After a deeply divisive campaign, UK voters have opted by a small majority to leave the European Union. Environmentalists are accustomed to most policy being made jointly with the EU. The shock result flips that assumption completely on its head. The referendum process may be over, but the hard political debate over policy starts now.
So what do we know and what remains clouded in uncertainty? We certainly know that most of the environmental movement sided strongly with Remain, believing that EU membership has been overwhelmingly positive for the UK’s environment. We know that the environmental movement campaigned hard for Remain, although some groups spoke out more loudly than others. And perhaps most importantly of all, we now know that the environmental movement aligned with the losing side. These are uncomfortable facts, which should provoke a good deal of soul searching in the sector.
We also know that David Cameron will resign by October, after which his replacement will invoke Article 50 so the UK can formally exit the EU. This article provides for a two year period during which the other 27 states will negotiate an exit agreement amongst themselves, and then and only then, present it to the UK. During the negotiations, all existing EU policy will remain in place. So in the short term at least, there will be a modicum of policy certainty.
But beyond these ‘known knowns’, our analysis, informed by a detailed review of the evidence, suggests that the medium to long-term future of UK policy is deeply uncertain. Quite aside from the economic uncertainty, there will be, as a well respected House of Lords Committee has pointed out, significant legal uncertainty. It could make “no firm prediction” on when the process of withdrawal would start and how long it would take. After a campaign in which the environment barely featured at all, it is very unlikely that environmental issues will be uppermost in the mind of whoever is selected to lead the UK delegation.
There will also be a great deal of policy uncertainty to contend with. During the campaign, Vote Leave failed to explain what Brexit would look like. Assuming for a moment that it can agree (in practice, this may prove far harder than imagined), there are essentially two main options: to leave the EU but stay in the single market as a European Economic Area member (the ‘Norwegian option’); or leave it entirely and pursue a free trade relationship (a ‘free trade option’).
Under the far less disruptive Norwegian option, environment policy is likely to look much as it does today in the short term. Some environmentalists may even celebrate the demise of the Common Fisheries and Agriculture Policies. But some key EU rules will not apply, principally the directives on habitats and birds. Key figures in the Brexit camp have made no secret of their wish to roll back protection in these areas. And the UK will also find it much harder to shape new EU policies. At present, big proposals actively under discussion include those on greenhouse gas effort sharing and the circular economy. In effect, the UK will become a policy taker, with all the associated uncertainties.
Under the free trade option, the UK will be outside the single market and hence no longer bound to accept the free movement of people. But the UK will probably still have to maintain a host of EU product related standards. Which rules may or may not apply in the environmental sphere is precisely the kind of fine detail that could snarl up exit negotiations. During the campaign, Vote Leave did little to calm fears that environmental standards will be sacrificed to achieve a competitive advantage.
Under this option, the UK will regain its right to negotiate in multilateral environmental negotiations, a totemic issue for many Brexiteers. But experts warn that Brexit will seriously weaken the EU’s ability to lead international negotiations, while casting doubt on any increase to UK influence. In a national referendum it is perfectly natural for voters to focus on national issues, but climate change provides a good example of how Brexit could trigger wider policy uncertainties, for EU and, eventually, international policy.
The next few weeks and months could be dominated by leadership battles within both main parties, the eventual outcome of which will shape the UK’s preferred exit option. If it is consulted, the environmental sector would opt for the Norwegian option. The problem is that this hinges on the UK accepting some free movement of people. This may be a deal breaker for Leave given how central immigration was to its success and its deep, ideological preference for free trade.
But the biggest and most existential source of uncertainty is the fact that 52 per cent of voters voted to leave the EU, but not for a particular Brexit option. Until that is sorted out, the future of UK environment policy will be more uncertain than it has been at any time in the last thirty years or so. Paradoxically, voters may only really appreciate what the EU did for the environment as the UK slides towards the exit.