says Nigel Haigh, honorary fellow and former director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy, before running out of negatives to describe Brexit's implications for the environment and business. “It's certainly not the walk in the park some Brexiteers wanted people to believe. It is extraordinarily difficult.“

An international authority on European environmental policy, Haigh has closely observed the subject since its inception. One of his specialities is how the field has developed during the 40 years he has worked in it – and what it may look like in the next 40.

He recalls an insight offered by Jean Monnet, one of the EU's founding fathers and an architect of the 1950 Schumann Plan, which led to the European Coal and Steel Community in 1953. That, in turn, led to the Common Market six years later, and ultimately to the EU. Monnet foresaw that the German and French steel industries would be so entwined in the community that both countries would find it impossible to go to war again after three bloody conflicts in 80 years.

Similarly, the Common Market – or Single Market, as it's called today – “was always more than an economic project,“ says Haigh. Now car components crisscross national borders just in time for the next production step, while operators in the Republic of Ireland take recycling or waste to Northern Ireland for treatment every day. Such a Gordian knot has profound implications for businesses as much as the environment.

Thorny issues

“The dilemma facing the UK government is that it wants frictionless trade and an open Irish border on the one hand, yet wants to take back control of its laws and diverge from EU legislation on the other,“ he observes. “The question becomes: which EU laws must the UK stay aligned with to achieve trade with less friction?“

So far, there is little evidence that this question is being posed, never mind answered. Departing from EU environmental legislation could even distort competition, Haigh argues. He cites standards for traded products, a mind-boggling list that covers everything from cars, light bulbs, chemicals and pesticides to domestic boilers, hazardous waste and recyclable materials. And that's before considering food.

“The EU's great fear is that the UK will undercut the Single Market by becoming a deregulated, low-tax, low-standard economy“

Other thorny issues include operational standards for industry emissions, management of waste sites, procedures for assessing development projects, and access to environmental information. Water and air quality standards will also need sorting out.

“The EU's great fear is that the UK will undercut the Single Market by becoming a deregulated, low-tax, low-standard economy – the very thing some hard Brexiteers hanker for,“ says Haigh. “Hence the EU's insistence on 'non regression' in the negotiations. Astonishingly, at this late stage, we are still waiting for clarity on these points.

“Another possibility is that a post-Brexit deregulatory UK government, eager to strike trade deals with third countries, will have a chilling effect on the EU, which will not want to be undercut by an economically important offshore neighbour. That could mean the EU trimming back its environmental ambitions.“

This is not as unlikely a scenario as first seems. India wants weaker standards for chemicals in any trade deal with the UK. Brexiteers aplenty welcome US imports of cheap chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-treated beef, Haigh argues. “We can look forward to storms ahead both within the UK and in the dialogue with the EU.“

Both the UK and EU will lose out, whatever the divorce agreement. Here, Haigh looks back over his career for pointers to the future. Brexit will weaken the EU's ability to act internationally, he argues. Not only is the UK one of the most populous and economically powerful member states, the second largest net contributor to the EU budget after Germany, but it also has a greater global reach than other member states.

“Only the EU has an institutional culture in which environmental policy is so central“

“Only France has a comparable diplomatic service,“ he says. “Both France and the UK, acting with EU officials, played a major role in getting so many countries to agree to the Paris Agreement on climate change.“

Outside the EU, he predicts the UK will become a bit part player on a world stage dominated by the future big actors of China, India, Russia and Brazil, as well as the EU. The US, an environmental leader in the 1970s, is now a reluctant – if not disruptive – force. Of the major players, only the EU has such an environmentally engaged and sophisticated public, he says. “Only the EU has an institutional culture in which environmental policy is so central. The UK's departure diminishes that.“

Achievements ignored

Brexit will also influence the EU's internal environmental policy. “The UK has often been seen by other member states as excessively cautious, to the extent of being a drag on high standards – so much so that some think the EU will be more ambitious without the UK. There may be some truth in that, but ask anybody in the EU and the other side of that coin is the British have always been pragmatic and insisted EU legislation should be workable.

“Other member states have often shielded behind UK objections. If future EU policy is to be well grounded, other states may have to take on Britain's mantle. The EU has brought weaker member states closer to the standards of the stronger – but there is much more to it than that.“

Haigh reels off a series of overlooked, even ignored, achievements. The EU has promoted economies of scale, with states learning from each other's policies. It created EU-wide institutions such as the Chemicals Agency in Helsinki, the IPPC Bureau in Seville, which provides guidance on best industrial practice, and the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen.

Some EU legislation was the first of its kind, confronting such challenges as acid rain, the ozone layer, climate change and chemicals, which demand international alliances.

The 'precautionary principle' was developed in Germany and is now a mainstay of EU treaties to spur action in advance of proof. 'Burden sharing' was promoted by the Netherlands for acid rain policy, with appropriate targets for different countries. This is now part of the vocabulary of global climate change agreements. Many concepts, such as the 'waste hierarchy' and 'proximity principle' for waste, were developed at EU level.

Interdependent world

What can we look forward to in the next 40 years? In the 1970s, Haigh says, “we were largely focused on local or regional problems“, while in 40 years' time, “the one thing that can be said with certainty is that environmental problems will increasingly be long range and long term“. UN Sustainable Development Goals show every nation is interdependent, he continues. Sustainable development is only achievable at a global level.

“Climate change will not go away, and demand for food, water and natural resources will increase. Reversing biodiversity loss will only get more difficult as a growing world population aspires to the standards of consumption that the middle classes in the developed world take for granted. Just look at China.

“Pollution of the seas will rise on the agenda. Air pollution kills millions worldwide. Environmental policy can only grow more important internationally.“

A life entwined with environmental policy

Nigel Haigh read engineering at Cambridge University between 1958 and 1961 before spending the next decade as a chartered patent agent. He worked for the Civic Trust for most of the 1970s and in 1974 helped found the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), of which he was vice-president between 1975 and 1979. Haigh opened the London office of the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) in 1980.

He was also a founder member of the Green Alliance in 1978 and was its chair from 1989 to 1997.

Haigh served as an Environment Agency board member between 1995 and 2000 and was then appointed by the European Parliament to the European Environment Agency's management board.

His book, EEC Environmental Policy and Britain, published in 1984, became the foundation for IEEP's loose-leaf Manual of Environmental Policy: the EU and Britain, which he edited until 2006. In 2016, he published EU Environmental Policy: Its Journey to Centre Stage, which first explored many of the issues the UK will eventually have to confront after Brexit.

HUW MORRIS is a freelance journalist


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