Birds and other migratory wildlife do not respect borders, and the challenges facing nature are too big to be solved by any one country alone. Ever since tackling the global plumage trade in the nineteenth century, the RSPB has been committed to comprehensive international agreements for nature conservation.  

For example, here in the temperate latitudes of the northern hemisphere, around half of our bird species migrate - especially insect-eaters that can’t find enough food during winter. So that means we need to work with others across the length and breadth of migration flyways, if we’re to improve the life chances of some of our most loved species such as turtle dove (pictured below courtesy of David Tipling), nightingale and cuckoo.

As an archipelago of near-shore islands off the coast off the continental landmass of Europe, we have a particular shared interest with near neighbour countries, as the next links in the chain for those migratory journeys.  Biogeography requires us to work co-operatively across borders to provide high levels of protection to threatened species and habitats and to reduce the threats to terrestrial and marine environments - particularly those that are transboundary (e.g. climate change and other forms of pollution).

The UK’s future relationship with the European Union is therefore highly relevant to the future of our environment and nature conservation. This is why four UK nature conservation charities, including the RSPB, commissioned the Institute for European Environment Policy (IEEP) to examine the “Environmental policy risks and opportunities of different outcomes from the Brexit negotiations”.  It is, perhaps, the most significant assessment of these issues from a purely environmental perspective since the referendum in 2016.

The full report (available below) examines the full spectrum of short and long-term potential outcomes from the existing arrangements to ‘no deal’.  It includes direct impacts (e.g. supply chain disruption) and policy risks/opportunities (e.g. risk of weaker product standards in trade agreements). 

The report’s headline conclusion is that “a closer relationship with the EU is likely to reduce the risks to UK environmental policymaking and environmental outcomes”.  As I’ve previously described at length, ‘no deal’ has a wide range of potential negative environmental impacts.  The current withdrawal agreement, or a variant of it, would likely facilitate cooperation on the environment and pave the way towards a future relationship that includes reciprocal commitments on environmental standards and levels of protection for species and habitats.  The precise scope and strength of these commitments would likely vary depending on the closeness of the relationship.

If the relationship is more distant (e.g. a Canada style trade agreement), there could be more risks – particularly in relation to the potential environmental impacts of trade agreements with other countries (notably the US).  It would also mean an even greater dependence on the establishment of strong new environmental watchdogs across the UK, to replace the roles of the European Commission and European Court of Justice, in terms of oversight and compliance.  The current proposals for England in the draft Westminster Bill are welcome, but somewhat weak, and we are still awaiting equivalent legislative proposals in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

We know the public wants high environmental standards and all political parties have stated they should not be lowered. The Scottish and Welsh governments have both advocated in favour of a close relationship with the EU including alignment with EU environmental standards both now and in the future.  In Northern Ireland, there is an obvious need to work closely with the Republic of Ireland to maintain alignment of standards across the biogeographic unit that is the island of Ireland.  

Whatever the final arrangements that are determined by the political process at Westminster in the weeks ahead, we 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.

IEEP report Brexit outcomes February 2019.pdf
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