Europe saved from British de-regulation agenda?

The vote for Britain to leave the EU is devastating for British environmentalists, who have EU regulations to thank for making Britain’s air, water, and beaches cleaner and its wildlife safer. The EU has saved Britain from its former reputation as the dirty man of Europe. Now Britain seems set on a regressive path.

Appeals for funds for UK-based environmental groups have already started to flood into email in-boxes. The gist of the mails is that many EU protections for the environment and public health will no longer apply in the UK and the groups will have to start almost from scratch to try to put them in place here – but this time without the support and leadership of the more environmentally responsible governments of the EU member states. They will need many times their current funding and capacity to even begin this job.

Europe saved from British demands for de-regulation?

European environmentalists, on the other hand, may well find their job easier as a result of Britain’s exit from the EU.

This is because the settlement that the UK negotiated with the EU in the event that it stayed in the Union will now not take effect. That means that the following Brexit-related commitments won’t be valid:

"The Commission is fully committed to and will continue its efforts to make EU law simpler and to reduce regulatory burden for EU business operators without compromising policy objectives by applying the 2015 Better Regulation Agenda, including in particular the Commission's regulatory fitness and performance programme (REFIT). Cutting red tape for entrepreneurship, in particular small and medium-sized enterprises, remains an overarching goal for all of us in delivering growth and jobs."

"The Commission, within the REFIT platform, will work with Member States and stakeholders, towards establishing specific targets at EU and national levels for reducing burden on business, particularly in the most onerous areas for companies, in particular small and medium-sized enterprises. Once established, the Commission will monitor progress against these targets and report to the European Council annually."

"The European Union will also pursue an active and ambitious trade policy."

Red alert for the environment

We mustn’t be fooled by the language in this settlement document. For “cutting red tape”, read “rolling back public health and environmental protections, and labour laws”. And for “reducing burden on business, in particular small and medium-sized enterprises”, read “allowing free rein to corporations of any shape or size”.

The scrapping of this invidious settlement in the light of Brexit is a cause for celebration for our fellow environmentalists in the EU, who have fought long and hard for the regulations that would be demolished under its criteria.

In fact it’s understandable if they are feeling relieved at the news of Britain’s exit from the EU, on the grounds that that Europe’s progressive initiatives and existing environmental regulations will no longer be undermined by British officials and lobbyists pursuing a “business at all costs” agenda.

But for the British people, the settlement hasn’t just gone away. On the contrary, it gives a clear idea of the future being planned for Britain outside the EU. As Damian Carrington writes in the article below for The Guardian, the UK's out vote is a “red alert” for the environment: “From the ‘red-tape’ slashing desires of the Brexiters to the judgment of green professionals, all indications are for weaker environmental protections”.

UK's out vote is a 'red alert' for the environment

Damian Carrington
The Guardian, 24 June 2016
[links to sources at the URL above]

* From the ‘red-tape’ slashing desires of the Brexiters to the judgment of green professionals, all indications are for weaker environmental protections

Despite being an issue that knows no borders, affects all and is of vital interest to future generations, the environment was low on the agenda ahead of the UK’s historic vote to leave the European Union.

The short answer to what happens next with pollution, wildlife, farming, green energy, climate change and more is we don’t know – we are in uncharted territory. But all the indications – from the “red-tape” slashing desires of the Brexiters to the judgment of environmental professionals – are that the protections for our environment will get weaker.

There is one immediate impact though, right here, right now: the crashing financial markets will damage the huge investments needed to create a cleaner and safer environment and will dent the nation’s fast-growing green economy, one economic sector where the UK could lead.

From the air we breathe to the food we eat to the climate we live in, how we protect and enhance the environment underpins the healthy and happy lives we all aspire to, now and for generations to come.

The 75% of 18-24-year-old Britons who voted to remain in the EU must be feeling betrayed by older generations today. Why? Because the UK’s membership of the EU has been a virtually unalloyed good for the environment.

The Brexit vote leaves it highly uncertain which protections will remain in place and the prospect of improving them seems remote. Ukip’s Nigel Farage, the politician who did more than anyone to force the EU referendum, doesn’t even think climate change is a problem and wants to scrap pollution limits on power stations.

With 400,000 early deaths a year from air pollution – 40,000 in the UK – the EU saw things differently and set new legal limits in 2010. Many UK cities and towns remain above those limits today and campaigners have used EU rules to successfully sue the UK government. But UK ministers are even now fighting new EU rules to reduce early deaths. Pollution does not stop in its tracks at national borders, and 88% of environment professionals in the UK think an EU-wide policy is needed.

Earlier legal action from the EU forced the UK to clean up its sewage-strewn beaches, while many of the protections for nature and wildlife across the nation stem from EU rules. Here again, the people whose job it is to safeguard these wonderful places and reverse the damage of the past think leaving the EU is a mistake: 66% say there will be a lower level of legal protection for wildlife and habitats against 30% who think it will improve.

The EU has also driven a revolution in recycling and waste. What will happen to that, according to the people who made it happen on the ground? Two-thirds of the professionals think it will go into reverse, with 30% saying it will stay the same and just 4% thinking it will improve.

One major EU policy – its vast subsidy regime for farmers – has not been good for wildlife by encouraging damaging intensive agriculture: there are 421m fewer birds in Europe than 30 years ago. But the Common Agricultural Policy was improving its approach to the environment and supports the farmers who put food on our tables every day. They are now in an agonising limbo. Fisherman may hope to get larger quotas now the UK is leaving the EU but for how long? There will not, without strong protections, be plenty more fish in the sea for long.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) may get one wish from Brexit: the scrapping of a ban on pesticides that harm bees and other crucial pollinators. The NFU and UK ministers fought the ban, but the collective will of the EU saw it put in place.

The collective will of the EU has also been vital in climate change, both on the international stage and at home in the UK. The UK’s targets for renewable energy were agreed in Brussels but leaving the EU puts them into limbo too.

However, despite the current government hacking back support for clean energy, the UK does have strong domestic legislation which sets deep cuts in carbon emissions into law. But Boris Johnson, now a leading contender to be the UK’s next prime minister, is a climate change sceptic: will he act on his conviction that all this global warming malarkey is piffle?

James Thornton, the chief executive of Client Earth, the lawyers who forced the government to improve its air pollution plans, said Brexit “leaves me shocked, disappointed and extremely concerned about the future of environmental protections in the UK.” Craig Bennett, head of Friends of the Earth, said the leave vote was a “red alert” for the environment.

Farage’s reaction to Brexit was unsurprisingly different: “I couldn’t be more delighted.”