With the pandemic consuming most of the oxygen in our national and European debates, Brexit remains an issue we should focus on once the negotiations reach their final dimensions, supposedly by next week and by the end of the year at the latest. And no area deserves closer scrutiny than whether the two parties are complying with the EU’s current high environmental standards, the so-called acquis, including our landmark Birds and Habitats Directives, which Britain contributed so much to developing and implementing 40 years ago. Not to mention they were saved from the Juncker hatchet four years ago. Your record was enviable.
Much is heard about the EU’s insistence on creating a clear level playing field, especially in trade, but this also affects many other areas, not least our current environmental protection.
Of course, although Britain is a canal and a sea away, birds and biodiversity do not recognize our man-made borders. The UK has celebrated the benefits of Brexit for them and helped free it to go further and higher than current EU law in its environmental laws. The course of recent negotiation strategies, the real economic impact of Brexit versus the promises on the bus side, and most recently the Single Market Act proposal that the EU has confidence in the UK to deliver on its oral promises has eroded even more dramatically. In addition to the prima facie violation of international law, proudly recognized by a UK minister, the bill includes a corresponding provision in an arcane area known as the “Market Access Principles”. How much in the discussion does this sound benign. But it could actually mean that, for example, Scotland could not apply higher environmental standards to products than England.
As a final step, which raises doubts, the British negotiating team always hesitated to give guarantees that at least incorporate the principle of non-regression of environmental standards.
Ideally, a potential deal should specify a floor, not a ceiling, for environmental protection. It should follow a logic of dynamic EU and UK environmental policy convergence, taking into account the evolving nature of environmental problems, emerging challenges and the EU’s growing ambition to improve its environmental policies under the EU Green Deal. The EU’s proposals in this regard are heavily rejected by the UK as yet another alleged threat to British sovereignty. The idea is not complicated. Future access to the European market should require compliance with existing and future EU environmental laws.
Alignment of environmental laws is all the more important given that the UK and the EU naturally share the same ecosystems. For example, the UK coasts support large populations of seabirds and migratory birds of European importance. Unsustainable use of these areas could adversely affect marine biodiversity in common seas. There are over 100 species and over 75 habitats of Community interest in the UK listed under EU nature directives.
A number of recent UK government actions raise specific concerns that a deregulation agenda may already be in full swing, such as:
The nature guidelines are a pillar of environmental protection in Europe. The Habitats Directive alone protects around 1200 European species in addition to birds. However, the British Ports Association (BPA) has already asked the UK government to revise the nature guidelines to allow ports to ignore the precautionary principle and their requirements for assessing the impact of their activities in marine protected areas.
Water Framework Directive
Back in August, Sir James Bevan, Director General of the UK Environment Agency, raised with the London Chamber of Commerce the prospect of the UK repealing the Floods Directive and reform to weaken the provisions of the Water Framework Directive, one of the EU’s backbones, environmental legislation that affects some of the protects UK’s most vulnerable ecosystems.
UK Fisheries Act
Since the negotiations began, fishing has been a major point of contention for both parties. As the EU focuses on guaranteeing its fishermen access to British waters, the UK sees restricting EU access as an extremely important assertion of its new “sovereignty”. The fragility of the 100 shared fish species and their declining stocks have been ignored. Although the House of Lords passed two strong amendments to improve the UK Fisheries Act to make sustainability the main objective of UK fishing, the UK government rejected them in the House of Commons.
UK environmental law
The environmental law, which is supposed to lay the foundation for environmental policy in the UK and to establish a new domestic environmental governance system after leaving the EU, is still not in the UK Parliament after more than 200 days of silence. Therefore, there is currently neither a legal framework nor a trustworthy body to replace EU law and the control of the European Court of Justice.
The EU must live up to its environmental commitments
As part of the EU, the UK and the EU have worked together for decades to successfully ensure greater nature conservation. As the EU Green Deal puts Europe at the forefront of international environmental protection and urgently tackles the double crises of biodiversity loss and climate change, the failure to protect the EU’s environmental status in a future agreement will become environmental protection and sustainability in our country clearly undermine the continent and common ecosystem. What is good for the EU goose must definitely be what is good for the UK viewer.