What About the Birds and the Bees? Environmental Protection Post-Brexit

Over the past four decades, the European Union has developed an environmental policy that has successfully raised environmental standards across Europe, including in the UK.

The benefits for European citizens have been significant ranging from cleaner air and water, less noise pollution and tighter control on the use of chemicals to better protection of endangered animals, plants and their habitats.[1] Many EU environmental rules are inextricably linked to the internal market (aimed at creating a level playing field across the EU) and/or relate to cross-border environmental challenges (for example acid rain and the protection of migratory birds). The rules are generally considered to be the most advanced in the world.[2] The European Commission and the European Court of Justice monitor and enforce Member States’ compliance with the rules.[3]

balearic shearwater endangered

The Balearic Shearwater, one of Europe’s critically endangered birds, is currently protected by the EU’s ‘Birds Directive’.
Image: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22728432/38084984

The EU has also played a leading role in the environmental area on the international stage not least in the fight against climate change and illegal wildlife trade across the world.

A series of principles underpin the EU’s environmental policy. It must: Be aimed at a high level of protection taking into account the diversity of situations in the various regions of the Union. Be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay. Ensure that environmental protection requirements are integrated into other policies and activities, in particular with a view to promoting sustainable development (the integration principle).  

Many challenges remain, including ensuring that the rules are implemented properly and that other EU policies become “greener” (for example the EU’s agricultural and fisheries policies).[4] But it is clear that the EU’s environmental policy has allowed Member States to achieve a level of environmental protection in most areas that no Member State, including the UK, could have achieved on its own.[5]

The EU has also played a leading role in the environmental area on the international stage

This article discusses how Brexit could jeopardise the progress made, both in the UK and beyond, and make it significantly more difficult to address the monumental environmental challenges that we will face in the next few decades.

In search of a green Brexit

In 2018, the UK Government promised a “green Brexit”, with the publication of a 25 Year Environment Plan. In the foreword, the former prime minister, Theresa May said that Brexit would be an opportunity to “strengthen and enhance the protections our countryside, rivers, coastline and wildlife habitats enjoy and develop new methods of agricultural and fisheries support which put the environment first.”

The former prime minister’s statement appears to suggest that EU membership is somehow preventing the UK from strengthening the protection of its environment. But EU environmental rules are mostly minimum standards (or “minimum harmonisation”). Such standards allow the Member States to adopt stricter rules, and therefore achieve a higher level of environmental protection if that is what they want. In other words, the UK does not have to leave the EU if it wants to strengthen environmental protection.
Theresa May defends her ‘green plan’, arguing that Brexit will be a chance to “put our environment first”, London Wetlands Centre, January 2018.
Image: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jan/11/may-defends-inspiring-green-plan-as-critics-call-for-immediate-action

The Government also announced an Environment Bill – designed to put the 25 Year Environment Plan on a statutory footing – and the establishment of a new environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (that would replace the EU functions). The Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future EU-UK relationship, which Theresa May negotiated with the EU27, suggested that the future relationship would contain “level playing field commitments” in areas such as environmental law. These commitments would prevent the UK from weakening its environmental standards to give its businesses a competitive advantage over EU businesses (who would have to comply with the higher EU standards).

These were encouraging signs even if the Government’s proposals for post-Brexit environmental rules were under-developed and remaining in the EU would by far be the better option. But in recent weeks, the UK Government has changed course dramatically by demanding that the EU allow it to diverge in key areas such as environment, consumer safety and social standards.[6] To make matters worse, the UK Government is threatening to take the UK out of the EU without a deal if the EU does not accommodate its demands.

No-deal Brexit would mean that, on Brexit date, the UK would become a “third country” to the remaining Member States without any transition period for citizens, businesses, authorities, and courts in the UK, the EU27 and beyond to adjust to the new reality. Environmental organisations in the UK (including RSPB, the National Trust, WWF, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace) are united in their view that a no-deal Brexit would significantly increase risks to the environment.

Greener UK – a group of 14 major environmental organizations, with a combined public membership of over 8 million – has warned that “Among the many concerns in a no-deal scenario, there would be an immediate governance gap, as the proposed Office for Environmental Protection would not be ready until 2021 at the earliest. An interim green governance commissioner would be appointed but would have very limited scope and it is not clear how they would take action if faced with serious breaches of environmental law. It is not clear what interim arrangements will be introduced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Co-operative mechanisms with the EU would be lost immediately (…) Pressure for deregulation could increase in a misguided attempt to secure short term economic gain.”[7]

…in recent weeks, the UK Government has changed course dramatically by demanding that the EU allow it to diverge in key areas such as environment, consumer safety and social standards

The UK Government’s demands to drop the level playing field commitments in the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration seem to be fuelled by a desire of the ruling party’s neo-liberal, Europhobic wing to establish a low tax, low regulatory regime in the UK and strike trade deals with countries that have similarly low regulatory standards.[8]

This is a worrying development on two levels. First, lowering environmental standards would roll back progress made to date to tackle environmental issues and would, in the medium to long term, result in environmental degradation and destruction with devastating effects for both the people of and nature in this country and for cross-border issues, beyond. Second, if the UK follows the path of deregulation and lowers its environmental standards this could put pressure on the EU to scale back its own ambitions in this area (to safeguard its economic competitiveness vis-à-vis the UK).[9]. At the international level, the UK’s demands would undermine efforts by the EU to use trade agreements as vehicles to export its environmental standards (and therefore try to create a global level playing field for example for climate change policies). The loss of the UK’s support for coordinated action to tackle global environmental challenges would further weaken the EU on the international stage by strengthening the hand of the opponents of such action, including the United States. In other words, because we live in an increasingly inter-related world and many of today’s environmental challenges are global in nature, the impact of Brexit on environmental protection would be felt far beyond the UK’s borders.

No majority for such an outcome

As is the case for many EU membership benefits, the majority of people in the UK are probably unaware of the progress that the UK has been able to make, as an EU Member State, in tackling environmental problems. If the UK remains in or stays close to the EU, we will continue to be able, together, to fight for, for example, cleaner air and water, less noise pollution, tighter control on the use of chemicals and better protection of our endangered animals, plants and their habitats.

…the impact of Brexit on environmental protection would be felt far beyond the UK’s borders

But a version of Brexit that would result in the UK weakening its environmental standards in the future and striking trade deals involving environmentally harmful concessions, would result in significant environmental degradation and destruction in the UK and beyond. Such a Brexit would be a tragedy, not least for future generations, given the nature and scale of the environmental challenges that we face in the decades ahead. It is hard to believe that there is a majority in the UK for this outcome. But even if there was, would this justify the high price that we all – majority and minority – as well as the environment – in the UK and beyond – would pay? Birds and bees know no borders, no matter how strongly some of us believe in resurrecting them to “take back control”.


[1] See European Commission, DG Environment Annual activity report 2018, available here: https://ec.europa.eu/info/publications/annual-activity-report-2018-environment_en and Eurostat, Energy, transport and environment indicators – 2018 edition, available here: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-statistical-books/-/KS-DK-18-001

[2] The rules are supported by common regulatory agencies and enforced by supra-national enforcement mechanisms.

[3] For a brief overview of how EU environment law works, visit: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/basics/benefits-law/eu-environment-law/index_en.htm

[4] For example, a recent report on compliance with habitats and species protections shows the UK’s poor performance in this area. See European Commission, DG Environment, Preliminary overview on national results, reporting period 2013-2018, available here: https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/biodiversity/state-of-nature-in-the-eu/article-17-national-summaries

[5] See also Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), The potential policy and environmental consequences for the UK of a departure from the European Union, March 2016.

[6] Prime minister’s Commons statement on Brexit negotiations: 3 October 2019. See also Financial Times, ‘Boris Johnson demanded the EU allow UK to diverge from standards’, 3 September 2019.

[7] Greeneruk.org, The environmental implications of different EU-UK relationship options, June 2019. See also Blog post by Martin Harper (global conservation director at RSPB), Why a ‘no deal’ Brexit increases risks to the environment, posted on 17 January 2019.

[8] See also Financial Times, Johnson seeks to woo US business with low-tax vision, 23 September 2019 and Speech Nigel Haigh, Brexit and its implications for EU environmental policy, April 2019, available here: https://ieep.eu/news/brexit-and-its-implications-for-eu-environmental-policy-speech-by-nigel-haigh

[9] See also Speech Nigel Haigh, Brexit and its implications for EU environmental policy, April 2019.

Written by
Ono Okeregha