By Alice Wilkinson – PHA Media Public Affairs Intern
The UK’s ongoing negotiations regarding our departure from the European Union have occupied headlines since the referendum result last year. However, the ensuing debate over what this will mean for the country has been noticeably focused on economic issues, ignoring the potentially disastrous result Brexit could have on the environment. Unknown to most, EU environmental legislation has positively affected the UK; for example, a distinctly unglamorous topic but most of the UK’s waste regulation, including how batteries or hazardous waste is properly disposed of to minimise harm to the environment and our health comes from the EU. Brexit must not provide an opportunity for the government to abandon environmental obligations that were previously enforced by the EU.
— Unearthed (@UE) September 23, 2017
The UK’s departure from the EU will bring about an end to the Europe Commission and the direct jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union. The UK would then be lacking an independent body to hold the UK government to account on environmental issues. The precedent is not encouraging – those who have tried to take a stand against the illegal pollution levels in this country (London breached its annual air pollution limit five days into 2017), have been fought in court by the government more than once. The UK government was also criticised by the UN special rapporteur who concluded “that despite repeated judicial instruction, the UK government continues to flout its duty to ensure adequate air quality and protect the rights to life and health of its citizens. It has violated its obligations.” The government’s failure to act on such a severe warning does not instil confidence on their ability to protect the environment after Brexit. It may be preferable to create an independent, well-resourced body to take on the investigatory role currently performed by the European Commission.
It is not just emissions that we need to be worried about. Currently the EU has very strong regulations on the use of pesticides. Unlike the US, which has a “use everything until we discover the disastrous consequences on the environment and human health” policy, the EU does not use any pesticide until it is completely understood. For this reason, Europe has avoided any scandals on the scale of the US when thousands of people fell ill after the 25-year use of pesticide aldicarb. The EU voted to ban the use of pesticides linked the declining bee population; the disappearance of bees would be disastrous – in the UK alone, about 70 crops are dependent on visits from bees. Hopefully, on leaving the EU, the UK would continue to ban the use of such pesticides but the precedent is again unnerving as the government has previously voted against banning insecticides believed to cause serious harm to bee health. Many supporters of Brexit, particularly the strong lobby of the National Farmers Union (NFU), are looking to Brexit as an opportunity to water down existing protections from the EU, including easing curbs on pesticides and fertilisers. Theresa May has gained the support of the NFU by saying “leaving the EU does give us a new opportunity for UK agriculture. We will be able to design policies for our agricultural industry and our food and farming industry that actually suit the United Kingdom”.
Chlorinated chicken has made headlines recently, and despite Michael Gove’s claims that a US trade deal would not mean we would be seeing the chemical dunked meat on our supermarket shelves, it has brought the issue of food regulation into the fore. Currently, the EU bans the use of antibiotics, a move hailed by animal rights activists who see their use as enabling the standards of animal welfare to decrease because disease is no longer such a concern. In the US, chickens are routinely fed antibiotics throughout their lives. Brexit could mean that the UK may allow imports of meat and food from countries with much lower animal welfare standards or adopting those standards ourselves. The House of Lords subcommittee on EU Energy and Environment observed that “The government’s wish for the UK to become a global leader in free trade is not necessarily compatible with its desire to maintain high animal welfare standards”. Alternatively, if we were to keep trading with the EU we would need to adhere to their food regulation standards which would probably leave many people wondering what the point of Brexit was. Could the UK perhaps expect a bespoke agreement if our businesses don’t adhere to EU rules?
Decisions that put the environment, and often human health, over business interests may initially be unpopular, which makes the environment a difficult issue for politicians to tackle as it requires long term strategic thinking. The EU was well placed to provide not only this foresight, but was able to act as a check on the UK government, holding them to account. As the EU Withdrawal Bill is enacted, converting existing EU regulation into UK law, we need to ensure proper parliamentary scrutiny to prevent this becoming an opportunity for the government to abandon the environment in the name of shedding EU regulation and bureaucracy. Just as some companies look abroad for cheap manufacturing of clothes in unregulated and hazardous sweatshops, we must not allow post-Brexit Britain to be attract businesses solely because of low environmental regulation. The government needs to look beyond short-term politics and put the wellbeing of the country first.
This week, lobby groups from Northern Ireland and the Republic visited Brussels to voice concern over the implications of an environmental hard border. Hundreds of pieces of EU legislation protect the environment in Ireland, and campaigners are fighting to prevent Brexit from undermining common standards either side of the border. The environment is a trans-national issue where borders are of no real importance and to make progress on these issues we need to move away from short term politics and focus on the wider picture.
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