When it comes to the environment and nature, Brexit is going to first be an exercise in damage limitation.
The great tragedy of Brexit may be less what it will do to our environment, but what its all-encompassing nature will leave us too tired and weary to even contemplate. The next two-to-ten years will be a scramble to keep our heads above the water. Climate change; deadly air pollution; the destruction of the natural world – there’s no time to do anything about that right now. Or so some will suggest.
And, with around 80 per cent of our environmental law originating from the EU, it is vital that before even dreaming of what could come next, we ensure that these rules come over into UK law and, importantly, that they hold the same status as before. In this regard, the government is saying the right things. With its (formerly ‘great’, but now less so) Repeal Bill intending to bring the laws over to ensure regulatory stability upon Brexit, at least in the short term. We shall see.
Copy and pasting reams of European law into UK statute, all in the space of two years, will require the government granting itself the power to add and amend laws without the usual parliamentary debate or scrutiny. If these powers are then left unchecked, ministers would have the ability to change or cross out our precious environmental protections on a whim. If Brexit was indeed about Parliament taking back control, the Repeal Bill should be handled with caution by those who voted leave, as well as those who voted remain.
For it to work for our environment, the Repeal Bill must do three things:
- It must bring over the whole body of EU environmental law, and the related laws required for these to be coherent. This means not only bringing over the rules and regulations, but also the principles – such as the principle that the ‘polluter pays’ – that underpin them.
- It must restrict any powers granted to ministers as part of the legal ‘copy and paste’ process. This means putting time limits and appropriate parliamentary scrutiny on such powers, ensuring any non-technical changes (i.e. changes beyond those necessary for the legislation to continue to operate, post-Brexit) are made by elected MPs only.
- It must make sure that all of the legislation that is brought over is properly implemented and enforced. The UK does not have a good record when it comes to meeting its environmental obligations, even with the threat of EU fines hanging over its head. To make sure we don’t backslide, new arrangements must be put in place to provide the regulation, monitoring, oversight, accountability, enforcement and other functions currently provided by EU institutions such as the European Commission and European Court of Justice.
And when all of that is done and fought over, at the very most, this will leave us in the position we are in now, which is far from perfect, though it is a solid platform from which to build.
Throughout this process, Friends of the Earth will push for the UK to maintain as close a relationship to the EU as possible. Shared problems require shared solutions, and Brexit doesn’t change that.
We’re also not going to sit quietly by and let critical issues like climate change be overshadowed by political processes. Our environment cannot wait for Brexit to be over. We’re going to struggle to get anything new in the coming years, but we mustn’t be disheartened. We mustn’t be cowed. It’s time to dig in our heels and fight for that we have already worked so hard to get. It may be the toughest fight yet.