A broad case for conservation should underpin post-Brexit nature policy if it is to match and then build on current EU law.
There is no absolute reason why Brexit should further imperil wildlife, although it may be wisest to view this in terms of the considerable risks involved. Brexiting tendencies to erode regulatory power and accountability in the alleged interests of short term economic advantage must be resisted.
The supposed Brexit objectives of controlling immigration, borders and laws contradict ‘soft’ Brexit options requiring political compromise with EU principles and institutions. This being so, unless Brexit is reversed, avoidance of ‘cliff-edges’ requires novel arrangements agreeable to both sides. From a conservation perspective Brexit means disengaging from the Nature Directives and a swathe of EU environmental law at the same time as the ecological requirement is to improve on existing protection, in or out of the EU. The government has restated its commitment to “leaving the environment in a better state than it found it”, although protecting wildlife without EU structures is more vulnerable to UK policy adjustment.
When the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee recently recommended new Environmental Protection legislation, the Government ducked, referring to the ‘Great Repeal Bill’, elsewhere acknowledging that it will lose significant EU law in translation. Does this leave room for optimism? UK nature conservation could theoretically do better after Brexit, but only if the ‘right’ downstream decisions are taken domestically. How likely is this?
Brexit’s ambitions for nature
Nature was probably not a foremost concern for Brexit voters who were stressed by economic and social insecurity. Even so, radical environmentalists might still extract comfort. For example, nobody knows what a British Agricultural Policy looks like. Ending CAP could lighten the grazing burden on the sheep-wrecked hills if the UK reduces agri-payments whether or not reformed as finance for ecosystem services, and the will to rebalance the food supply chain in favour of farmers may be lacking. Simultaneously, new trade deals might stimulate cheap food imports from developing nations produced with differing regard to welfare, pollution and deforestation, while marginal British farmers find themselves traumatically squeezed out of business.
Could UK governments implement ambitious nature policies following Brexit? Most of the Brexit campaign is intent on domestic deregulation, unhindered by the Birds and Habitats Directives, a point made by Michael Gove concerning a site in his own constituency and consistent with Brexit rhetoric stigmatising ‘red tape’. If he replicates this as Secretary of State, the omens are not good. Claiming to be faintly green and offering reassurance over environmental standards, his voting and media record suggests otherwise. Against this prospect, Peter Shirley in ECOS 38(2) highlighted the burden of conservation arguments to be won. Should wildlife and habitat protection distinguish itself from the wider debate over ecological sustainability? Of these ‘meta’ threats, climate change and biogeographical effects will gradually erode fragmented high value sites: ‘bigger, better, more joined up’ protection is still work in progress. The political objective of weakening regulatory enforcement and abolishing UK government accountability to the European Court of Justice is nourished by a world view which sees such environmental protection as an impediment to wealth creation.
Science and the precautionary principle
As Peter Shirley argues in ECOS 38 (2), the scientific evidence base for conservation must shape policy, in my view strongly linked to a wider social scientific understanding of human motivation and behaviour. Science can work for good and ill, and independent environmental research is under pressure from Brexit in the UK as well as in North America. Any hope of balancing living standards with rising populations and the need to return to sustainability will require technical-scientific data and solutions to the need for decarbonisation and a resource efficient ‘circular economy’. Against this, constantly emerging evidence gaps continue to require judicious application of the precautionary principle, a vital concept which is as much ethical as scientific, necessitating robustly joined-up thinking.
The worst Brexit outcome, an ugly divorce, has the EU outflanked by a UK defined by low tax, low regulation and disregard for the commons – places and environments that are publicly and communally shared, but which can get degraded because no one takes responsibility and commits resources to them. Hopefully the general election result makes this year-zero possibility less likely. Even so, we are in an unpredictable situation within which the force of the arguments for prioritising nature and wildlife, in effect an ecosystem approach to a future UK economic and social-ecological settlement, will be tested to the limits.
Consultant psychiatrist in Exeter with research interest in people and wildlife, Wageningen University, Netherlands.
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