Calculating the complex effects of Brexit on the environment
[Dossier BREXIT] The mariage between the United Kingdom and the European union was put on stake on 23 June 2016 when British people decided that their country should leave the EU. While the consequences of the British exit (Brexit) are still unfathomably complex, EU-defenders and sustainability professionals are certain that leaving the EU will be an “environmental madness”.
The EU and the UK : a mutual necessity
Today, the EU has the only functioning international body of environmental legislation in the world. It has helped all of the member states raise their environmental standards when it comes to air and water quality, protection of endangered species, ban of potentially dangerous materials and genetically modified crops.
And much of this progress is thanks to the leading role of the UK. Long before France and Germany had developed a taste for environmental leadership, the UK initiated and led many European projects. For instance, it was the UK that was behind the EU deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% on 1990 levels by 2030.
On the way to flexibility and regression
So why are we talking Brexit all of a sudden? Rigid European regulation and policies that are not well adjusted to UK’s particular needs are some of the reasons of discontentment. For the Eurosceptics, leaving the EU would mean more legal and political flexibility and innovation, which would allow for an environmental legislation specifically adjusted to the UK regime (for instance, better adjusted fisheries and innovation policies).
But while the UK has a history of being an environmental leader, recent governments tend to be indecisive when it comes to environmental issues. Greenpeace even called David Cameron’s cabinet “One of the most obstructive and regressive Governments in Europe”. Thus, without the rigid but progressive legal frame of the EU, the UK would have the possibility to change national laws and lower its environmental standards.
British security and prosperity intertwined with the EU
What the UK gained from its EU membership are highly improved environmental standards and a stronger voice in international negotiations. It also gained a rapidly growing industry, energy security and expanding green economy. And this is exactly what the country would lose if it would be to leave the EU. Brexit would jeopardise not only existing environmental standards, it would undermine investment in energy infrastructure and green business. It would also hurt international trading relations, as Barack Obama distinctly pointed out during his visit in April 2016.
But to put things in perspective: because of the strong legal, economic and diplomatic bonds that exist between Britain and Europe, the UK would have to adopt a similar status to Norway and Iceland and remain member of the European Economic Area. Thus various, although not all, European environmental laws would continue to apply, but the country would lose the opportunity to negotiate changes to laws. Finally, a Brexit means that the UK would lose its power in European and international negotiations on environmental issues and would possibly lower its national standards. Sadly, it also means that the protection of the environment on a global scale would suffer.