The Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged that the UK will leave the European Union on 31 October 2019 ‘come what may’, whilst many parliamentarians continue to seek to wrestle back control of Brexit from the UK Government.

Meanwhile, evidence that a ‘no deal’ or ‘hard Brexit’ would be damaging for the UK’s natural environment continues to mount. 

I write this acutely aware that it is unwise to react to every rumour and counter rumour that emerges through the media especially as these are live negotiations and, if media reports this week are true, close to collapse.  But the tone and consistency messages that seem to be emerging do give cause for alarm.

Ben Andrew's picture of a swift - a bird that knows no borders (rspb-images.com)

In January, I warned that a ‘no deal’ Brexit increases risks to the environment because:

  • future environmental standards and legislation would be at risk; 
  • there would be a significant gap in the enforcement of environmental law across the UK;
  • we would be without a framework for environmental co-operation with our near neighbours (thereby reducing our ability to work together on transboundary environmental issues which would be particularly problematic on the island of Ireland);
  • there would be further pressure to weaken domestic environmental standards due to changes in the UK’s trade arrangements (especially for the farming and land use sectors).

As the 31 October deadline gets closer, the evidence to substantiate these concerns appears to be growing.  Regarding the potential influence of new trade agreements on our environmental standards, there have been two media reports in recent days which have re-ignited our concerns. 

The first relates to changes the UK Government is now seeking to the Brexit deal negotiated by Theresa May.  The original Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration (on the future EU-UK relationship) included reciprocal commitments by the EU and UK, called the ‘Level Playing Field’, to maintain and enforce a wide range of environmental standards.  However, a Cabinet source reported by the Sun stated that: “The level-playing-field promise has to go, and Boris is very clear about this. It would seriously restrict our ability to deregulate and to do trade deals with other countries”.  The UK Government’s recent proposals for the treatment of Northern Ireland in any new Brexit deal also suggests “no need for the extensive level playing field arrangements envisaged in the previous Protocol”.  The apparent intention of the UK Government to ditch commitments to maintain environmental standards in any agreement with EU is of serious concern and will also reduce the potential for the UK to work closely with its neighbours on a wide range of environmental challenges.

Secondly, the Financial Times reports on a leaked document written by Defra civil servants which suggests the USA is likely to press the UK to relax measures to protect humans, animals and plants from disease, pests and contaminants ahead of finalising a trade deal. For example, it may seek to relax rules on the levels of pesticide residue to allow more imports of US agricultural goods.  The document states that “Defra will come under significant pressure from DIT {Department for International Trade} to accommodate the USA’s asks”.  This increases our concerns that environmental standards across the UK, although a devolved policy area, could be a bargaining chip in trade negotiations with the USA.

Since January, there has been some progress on proposals to replace the vital role of the European Commission in reviewing compliance with environmental law.  Whilst not always ideal, due to the time required to progress complaints, the Commission has provided an accessible means of recourse when the laws protecting wildlife have been flouted (such as, we believe, the ongoing burning of peatlands), especially as it can refer matters to the European Court of Justice.  At present, no country in the UK has yet legislated to establish new independent environmental watchdogs to review and enforce environmental law.  We hope that a Westminster Environment Bill will be at the heart of the UK Government’s Queen’s Speech next week but it will be some time before it becomes law. It is also becoming increasingly urgent for the devolved administrations to set out their interim and long-term plans for addressing the governance gap as we approach the 31st October deadline.

In February, I wrote that the RSPB “will continue to make the case for close collaboration with the EU on the environment for the benefit of species and habitats everywhere - particularly those that know no borders”.  Let’s hope that the next few weeks and months bring us closer, rather than further away, to that outcome.

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