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JANE MERRICK: Michael Gove is clutching at plastic straws

Michael Gove thinks he landed a blow on the EU over banning plastic straws. But, as JANE MERRICK​ discovers, environmental groups remain concerned about Brexit

The wild-eyed optimism from Theresa May’s government over how Britain would fare post-Brexit has faded, replaced by something a little closer to reality.

A year ago, Brexit secretary David Davis was insisting that the UK would enjoy the ‘exact same benefits’ out of the European Union than in. Now the Prime Minister talks of ‘hard facts’ and warns that ‘no one will get everything they want’ out of a deal: our access to the EU single market will be stripped away, and we will still have to pay into EU agencies.

Donald Trump, the most protectionist US president in years, is threatening a trade war by planning huge tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, casting doubt on a trade deal that would be favourable to the UK.

These cold realities of Brexit are familiar, of course, to the Remain side, which for more than two years has warned that the UK will suffer economically from leaving the EU. Yet this new, pragmatic, Roundhead approach from the government doesn’t quite fit with the Cavalier insistence by arch-Leavers that Brexit will usher in a golden age for the UK – a golden age funded, presumably, by the £350m promised on the side of that bus.

Brexiteers in the Conservative Party don’t want to hear too much about ‘hard facts’ in case they lose the support of some of the millions who voted to leave. Brexit, from their point of view, must be talked up until the cows – cows that are no longer affected by the Common Agricultural Policy – come home.

If the Prime Minister’s ‘hard facts’ are too negative for Brexiteers, who better to talk up UK withdrawal than Michael Gove? The man who carried on defending Vote Leave’s Brexit bus pledge of £350m a week for the NHS well after the referendum was over isn’t about to put a downer on the entire project.

Gove, who seems to be enjoying his role of environment secretary, claims one of the great things about leaving the EU is that the UK can suddenly ban plastic straws. Taking note of the widespread revulsion caused by the graphic depiction of marine life blighted by man-made materials in Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, Gove is weaponising plastic in the fight for Brexit.

The minister’s announcement last month that he was examining a ban on plastic straws was a masterstroke: a simple, easy-win, populist policy with cut-through to the Blue Planet audience. It delighted environmental groups who have been campaigning for years to banish plastic straws. It wasn’t too nanny state for the Conservative Party’s libertarian wing because the cost-benefit equation stacks up – the 8.5 billion straws Britons use every year can be easily replaced by paper versions, no one really cherishes their plastic straws that much, and a ban will curb lasting damage to sea creatures.

Gove could have let a potential ban stand in its own right. It is a good and necessary policy. So why did he then have to throw hated EU bureaucracy into the mix? Gove claimed ‘European Union rules’ made it difficult to ban plastic straws: ‘There are some good things about the EU but one of the things about being inside the EU is that there are some steps that we might take environmentally but can’t yet.’

Unsurprisingly, the EU hit back at the environment secretary’s unsubstantiated suggestion that being in the bloc was somehow worse for the planet. Jean Claude Juncker’s deputy Frans Timmermans tweeted that EU legislation on single use plastics was coming before the summer, while Gove responded by saying there had been no ‘specific proposal’ from the EU to ban straws.

Yet this comment from the environment secretary doesn’t tell the whole story of the EU’s war on plastic: back in 2015, the European Commission made reducing single use plastic a priority in its Circular Economy Action Plan, while last September Brussels hosted a major conference on ‘reinventing plastics’. In January, the Commission produced a European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, including ensuring all plastic packaging in the EU is recyclable by 2030 and restrictions on single use plastic and microbeads. Surely claiming that marine life will be better off due to Brexit is disingenuous, at the very least – a gigantic straw man in more ways than one. While the proposed ban on plastic straws is to be welcomed in and of itself, it is also a highly convenient distraction from concerns about environmental protection and regulation after the UK leaves the EU. It is not so much a dead cat as a dead baby whale strategy. Claiming that post-Brexit Britain will be able to protect fragile underwater ecosystems in a way that it could not while in the EU, using a populist measure to ban plastic straws, distracts from the potential damage that could be done elsewhere if environmental regulation is weakened after Brexit.

A major area of concern is on food standards, which are robust under the EU. Gove has taken an admirably tough stance on chlorinated chicken, repeatedly saying he will not allow it into the UK as part of any trade deal with the US. But Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, takes the opposing view, while President Trump has made clear he will be playing hard to get with the Prime Minister on a UK-US trade deal – meaning chlorine-washed chicken turning up in UK supermarkets remains a distinct possibility.

Vicki Hird, campaign coordinator for Sustain, which fights for better food and farming, says it remains ‘hard to tell how far Brexit represents an opportunity or a big risk to our environment’, adding: ‘We will be able to set our own environmental laws and even go further, as Michael Gove has suggested. But will we and can he?

‘Under pressure for post-Brexit growth and with new global trade deals Liam Fox is discussing, we could lose the good protection we have had as a result of being in Europe for environment and food production.

‘Our food standards and food industry could face a ‘perfect storm’ from rising food prices, regulatory uncertainties, greatly diminished capacity of food inspectors and standards bodies, and likely challenges from international trade deals with countries working to lower food standards than our own.’

In January, Gove and May launched the government’s 25-year environment plan, which contained measures to reduce plastic on supermarket shelves, go further on cutting plastic bags, change planning rules to protect biodiversity and create a new environmental watchdog. Yet campaigners said the measures and targets were too vague, and that Britain had already had an environmental watchdog, the Sustainable Development Commission – but it was scrapped by David Cameron’s government in 2010. The plan made no mention of charges for disposable coffee cups, despite Gove’s apparent backing for some sort of ‘latte levy’ earlier that month. Also missing was any mention of a plastic bottle deposit scheme, which Greenpeace and the Environmental Audit Committee, chaired by Labour MP Mary Creagh, have argued would make a real difference in the war on plastic.

Hird of Sustain said: ‘Given the need to set clear environmental priorities, the 25-year environment plan felt like a missed chance to put clear targets and standards in place, especially on food, farming and fish. For every commitment, there are as many questions left unanswered in the plan, such as details of the environment legislation needed, on boosting farming sectors like organic, getting to grips with food procurement or protecting our fish stocks.’ Ministers needed to put detail and targets in the forthcoming agriculture and fishing bills in parliament, she added.

Greener UK, an umbrella organisation of 13 environmental groups, says Brexit provides an opportunity to enhance – not just maintain – environmental protection and regulation in the UK. With detailed reports every three months, it is using a traffic light system to track progress on environmental standards in eight key areas – beyond Gove’s headline-grabbing announcements on banning plastic straws. Its latest report is damning of the government’s progress: standards on air pollution, chemicals and waste are all deemed at high risk from Brexit, while climate, farming, fisheries, nature protection and water are considered medium risk. With a year to go before Britain leaves the EU, not a single environmental policy area is regarded as low risk from Brexit.

To his credit, Gove has achieved more as environment secretary than his immediate predecessor, his fellow Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom. He has persuaded a sceptical environmental lobby that he takes the issues seriously.

Yet to weaponise a ban on plastic straws to win over a public increasingly concerned about Brexit is sheer brassneck when the environment, wildlife and public health are at risk from weakened standards and regulation after the UK leaves.

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