Potentially 'even harder than today' post-Brexit to maintain UK environmental standards

Posted On: 
26th October 2016

Former Conservative MEP Stanley Johnson, Co-Chairman of Environmentalists for Europe, writes about how the UK will maintain environmental standards once it has formally left the European Union.

Credit: 
PA

At the recent Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, the Prime Minister indicated that a vital step in the Brexit process would be to ‘nationalize’ or ‘rehome’ what she referred to as the ‘acquis’ ie that body of legislation and practice which the UK has already subscribed to, or introduced, by way of applying EU rules.  

Given that this could be seen by some of the more ardent Brexiteers as a bold, if not contentious approach, it is gratifying to note that ministers such as Andrea Leadsom, the Defra Secretary, Dr Therese Coffey, the Environment Minister and Robin Walker, the responsible Brexit Department Minister, have all gone out of their way to make clear that the Prime Minister meant what she said (just in case there was any doubt).

There may of course be practical considerations in ministers' minds, given the scope and volume of EU-derived environmental legislation and given the virtual impossibility of reviewing or rewriting those rules within the time-frame envisaged under Article 50. But there is surely more to it than this.

Over the last forty years the UK has played a full part in developing EU environmental policy and the EU has in turn helped to encourage this country’s own efforts to maintain, and if possible improve, the quality of air and water, as well as protecting nature and wildlife. We may be on different sides of the Channel from our continental partners, but we live in the same bio-geographical region. It is as much in Europe’s interest for the UK to have a strong and effective environmental policy as it is in ours.

So the Great Repeal Bill signalled by the Prime Minister in her conference speech will be notable, at least on the environmental front, not for the host of measures it repeals, but for the host of measures it retains.

There will of course be scope in due course for a review and reassessment of EU-derived environmental law (and indeed of ‘purely national’ environmental legislation as well). But this can be done in an orderly and disciplined fashion. Even here, though, care will need to be taken to avoid unnecessary divergences, for example in terms of product or process standards, from our continental partners if we are interested in profiting de facto if not de iure from the single market. Ways of achieving policy alignment (a 27+1 forum? Council of Europe framework? More legwork by the UK mission in Brussels?) will need to be studied and put in place.

There will also be scope for identifying issues where the UK post-Brexit can indeed take a lead unilaterally, e.g. achieving higher animal farm welfare standards (and possibly earning a marketing premium for doing so) or taking urgent steps to deal with non-recyclable plastic bottles, thereby improving our own situation while acting as an example to others, including our erstwhile partners.

Both Houses have recently held debates about Brexit and the environment. Both Houses have committees which are already posing questions to ministers on this subject and which will in due course publish reports.

It is to be hoped that this parliamentary scrutiny will, amongst other things, deal with the fundamental issue of enforcement. Absent EU law, absent EU institutions, such as the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, where will we find that vital extra layer of scrutiny which included, in the last resort, the imposition of fines or other sanctions on delinquent Member States? Judicial review is costly and complex. There must be other routes as well.

Once we have ‘left’ the EU, we may well find it even harder than it is today to hold the Government to account on, say, urban air quality or the state of our bathing beaches.

This whole question of how to replace the EU-derived supranational element in the current rule-book with an effective alternative, is surely something for the Law Commission to look at urgently, if it is not already doing so.

Stanley Johnson is the Co-Chairman of Environmentalists for Europe & is a former Conservative MEP