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  • International Workplace
  • 21 March 2018
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Will Brexit mean a “watering down” of environmental legislation?

Prime Minister Theresa May has said Britain will seek to uphold environmental standards after Brexit and manage its fishing stocks in a sustainable way.

While May acknowledged that maintaining relevant standards and customs arrangements would constrain the country’s ability to lower standards, she said in practice Britain would not want to do that anyway.

This follows comments by Boris Johnson, who has also given the strongest hint yet that Brexit might mean a “watering down” of environmental rules. Whilst he never goes into detail about much of anything Johnson was speaking at the time to a business audience. He was no doubt acutely aware of the need to throw a little something to the lions. So, he posited the possible list of things we could do in a post-Brexit future: “fish our own fish, ban the traffic in live animals, end payments to some of the richest landowners in Britain, while supporting the rural economy…cut VAT on domestic fuel and other products…simplify planning, speed up public procurement…be faster in building the homes that young people need".

Johnson’s partner in the Leave campaign and rival for the leadership, Michael Gove, is the incumbent Environment Secretary. And he appears to be looking in a very different direction. He has been a revelation at DEFRA by the simple expedient of not getting overly bogged down in Brexit. Instead, he’s doing what can be done with the tools that are to hand. So far, he has banned products with microbeads, pesticides that harm bees and sales of ivory products; instigated CCTV cameras in slaughterhouses, the reintroduction of beavers, and promised tougher penalties for cruelty towards animals. Plus, he is actually the instigator of the only thing on Boris Johnson’s list that is actually underway: not rewarding landowners just for ownership, but rather for how they manage, use and preserve land, its quality and sustainability.

Conservatives’ relationship with the countryside is, first and foremost, as a friend to the landed gentry and “their” right to do as they please on “their” land. Oversight of, interference with, or regulation regarding people’s property is anathemic to conservatism. But two concepts chime strongly in the heartland: “conservation”, by which we mean the preservation of things in their original, natural, healthful state. And “stewardship”, by which responsible ownership should be rewarded. And it is on these basic pillars that Gove has been building his palace.

If Gove can be lured into the arena at all, it may be when he is faced with an issue that is divisive, rather than inclusive: wind farms, fuel pricing, the henhouse full of chlorinated chickens dreamed of by the fantasist Mr Fox, or worst of all, fracking - an issue notably absent from the 25-year plan unveiled by Theresa May (herself a former shadow Environment Secretary). The 25-year length of the plan isn’t so much admirable long-term strategising so much as a last-minute calculation on how long it might take to eliminate non-recyclable plastic packaging from the UK supply chain. One time the many heads of the beast were facing in the same direction it seems was when David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 was on the BBC. The Prime Minister’s announcement of a “war on plastic” necessitates a new suite of packaging solutions for the future – non-persistent, medium duration biodegradables and robust but flexible reusable materials, of non-fossil fuel origin. Such a massive change in consumption requires joined-up thinking, ambition, lots of funding and a depth of intellectual collaboration. That probably means the EU will have to crack it.

We will be left to belatedly cooperate with EU export restrictions brought about in some future EU Packaging Directive we have had no involvement in shaping. That’s where Johnson is quite correct in saying it’s “all about who decides”. We have had a referendum and we have decided we prefer to have no say in who decides the most important things affecting our environment, namely how we might make sustainable use of it to produce goods to trade that key markets might want to buy. Gove has realised this and is already working with the scraps; those soft, pliable areas of policy that Brussels can’t reach or have no interest in. David Davis in his most recent speech reinforced the message that at the top level Brexit “will not change the kind of country Britain is”. So, can we say for certain that future regulations will stay broadly aligned with EU rules, as Davis tried to assure us? It’s really hard to say anything with certainty until all the heads of the beast are lined up on the same target.

The narrative of the Leave Campaign has been, from the outset, that EU membership is restrictive: shackling innovation, impinging upon freedom. The environment is symbolic of this narrative, largely because of the fact that pollution does not recognise national borders. Acid rain was discovered in 1852. Sweden were demanding satisfaction from “the dirty old man of Europe” for all the trees that British factories’ sulphur dioxide output was killing. This is not a new thing. The EU as a project for dampening nationalism and sponsoring cooperation and harmonisation has no better exemplar than its environmental agenda; the way in which member states must cooperate to share and protect mobile resources like fish and migratory birds, build networks to entrench energy security and diversity, or create regulatory frameworks able to prevent cross border air and water pollution. The real concern of the EU, the prevention of global conflict, could be in jeopardy if there is loose talk about not being bound any longer by strictures that explicitly forbid a nation state from poisoning its neighbour. There is a distinct lack of trust in those minorities that are calling for such freedoms. However, it may be in the interests of global sustainability that the institutions of the world reform. The desire expressed by the Leave campaign in the UK, and the PiS in Poland, for a splintering of the EU and forging of new partnerships outside of it has, in part, something to do with a rise in resource nationalism. Just one example would be the Chinese monopoly of rare earth minerals that are essential to electronics manufacture.

We just don’t know in the future how the ownership of resources we didn’t know we needed yesterday might hamper our growth tomorrow. Nervousness about the future availability of resources suggests the need for agility, flexibility and fast reactions (hence the attraction of blockchain ledgered global transactions that are impervious to alteration). In the future, if we are to manage the dwindling resources of our planet, it may be more important to know who has bought what, and crucially how much of something is still left, with scintillating accuracy and reliability (in order to forge a new price and an agreement with a new trading partner), than it is to preserve the level playing field and line abreast march of progress that has made the EU so powerfully prosperous and progressive up to now. In such an arena, a great many hydra could be slain.