A no-deal Brexit would be disastrous for our environment
The prospect of the UK leaving the EU in March 2019 without a deal has changed from being a scenario you wouldn’t put money on a short while ago, to suddenly being a very real prospect.
Leading Brexiteers – not least environment secretary Michael Gove – are arguing that Britain needs to step up preparations to enable it to walk away without a deal in just 8 months’ time.
The Withdrawal Bill was supposed to cut and paste all aspects of European environmental legislation. But it missed some of the most important bits. The Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is nowhere near ready to leave without a deal. And we don’t yet have even the most basic enforcement mechanisms in place.
How will we protect the environment outside the EU?
Much has been said and written about just how enormously difficult and disruptive a cliff-edge no-deal will be for business and the economy. Businesses like Airbus, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover have talked about leaving the country. Leaked government papers are warning that the UK would suffer shortages of food, fuels and medicines within a fortnight. Ponder that: food shortages.
The Withdrawal Bill was supposed to cut and paste all aspects of European environmental legislation. But it missed some of the most important bits.
Much less has been said about what might happen to our environment and health in a no-deal scenario. This is something that should be of grave concern to all, since around 80% of our environmental laws have been developed in an EU context.
Let’s start in the kitchen cabinet. The EU’s REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and restriction of Chemicals) Directive is a system for ensuring chemicals in the home are safe for human health and the environment. It is the most advanced system of its kind in the world. It took 10 years to put in place and covers 21,000 chemicals.
There's every reason to believe the UK could become a convenient dumping ground for toxic products
Leaving the EU without a deal means leaving REACH. Without this regulation and enforcement, there is nothing to stop companies selling substances in the UK that are banned by the EU. And there's every reason to believe the UK could become a convenient dumping ground for toxic products.
To prevent this the UK would need to set up its own regulatory system for chemicals. It would also need a new enforcement body to copy the functions of the European Chemicals Agency. And it would need to get these up and running between now and March 2019.
Spoiler: that won’t happen.
Still in the kitchen, what about food? Without a deal, the UK will be under pressure to import food from countries with much lower health, safety, welfare and production standards.
Chlorine-washed chicken from the US has dominated headlines and rightly horrified us. But there are thousands of standards regulating food being imported to the EU – all backed up by the European Food Standards Agency.
Are we going to keep them? Or in our desperation to stop supermarket shelves from going empty next year, will we accept lower standards? If so, British farmers will argue that they need to lower their own standards to compete.
We’ve barely even started a public or political discussion about what rules or bodies we might want to replace the EU system that regulates our food imports, let alone put them in place. And that’s before we consider the physical infrastructure and trained border guards needed at every UK port and border crossing, including checks on live animals for diseases and parasites.
When the economy suffers and the reality of a no-deal Brexit starts to take horrifying shape, it will come as no surprise when the same politicians who argued for Brexit start arguing for further deregulation to get the economy moving.
At that point any pretence of Brexit Britain staying a green and pleasant land will disappear in a puff of toxic smoke.
No-deal Brexit and nature
Escaping scrutiny, or even discussion so far, is the detail about what will happen to our most precious wildlife sites and species currently protected under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives.
Michael Gove promised to establish a world-leading environmental watchdog. He said this would “hold the powerful to account” and “embed” protections for land, water, air and wildlife into policy-making as the UK leaves the EU.
But his department only launched a consultation on these proposals a few weeks ago. Legislation would be required to establish the legal mandate for such an agency. There is no way such legislation will even have been tabled before March 2019, let alone be operational.
We're not ready
I could go on. On really important issues related to climate change and energy, on environmental product standards, on transboundary environmental cooperation, on governance, invasive species, fisheries and countless other areas, DEFRA - Michael Gove’s own department – is currently a very long way away from being ready to walk away without a deal. That is, if he is going to uphold his promise to “maintain and enhance environmental protections” as we leave.
Can it be sorted in the next 8 months? I don’t think so. The government hasn’t so much dropped the ball as tossed it over the fence into a gully.
Craig Bennett is Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth. A version of this article first appeared on HuffPo.