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ECOS 38 (3): Nature’s Brexit

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Is the speculation around Brexit a distraction from the underlying causes of the parlous state of the natural environment?

Election fever?

The General Election has failed to create any clear sense of the course of our exit from the European Union. The way in which we leave, particularly future trading arrangements, could have an important bearing on whether much of the current environmental legislation and regulations continue in their current form.

The Election was called with the intention to create a clear mandate for negotiations for UK exit from the EU. In her announcement on 18 April the Prime Minster called on parties to: “put forward their proposals for Brexit and their programmes for government, and … remove the risk of uncertainty and instability…” 

However, the election campaigns shed very little light on exactly what we might expect, not least for the environment. They focused, on the one side, on the strength of leadership, and on the other on a defence of public services. Both of course tragically interrupted by concerns over national security and the threat of terrorism. 

On 19 April when the House of Commons provided the two thirds majority needed for an election, the Conservative Party was forecast as heading for a landslide victory and the power to push through the Government’s position.

Even with a week to go the polls continued to suggest the Conservatives would hold a comfortable majority. However, as we know, things turned out very differently with the Conservative Party form a minority government with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party.

With the clock running on our exit from the EU it might have been hoped we would know more about where we are heading – beyond ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Now very little is clear, except that the main political parties are still intent on taking the UK out of the EU.

Brexit means ‘hard-Brexit’

Since the last Government’s take on a ‘hard’ Brexit included a cessation of free movement of people and a jettisoning of EU authority, this ruled out remaining in the single market or membership of EFTA, the European Free Trade Association. Though none are members of the EU, Norway, Iceland, Lichtenstein and Switzerland all belong to EFTA, and all but Switzerland are members of the European Economic Area (EEA). Switzerland has a number of bilateral arrangements with the EU which gives it conditional access to the internal market. Remaining as part of the EEA would require the UK to continue to allow free movement of people, capital, goods and services, and to comply with many EU directives and rules including environmental directives.

The type of the trading relationships with the EU is significant for the natural environment because it brings with it the need to act in accordance with EU regulations and standards for environmental protection. Of course, being outside of the internal market wouldn’t necessarily exempt the UK from compliance with EU legislation under negotiated trade agreements, but it does mean there would be no automatic connection. 

Transfer of laws

Driving through a ‘hard Brexit’ requires a vehicle for the transfer of EU laws into UK law. The ‘Great Repeal Bill’ proposed by the previous Government to facilitate that transfer is now “history” according the Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour party had opposed the Bill as undemocratic for the way in provided national legislatures with the power to amend or repeal laws as they choose.

The future for EU legislation in the UK now looks much more complex, although potentially more hopeful if the aspiration is to maintain some of the environmental protection offered by EU directives and regulations. The Conservative manifesto did not guarantee environmental protections and standards beyond Brexit. Whilst this is not the same as saying that they wouldn’t be maintained, it was not encouraging against a stated intention to reduce ‘red tape’.

The framework for EU protection of habitats and species already exists in UK law in the form of SSSIs or Emerald sites under the Bern convention. Protection through the planning system and in relation to infrastructure development, are not affected by leaving the EU. The Conservative party had made clear its intention to push ahead with infrastructure developments such a HS2, the expansion of Heathrow and Northern Powerhouse rail, together with an expansion of fracking. The last of these may now be less certain given the Labour Party’s opposition to fracking.

Stability for farming?

The Conservatives made a commitment to provide stability for farmers during the exit from the EU and it seems likely that the UK Government(s) will continue to provide support for farmers, at the very least through some form of transitional arrangement.

Again, nothing is certain. Although there is a pledge to work with farmers and environmental organisations to set new agri-environment schemes, the commitment to maintain current levels of payment does not carry forward. At the time of writing Michael Gove has just been appointed Environment Secretary, a man known for his reforming approach to policy and his opposition to some EU environmental legislation on the basis that it “massively increases the cost and the regulatory burden for housing development”.

The option of a ‘hard Brexit’ generates the real possibility that the UK could leave the EU without a negotiated trade deal and have to revert to GATT rules, including tariffs on trade for agricultural (and other) goods. Since subsidising production falls foul of GATT trading rules, government support would need to be in the form of payments for other wider public benefits to avoid incurring penalties.

Tariffs on export of, for instance, sheep meat to the EU would significantly impact on the viability of many farms, particularly in the uplands. With market prices often not covering the costs of production in upland areas there is a heavy reliance on subsidy and support. Given the age profile of farmers in the UK (especially in the uplands where the average age is close to 60 years old), and a lack of succession plans for the majority of farms, changes to support could have profound consequences.

The ‘hard Brexit’ route now looks less likely. Membership of EFTA or some other form of arrangement which allowed access to an extended internal market may be more possible under a negotiated deal. It seems probable that this would require maintenance of or compliance with EU legislation, including at least some environmental legislation.

Re-purposing land use

There has been widespread agreement that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and current agricultural support makes little sense–although not consensus on what it needs to replace it.

The disincentive to produce due to tariffs or lack of subsidy could lead to significant changes to land use or intensity of production. Under any arrangement there is pressure to re-focus support around environmental goods such as water management or habitat protection.  

Whether you view this as an opportunity or threat depends on how you view the existing pattern of land use, from where you derive your income and the ways in which support might accompany a switch to a greater provision of public benefits. For farmers and land managers able to tap into payments and capable of making a transition to alternative ways of managing the land this might represent a lifeline and a business opportunity. For others a loss of support may herald an end.

Is Brexit a distraction?

So much for conjecture. Whilst the speculation can be both fun and endlessly time consuming, there is a danger that the focus on Brexit as some special environmental jeopardy misses the point. Before or after Brexit, inside or outside the EU, and even beyond Europe, wildlife and the natural environment are in dire straits. For all we might lament the loss of measures for protection under the EU and the possible loss of funding for nature and the natural environment, things were pretty bad and seem set to continue to be pretty bad.

Perhaps Brexit isn’t the issue? Perhaps the issue is an economic and social model which is inherently destructive and exploitative?  Many of the big questions affecting wildlife and the natural environment are not solely a function of our membership of the EU, but of pursuit of a dominant economic model which is inherently damaging to the natural environment.

Climate change remains the threat it was – not helped by Donald Trump’s ignorance and bombast. We are not stemming species loss. We have failed to properly clean the ocean. Air quality in the UK remains poor. Water quality fails to meet reasonable standards. Whilst some of these issues were covered by EU legislation, they were not being answered as a result. 

We are in danger of imaging that under the auspices of the EU, nature conservation is in some halcyon state from which it will be now plunged into the Hades of a post Brexit apocalypse. Many of the big problems are not about membership or not of the EU, but of a lack of serious resolve to comprehensively tackle the problems the environment faces and a subjugation of environmental concerns to those of economic growth and development. 

What now Michael Gove?

The Queens speech introducing the Governments legislative programme included a Fisheries Bill and an Agricultural Bill intended to replace the common European policies in these areas. As Environment Secretary, Michael Gove will be responsible for both these as well as the transition of any environmental protection measures following exit from the EU. It is yet early to judge exactly how he might approach what are crucial areas for the UK environment and wildlife. He has a track record as a radical policy reformer and is not averse to controversy or conflict in pushing through those reforms.

In an interview on Farming Today on BBC Radio on 19 June, Gove reiterated the Government’s commitment to maintain current levels of funding for farmers until 2022, but he also signalled a need to redesign support. When questioned on the environment he made clear that didn’t want to see a watering down of environmental protection and that rural policy and support should enhance biodiversity and tackle man-made climate change in the most effective ways possible. His clear rejection of a commission to undertake a review of policy and a determination that the Minister should lead reform suggests he is already formulating ideas, and for some they may not be comfortable.

Mike Townsend is a Principal Advisor at the Woodland Trust. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.


Principal Advisor at the Woodland Trust. These views are his own. 

Contact the author

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Townsend, Mike “ECOS 38 (3): Nature’s Brexit” ECOS vol. 38(3), 2017, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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