Brexit: A step forwards or backwards for a Greener Europe?

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

EU environmental regulations have cleaned up the UK's coastline. [Robert Pittman/Flickr]

Environmental action is one of the triumphs of the EU. The UK’s contribution and ambition in this area is likely to be sorely missed, write Viviane Gravey, Andrew Jordan and Charlotte Burns.

Dr 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 UK has unexpectedly voted to exit the European Union. The Brexit process will be long, tortuous and acrimonious because it will consist of not just one but three sets of negotiations, which may or may not interlock: one to exit the EU, a second to establish new EU-UK relations and a third to secure new trading relations between the UK and the rest of the world.

Much has already been written on Brexit, most of it for a domestic UK audience. It has centred on some common themes: the political personalities, the risk of a second Scottish referendum, the burdens that will fall on a UK civil service still reeling from round after round of austerity cuts.

What has tended to get less attention is how a vote to Leave might impact on the rest of the EU. Now that Brexit will happen in some form and at some time, it is important to turn the telescope round and examine Brexit from the EU’s perspective.

This vote, more so than any previous referendums – even the Danish No to Maastricht in 1992 and the Dutch and French refusals of the Constitution in 2005 – raises fundamental questions. Will Brexit mark the start of a European renaissance, the end of Europe or a new phase of kicking the can down the road?

The on-going ‘high’ politics discussions in European capitals will have ripple effects on ‘low’ EU policies. In the areas in which the UK had negotiated an opt-out the UK exit may not be directly felt, but in areas such as agriculture, fisheries, energy and the environment – in which the UK was fully ‘in’ – the impact of a British exit could decisively tip the balance of power in Europe.

This may or may not be good for the environment, as British levels of ambition to work with its European partners differed from one sub-area to the next. For example, opponents of Juncker’s Better Regulation drive against key environmental legislation may well be relieved. The obsession with cutting EU red tape has long been seen as a “British disease”. The Brexit vote, together with the leaked evaluation of the fitness check on the nature directives, may further weaken the Commission’s appetite for cutting regulatory burdens.  After all, cutting red tape was a central plank of Cameron’s New Settlement.

Yet on two fronts, climate change and agriculture, the British contribution to a greener Europe is likely to be sorely missed. On climate change, the UK has been a driver of ambitious climate action at EU level. A Brexit raises doubts not only on the future of UK climate policy but also on the EU’s post-Paris plans. Internationally, the EU and the UK are both likely to emerge diminished from the divorce process. The vote comes at a particularly bad time, as not only is the EU’s ratification of the Paris agreement still underway, but the two central pillars of its climate policy are simultaneously being revised: the Emission Trading System (with a UK MEP as rapporteur, who has now resigned) and the Effort Sharing decision, for which a proposal was expected to be published in July.  Ordinarily, the Commission would have looked to the UK to maintain the ambition of both.

Looking further ahead, a Brexit may alter the prospects for greening the Common Agricultural Policy. The UK has long been a supporter of CAP reform, arguing that subsidies should be limited to delivering public goods such as environmental protection. The current CAP runs until 2020, which means reforms are likely to start next year at the very latest, i.e. just as the UK is expected to trigger Article 50. As with climate action, the loss of a green leader may tip the balance of power away from environmental ambition at a critical point in time.

These three examples are insightful because they shed light on what the EU is set to lose from a Brexit: UK engagement and leadership (or lack there-of), UK budget contributions and political support from UK civil society groups. The UK’s environment and development NGOs have been profoundly influential both on their own and through EU-level networks; post Brexit they will have their work cut out to limit policy dismantling in the UK. Other EU actors will have to step up to the plate to fill in the leadership vacuum.

Whether that will happen or not remains unclear. As the EU tries to recover from the shock of Brexit, EU politicians may decide not to repeat the error of the Remain camp in Britain and focus solely on migration, the economy and security, as hinted at by the common declaration of the 6 founding member states on Saturday. The EU’s action on climate and the environment is immensely popular with its citizens. It deserves to be at the very heart of the relaunch of the European project.

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