What EU referendum could mean to the UK environment?

Several aspects of the UK’s relationship with the EU have been chewed over, or at least skimmed over, in recent weeks as the media has laid its own foundations for the referendum. Largely absent from the cavalcade however have been some of the areas of policy where the EU is most active. Amongst these is the environment. Environmental policy has become a joint effort between the EU and its constituent countries over the last four decades and now it would be difficult to unpick the purely national from the European, as noted by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee earlier this week. 


There are at least three reasons for this. First, many of the key environmental issues are cross-border by their nature. These include the response to climate change, the management of the marine environment and the conservation of migratory species. Second, there is an economic logic in agreeing common standards and approaches to many issues inside a single market where there are no barriers to trade. Common technical barriers, for example on polluting emissions from cars, on the levels of chemicals and heavy metals in consumer products and the energy efficiency of electrical appliances, prevent indirect barriers to trade and avoid giving competitive advantage to countries adopting lower standards. Third, there is the historical reality that governments have proved more comfortable in making long term decisions, for example in reducing water pollution and building a low carbon economy, when their neighbours and partners commit to the same obligations as well. This is partly a question of political courage. Facing possible short term opposition and potential costs for the sake of longer term gains is more palatable if others are doing it as well. The chances of facing unfair competition from those less committed to sustainability are greatly reduced when there are relatively consistent rules applying throughout the EU. 


Nearly all the studies examining the EU’s record on the environment come to similar conclusions. Standards have been raised, pollution has fallen, new processes and targets have been put in place; the influence of European countries in international negotiations almost certainly is enhanced by acting together within the EU. Decisions can be slow as there is extensive discussion and consultation; some are difficult to change which can be a drawback but the solidity of the policy provides industry with greater regulatory predictability than purely national law. Club membership has both merits and frustrations, not unexpectedly. However, the recent reports from the House of Commons, a group of academics led by Andrew Jordan and Charlotte Burns and my own institute, IEEP, all agree on how much progress has been made with the collective approach. They also agree that the UK has been an influential player in establishing the now substantial edifice of EU law. 


So what next? Government witnesses to the Commons Committee thought that Brexit would trigger a “long and torturous” negotiation on environmental policy and there would clearly be a period of extended uncertainty. This is a concern for both the environmental community and the body of industry that is affected by EU law on the environment, climate change, energy, agriculture and fisheries. 


Beyond this largely unavoidable outcome, my institute has agreed that there are two distinct scenarios that could arise if the UK were to vote to leave the EU.


Under one, the UK successfully negotiates membership of the EEA, which is not a foregone conclusion. Often referred to as the “Norway” scenario, this would entail an obligation for the UK to follow most EU environmental legislation (with a few important exceptions) while being excluded from decisions about making or amending such legislation. Opportunities to tailor EU law to UK concerns, often taken in the past, would greatly diminish. 


Under a second scenario, outside the EEA, the UK would be free to choose its own environmental legislation, within certain limits imposed by international law and the requirements applying to goods exported to the EU market. This would be a major undertaking, complicated by a legitimate role for devolved administrations within the UK to pursue their own, more distinctive approaches if they wished to. Outside the EU Single Market, the UK government would be more tempted to seek competitive advantage (including cutting administrative burdens) where they could. So it is not unreasonable to expect an attempt to roll back a number of environmental standards under this scenario. 


Despite the relative silence of the media on this topic, these issues are highly strategic and the choices far from trivial. 


David Baldock is Executive Director at the Institute for European Environmental Policy. He will speak at The Crowd’s EU referendum debate on 9th May alongside Caroline Lucas MP Green Party, Michael Liebreich BNEF, Lord Deben The Committee on Climate Change, and Lord Callanan House of Lords. More info is here


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