A ‘no deal’ Brexit would be catastrophic for the environment. No one can predict where Britain might end up on Brexit in the months ahead but one thing is plain, simple, and clear: the prospect of the UK leaving the EU in March 2019 without a deal has changed from being a scenario you wouldn’t put money on just a short while ago, to suddenly being a very real prospect. More to the point, leading Brexiteers – not least environment secretary Michael Gove – are arguing that Britain needs to “step up” its preparations to enable it to walk away without a deal in just eight months’ time.
The Withdrawal Bill was supposed to cut and paste all aspects of European environmental legislation, but it missed some of the most important bits, Defra is nowhere near ready to leave without a deal, and we don’t yet have even the most basic enforcement mechanisms in place. Much has been said and written about just how enormously difficult and disruptive a cliff edge no deal will be for business and the economy. Leaked Government papers are warning that the UK would suffer shortages of food, fuels and medicines within a fortnight. Just ponder that awhile: food shortages. Businesses like Airbus, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover have talked about leaving the country. Much less has been said about what might happen to our environment and health in a no deal scenario, something that should be of grave concern to all given that around 80 percent of our environmental laws have been developed in an EU context.
Let’s start in the kitchen cabinet. The EU’s REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and restriction of Chemicals) Directive is the most advanced system in the world for ensuring chemicals in the home are safe for human health and the environment. Leaving the EU without a deal means leaving REACH, which took ten years to put in place and covers 21,000 chemicals. In the absence of this regulation and enforcement, there is nothing to stop companies selling substances in the UK that are banned by the EU, and there is every reason to believe the UK could become a convenient dumping ground for toxic products. To prevent this, the UK would need to get its own regulatory system for chemicals, and a new enforcement body to copy the functions of the European Chemicals Agency, up and running between now and March. Spoiler: that won’t happen.
Still in the kitchen, what about food? Without a deal, the UK will be under pressure to import food from countries with much lower health, safety, welfare and production standards. Chlorine washed chicken from the US has dominated headlines and rightly horrified us, but there are thousands of standards for food being imported to the EU, all backed up by the European Food Standards Agency. Are we going to keep them, or in our desperation to stop supermarket shelves from going empty next year, accept lower standards? If so, British farmers will argue that they need to lower their own standards to compete. We’ve barely even started a public or political discussion about what rules or bodies we might want to bring in to replace the EU system that regulates our food imports, let alone put them in place. And that’s before we consider the physical infrastructure and trained border guards we need in place at every UK port and border crossing, including checks on live animals for diseases and parasites.
As the economy suffers and the reality of a no deal Brexit starts to take horrifying shape, it will come as no surprise when the same politicians that argued for Brexit start arguing for further deregulation to get the economy moving. At that point any pretence of Brexit Britain staying a green and pleasant land will disappear in a puff of toxic smoke.
And escaping scrutiny or even discussion so far is the detail about what will happen to our most precious wildlife sites and species, currently protected under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. Michael Gove has previously promised to establish a “world leading” environmental watchdog that would “hold the powerful to account” and “embed” protections for land, water, air and wildlife into policy-making as the UK leaves the EU. But his department only launched a consultation on these proposals a few weeks ago and there is no way the legislation required to establish the legal mandate for such an agency will have even been tabled before March 2019, let alone operational. I could go on. On really important issues related to climate change and energy, on environmental product standards, on transboundary environmental cooperation, on governance, invasive species, fisheries and countless other issues, DEFRA - Michael Gove’s own department, is currently a very long way away from being ready to walk away without a deal, at least if he is going to uphold his promise to “maintain and enhance environmental protections” as we leave.
Can it be sorted in the next eight months? I don’t think so. The Government hasn’t so much dropped the ball, as tossed it over the fence into a gully.
Craig Bennett is CEO of Friends of the Earth, the UK’s largest grassroots environmental campaigning community