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Why the environment could be the biggest loser of this Brexit election

Doctors gather to protest in support of Extinction Rebellion in, London, to highlight deaths caused by air pollution. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Brexit could mean that the environment is the biggest loser of the forthcoming general election. KIERRA BOX from Friends of the Earth urges parties to prioritise environmental safeguards over a speedy exit from the EU.

Contests have winners and losers but in an election contest, losing affects a great many people. Despite the recent ambitious rhetoric, our environment, and anyone who wants clean air to breathe, safe beaches to swim in and high-quality food to eat, is losing.

Just six months ago our government declared a climate emergency and we’ve subsequently waited for flagship legislation to outline a new approach to protecting our environment in the future. How has it all gone wrong?

Shockingly, it’s Brexit-related. In the most recent version of the Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and EU, previous commitments to non-regression (legal guarantees that laws protecting everything from air quality to endangered species won’t be made weaker in the future) have disappeared. Commitments to maintaining a ‘level playing field’, shorthand for keeping businesses EU-wide bound by the same laws and requirements, to, for example, limit their emissions or reduce waste, have also gone. This means the UK faces leaving the EU without making a single meaningful commitment to maintaining the safeguards that protect our environment.

The Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), which aims to amend domestic UK law in line with the agreements made with the EU, could have partially fixed these deficiencies. Government could have set out domestic non-regression mechanisms and outlined how the UK would ensure it doesn’t fall behind the EU in future. It did neither. In fact, the environment didn’t feature in the bill at all. The current Brexit extension might seem to ease the pressure, but it still gives us only three months (into which we now need to fit an election, in addition to the standard Christmas break) to fix this morass.

Just weeks after the prorogation of parliament and subsequent Queen’s Speech led to much-needed laws including new agriculture and fisheries bills going back to square one, and further delay to the introduction of the long awaited Environment Bill, the announcement of an election put everything back to the starting line. With the new year likely to be dominated by the WAB, the trade, environment, agriculture and fisheries bills will all be shunted further down the list, and the action needed for net zero will be yet again delayed. For anyone waiting for a guarantee that our environment is protected and restored in the future, the situation is gloomy.

It seems unlikely that a new or returning government will do much on the WAB before Christmas – at most, they may have a week of debate in 2019, then another three in January. That’s roughly 25 days. Past bills implementing EU treaties have passed in as little as 10 days, but more controversial examples have taken over 40. Is a 25-day maximum enough? Given the deficiencies in this bill, it seems unlikely.

Over 70 amendments have already been proposed to make the WAB fit for purpose – with more to come in the new year, needing debate and discussion. It seems likely that even with the whole legislative programme dominated by the bill until the end of January, hopes of a bill which can gain the support of the house and set out a coherent plan for leaving the EU in a way that offers security over our rights, laws, and safeguards, are worryingly tenuous.

What needs improving in this last-minute rush? Firstly, it’s imperative that the WAB is amended to insert a commitment to non-regression – as government has repeatedly failed, not only in this bill but also the defunct environment bill, to offer legally binding guarantees that environmental protections won’t be weakened.

Secondly, the WAB needs to consider the future of our environment laws. Initially, workers’ rights seem to have a better deal in terms of future action – the WAB features a mechanism for allowing the UK parliament to review improvements made by the EU and consider adopting them. Unsurprisingly, some MPs have tabled amendments reflecting the same proposal for the environment, but these plans are an awkward half-measure. They don’t guarantee that improvements in environmental protections made by the EU will be reflected in the UK, instead simply requiring that ministers alert us when our laws fall behind those made on the continent. It’s easy to see that government have done this to show that a post-Brexit UK will make its own laws – but having the freedom to choose lower protections or fail to implement good practice is an odd and unsatisfying kind of freedom.

There’s more. The Bill doesn’t set a route for ongoing engagement with the structures that keep us safe. It means we lose access to things like the EU chemicals agency, or opportunities to share data, research or funding. There’s too much latitude for UK environmental and social protections to change in such a way that a close relationship with the EU – however desirable – becomes impossible in the future. And as it makes negotiating this future relationship harder, the Bill also makes the impacts of failure more concerning – by leaving the UK on course for a ‘crash out’ no deal if a trading agreement isn’t reached in a hugely optimistic timetable of a year. This would have dire environmental consequences.

The next government must secure a way to solve the Brexit conundrum that prioritises maintaining and improving our environmental safeguards over a speedy exit. Currently, no-deal is still on the table, forcing the timetable. If parliament don’t agree on a WAB that works, the next government could still decide to pursue a crash-out no-deal in January. And if negotiations with the EU prove complex, they could still decide to walk away with the job half done.

Thirdly, no matter who wins at the polls we’ll need further moves will from MPs to rule out no-deal. We need acknowledgement that no transition period can be sensibly concluded until a strong future relationship is agreed, and the institutions are in place to oversee it. We face a crisis requiring a cooperative and pragmatic approach to negotiating a future relationship, not one that’s rushed to meet arbitrary timescales, nor limited to arms-length cooperation that will make future action harder.

For our environment to win, the next government must prioritise a legislative programme that locks in current protections and sets out a trajectory for rapid and ambitious improvement. We can only hope.

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