After 40 years of shared environmental policy, disentangling the UK’s acquis will be difficult – though some will want to try. Charlotte Burns (University of Sheffield) says a number of obstacles stand in their way: devolution, pressure from the public and NGOs and a lack of capacity in the civil service.
The environment, which was largely ignored during the referendum campaign, will be hugely affected by Brexit. Indeed the National Audit Office (NAO) has suggested that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will be the government department second most affected by Brexit.
Defra has had to bring forward three new bills on agriculture, fisheries and environment, and 93 statutory instruments to copy over EU regulations onto the UK statute book. This activity highlights how much UK environmental policy has been shaped by the EU.
As the Brexit process unfolds, the question occupying academics and practitioners alike is whether Brexit heralds an era of de-Europeanisation – and what that might mean for EU and UK environmental policy.
De-Europeanising UK environmental policy?
A key fear that emerged during the referendum campaign and its immediate aftermath was that the positive changes to UK environmental policy driven by the EU would be dismantled post-Brexit, leading to a weakening of UK environmental policy standards and protections. Yet the evidence suggests that attempts to ‘de-Europeanise’ UK policy will be challenging, even after Brexit. In a seminal study, Paul Copeland suggests that successful de-Europeanisation is underpinned by two key conditions. First, the policy area should be highly centralised with few domestic veto players; second, it should have limited wider public salience or political support.
Neither of these conditions applies in the case of environmental policy. The environment is largely devolved – and indeed has become a site of constitutional dispute between the UK and devolved governments as the Brexit process has rolled out. The UK government is busy pushing ahead with new environmental, agricultural and fisheries policies for England and has suggested it is open to the idea of co-designing legislative frameworks with the devolved nations.
However, by pushing ahead with English policies Defra raises doubts that it is genuinely interested in co-design. The timelines for coordinating policy positions are also not well-aligned. For example, the UK government has published a draft bill containing plans for a new Office for Environmental Protection for England to address the potential environmental governance gap that can emerge post-Brexit, but Scotland has only just started a public consultation on the issue. In a further indication of different approaches, the Scottish government has indicated its preference for maintaining environmental regulatory alignment with the EU, but no such commitment has emerged from the UK government.
Moreover, Northern Ireland, an environmental laggard within the UK, does not currently have a government and therefore no voice in ongoing policy debates. These constitutional issues suggest that it is unlikely that the EU’s environmental acquis can or indeed will be unpicked in a uniform fashion across the UK, because the devolved governments can act as veto-players.
In addition, despite its low profile during the referendum campaign, the environment has enjoyed a relatively high public profile since – largely thanks to the campaigning activities of environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) via the Greener UK coalition. The appointment of a high profile minister in Michael Gove, and the PM’s endorsement of his vision to maintain and enhance environmental standards set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan, suggest that any high profile policy dismantling is unlikely.
A further element of the Brexit process has not yet been explicitly considered in the de-Europeanisation literature: the issue of capacity. It has become patently clear that the UK civil service is struggling to cope with the demands that Brexit has imposed, particularly after an era of cuts. Defra saw its staff numbers cut by two thirds between 2005 and 2016. There has been a recent and rapid recruitment drive so that personnel are back to 2010 levels, but the scale of the challenges faced and the speed at which work has to be carried out suggests further investment in capacity is required, particularly at the subnational level.
This lack of capacity means that the ability to unpick the domestic manifestation of the EU’s environmental acquis will be limited – and significant national policy innovation is also unlikely. The UK has worked with other states in the EU to develop policy for the last 40 years and now finds itself having to act alone. It will take time, energy, expertise and resources to replace that policy-making function.
Overall, then, a Brexit bonanza – in which EU environmental policy is actively rolled back – is probably unlikely, except perhaps for those policies that are the bête verte of the Conservative right – namely the habitats and birds directives. Although even here, as nature protection and conservation tend to be beloved of Conservative voters, any government will need to tread carefully if it wants to weaken nature protection laws.
In general, stasis and limited policy innovation are key risks over the medium to long term. The politics of the environment will be central to maintaining pressure to prevent this outcome. The UK’s vibrant ENGO sector and deep-seated public support for protecting the environment will be crucial in determining the strength of post-Brexit environmental governance arrangements. Greener UK has its work cut out, but is currently doing an excellent job of holding the Secretary of State for the Environment’s feet to the fire.
What are the implications for the future of EU environmental policy? In the absence of the UK, we may see less EU-level emphasis upon ‘regulatory burdens’ and the red tape agenda. We may also see other Eurosceptic and environmentally-sceptic voices emerging to replace the UK, crucially in the area of climate change where the UK generally played an important role.
Overall, our analysis suggests that the EU’s impact upon its member states is such that disentangling and unpicking effects of membership is challenging, especially in a devolved polity. This is why, rather than heralding large-scale de-Europeanisation, Brexit may actually demonstrate the resilience of Europeanisation in the face of extraordinary challenges. While the UK is leaving the EU, there will still be extensive policy residue that even the most committed Brexiteers will find challenging to remove. However, an important caveat is that this analysis is predicated on the assumption that the UK government will reach a deal with the EU. Under a no deal Brexit the pressures to deregulate will inevitably increase, and all bets are off.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the LSE, nor the Brexit blog.