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Viviane Gravey

Andy Jordan

July 4th, 2023

Why “taking back control” of environmental policy is easier said than done

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Viviane Gravey

Andy Jordan

July 4th, 2023

Why “taking back control” of environmental policy is easier said than done

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Years on from Brexit, the scale of the task of de-Europeanising Britain’s environmental policy has now become apparent. Viviane Gravey and Andy Jordan discuss why diverging from EU influence in this area presents such a challenge, particularly in the context of different approaches within the UK itself.

This article is part of our series on policymaking in the UK after Brexit. For more analysis, visit the focus page

Brexit was sold partly on the alluring prospect of regaining control – over borders and the production of laws. In a new article, we explored how far this promise has been delivered on in a politically salient policy area in which the meaning of control has tended to be rather elusive: the environment.

Some things are quite clear about how environmental issues should be “controlled”: some forms of pollution and invasive species travel easily across borders. But not all environmental issues have a cross-border dimension (noise pollution, for example, or the protection of certain habitats). Consequently, countries prefer to cooperate (ie, share control) on some issues, but not others (ie, retain control).

Over the course of the last 50 years, EU environmental policy has been significantly shaped by these two impulses, resulting in some aspects of national policy being deeply Europeanised but not others. And even within individual countries, the same pattern of interaction has played out. When the UK was an EU member, for example, some aspects of policy control were further devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while others were not.

De-Europeanisation vs. dis-alignment

The constant negotiation and reordering of policy control makes the environment a particularly interesting case in which to investigate the scope for, and the reality of, both UK-EU and intra-UK regulatory divergence post Brexit.

Since 2016, control over environmental protection has certainly been centre stage in UK-EU negotiations (witness the debates about level playing fields and non-regression) but also domestically within the UK (from the promise of a “Green Brexit“, to the recent UK government decision to block the Scottish deposit scheme for glass bottles).

Back in 2019, Burns et al. argued that Brexit would lead the UK to disengage (but not de-Europeanise) from EU action. Simply put, de-Europeanisation refers to the rolling back of EU influence and resulting impact on UK public policy.

In our article, we look at de-Europeanisation across all four of the UK administrations and across three analytical dimensions: policy, politics and polity. Together with Copeland, we distinguish between de-Europeanisation (an active decision to sever links and move away from EU ways of doing) and dis-alignment (a more passive drift away from EU norms). And building on Wolff and Piquet, we contend that a de-Europeanisation process could backfire, and lead to closer, not looser links with the EU (either continued or re-engagement).

Out of sync

So what has been the UK’s experience of Brexit with regards to environmental protection? Is the UK, as a whole, continuing to disengage rather than de-Europeanise? And what does the UK’s unfolding experience teach us about de-Europeanisation more generally?

The referendum debate was conducted on the basis of a rather binary conception of control: unless voters voted to take back control it would be firmly retained by the EU. Our paper reveals a rather more complex picture of change both before and after 2016. Not only have different parts of the UK moved in different directions, but developments in polity, politics and policy have not been in sync either.

Not only have different parts of the UK moved in different directions, but developments in polity, politics and policy have not been in sync either.

If we start with the politics dimension, we find that divergence between the four parts of the UK has been profound with a variety of preferred outcomes evident. De-Europeanisation is certainly occurring in England; the Conservatives may still be discussing amongst themselves why there should be divergence from the EU (a “Green Brexit” or a “Singapore-on-Thames” strategy?) but are certainly in agreement on the need to do environmental politics differently.

By contrast, we find continued engagement in Northern Ireland (albeit conflictual because of the need to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol), and hopes for re-engagement in Scotland and, to a certain extent, Wales.

Conversely, when it comes to polity a picture of greater homogeneity emerges. Every part of the UK has profoundly changed, indeed de-Europeanised, its environmental polity. Doing nothing was simply not acceptable to those who warned that unless the government stepped in there would be a major “governance (ie, polity) gap”: the European Commission and Court of Justice of the European Union, who together had pushed the UK away from its “Dirty Man of Europe” past, simply had to be replaced.

However, the low degree of centralisation in the sector also means that the four administrations are addressing the perceived gap in different ways, resulting in not one but three new regulators: the Office for Environmental Protection (in England, Wales and NI), Environment Standards Scotland north of the border and an (interim) Environmental Protection Assessor for Wales.

Finally, when it came to policy, a collective agreement to maintain the policy status-quo was quickly arrived at across the country. All parts of the UK agreed to collaborate in retaining the EU acquis as it existed the day before Brexit day.

Taking back or (re)sharing control?

While the vast copy-pasting exercise initiated by the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 was not without problems (and led to some weakening of the acquis) it set the UK on an overall path of disengagement – slowly moving away from the EU, with the UK version of the acquis losing relevance, indeed becoming zombified, while the EU’s version continues to evolve.

Crucially, the UK’s disengagement was compounded when the EU opted first of all to reinvigorate its own environmental policy framework (via a European Green Deal) then adapt all its climate policies to the new challenge of achieving net zero emissions (“fit for 55”).

Since Brexit day, England, Scotland and Wales have attempted to move beyond policy disengagement: England towards de-Europeanisation (notably via the highly controversial Retained EU Law Bill), and Scotland and Wales towards re-engagement via dynamic alignment with the EU.

But for now, neither de-Europeanisation across the board nor dynamic alignment have materialised: the pull of disengagement, the default option for each of the UK administrations struggling to overcome capacity constraints, has remained difficult to resist.

So what does all this tell us, specifically about control post-Brexit but also de-Europeanisation more generally?

For environmental policy, de-Europeanisation is not just a matter of leaving the EU and removing specific rules, but of building new institutions and regulatory frameworks.

First, it reveals the scale of the challenge (or opportunity) posed by Brexit. The environment is a politically salient policy area, closely scrutinised by pressure groups and industry bodies. In such a setting, de-Europeanisation is not just a matter of leaving the EU and removing specific rules, but of building new institutions and regulatory frameworks.

Second, Brexit has further emboldened and constrained existing processes of devolution – making UK territorial politics critical for future policy development, within but also beyond the environmental sector.

Finally, it highlights how weakened governmental capacity (significantly compounded by pre-Brexit austerity and the COVID-19 pandemic) is making it very difficult for governments across the UK to deliver on their promises in relation to control – be they directed at building new or loosening exist links with the EU.

This post draws on the findings of the recent research article “UK environmental policy and Brexit: simultaneously de-Europeanising, disengaging and (re)-engaging?” (Journal of European Public Policy, 2023)

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: Reuben Hustler via Unsplash.

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About the author

Viviane G

Viviane Gravey

Viviane Gravey is Senior Lecturer in European Politics at Queen's University Belfast. Her research focuses on the impacts of Brexit on agricultural and environmental policies in both the EU and UK.


Andy Jordan

Andy Jordan is Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia's School of Environmental Sciences and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Posted In: Brexit | Environment and Energy Policy | Environmental Policy and Energy
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This work by British Politics and Policy at LSE is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.