What would Brexit mean for the environment?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

The UK's beaches have become much cleaner since it joined the EU. [Masa Sakano/Flickr]

With only a month to go before the UK referendum, a narrow range of issues has dominated the debate, leaving many others, including working conditions, international development and the environment firmly in the shadows, write Viviane Gravey, Andrew Jordan and Charlotte Burns.

Viviane Gravey and Professor Andrew Jordan (University of East Anglia) and Dr Charlotte Burns (University of York) co-led an independent ESRC-funded expert review of the impact of EU membership on the UK environment. 

The environment has been one of the most neglected of all the referendum campaign’s orphan issues. But after forty years of membership, the environment is an area which has been profoundly affected by the EU.

As undecided voters weigh the options and environmentally concerned citizens elsewhere in the EU reflect on what could change after 23 June, what does the available evidence tell us about the impacts of EU membership and, crucially, what might change – not just in the UK but right across the EU?

We led a team of 14 international academic experts, who together produced an impartial and authoritative analysis of the impact of membership and, crucially, some future scenarios for Brexit and Remain.  After reviewing over 700 academic publications, the review revealed that the net EU environmental effects of membership have been overwhelmingly positive. These findings are broadly in line with similar analyses produced by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee and by the Institute for European Environmental Policy.

Judging what might happen after 23 June is a good deal harder, particularly if the vote is to leave the EU. Much depends on what terms of exit are eventually negotiated (a process which the UK government claims could take up to a decade to decide).  Under a Norwegian scenario (membership of the European Economic Area) the UK would have to apply most EU legislation and would continue to contribute to the budget. The level of uncertainty associated with this scenario is therefore relatively high.

But prominent Leave campaigners have argued against this option, preferring instead to opt for a ‘Free Trade’ model from outside the single Market. This scenario would mean most EU policies would cease to apply in the UK.  The UK government would have to decide how and indeed whether to plug the resulting regulatory gaps, and national legislation transposing EU directives could be scrapped, weakened or possibly strengthened. These decisions may be made by national politicians after the next general election. The level of uncertainty associated with this scenario is therefore very high.

From a British perspective, the first Brexit scenario means designing new national agriculture and fisheries policies as well as new policies on specific areas of environmental protection – bathing waters, birds and habitats – which existing EEA states are not bound to apply. The second Brexit scenario offers the possibility to redesign – be it to weaken or strengthen – most environmental legislation. Long-standing UK concerns about not ‘gold-plating’ EU standards suggest that British MPs and businesses are unlikely to adopt higher UK standards outside the EU. The green movement’s fears of wholesale dismantling in this scenario have not been allayed by the Leave campaign’s marked reluctance for discussing environmental matters and the number of known climate sceptics in its ranks.

From a wider EU perspective, Brexit can be expected to have similarly wide-ranging impacts across three environmentally relevant issues: climate change, agricultural reform and fisheries. Since the adoption of its 2008 Climate Change Act, the UK has been pushing for more ambitious EU action in Europe and internationally. A Brexit would reduce the bargaining power of the pro-climate coalition within the Council.

On agriculture and fisheries, British governments (but also civil society) have been strong advocates of a greener Common Agricultural Policy and more sustainable fisheries. The UK government would have virtually no leverage over these policies post-Brexit, even though under a Norwegian option it would continue to fund the CAP through its budget contribution. While the reduced EU budget under a ‘Free Trade’ option would increase pressure for a smaller CAP budget, it is questionable how green it would be in the absence of such a key advocate of greening.

Beyond these three issues, the picture is even more complicated to discern, as the UK is not an environmental leader across the board. The current drive for Better Regulation is a good case in point: UK governments have pushed for cuts in EU red tape, thus Votewatch argues that Brexit would weaken the drive to reduce regulatory burdens. Paradoxically, this would strengthen environmental NGOs fighting to hold back current Better Regulation practices.

Parts of the UK environmental movement are now actively campaigning for ‘Remain’ – Friends of the Earth, Green Alliance, and the new group Environmentalists for Europe – while other groups have chosen to remain neutral. While NGOs may be divided in how to best participate in the referendum campaign, one thing is sure: Brexit will put increased pressure on environmental policies in both the UK and the EU.