For the last few years, and certainly for the readers of this newspaper, there has been little that matters more to this country than membership, or otherwise, of the EU.
But there is another issue of greater importance. Far greater importance: the global eco-emergency, of which the long climate emergency is only the most pressing part.
Many of you will have dedicated yourselves tirelessly to the determined campaign to try to keep Britain in the EU. But it is on what we do in response to this climate emergency that our children will judge us and that we must focus all our attention on now.
For a long time, the causes of EU membership and climate action have seemed united. After all, the Green Party was one of the biggest supporters of Remain, and then the People’s Vote movement, recognising that the bloc had done much to aid the climate cause and that international solidarity was a powerful weapon to help the environment.
But now that Brexit has happened, we need to look afresh at the two issues. Now that Britain is out of the EU, is it possible that it can actually use Brexit to improve its response to this emergency? Could there be a ‘green dividend’ to Brexit?
I believe it is possible, but also that Brexit could just as easily worsen the situation. On current evidence, alas, this latter outcome seems more likely. Brexit may turn out to be one more nail in our collective climate coffin.
For a start, Brexit offers the potential to be a huge distraction for Britain at the beginning of this decade that will be such a defining one, as the world tries to change its course on the environment.
The next 12 months will be particularly important in whether the world can make progress towards an eco course-correction, as it takes its first steps of recovery from the pandemic and decides the shape of its post-Covid economic reset. There is a great danger that the UK will spend that time focusing on issues thrown up by Brexit. Those issues may well be important ones that require attention, but the bigger picture is more important still. That is a real danger, but one that can be overcome.
So, provided Britain can get over the distracting effect of Brexit, how can it use it in a way that actually helps the environment…?
The part played by the EU in relation to climate and ecology is complicated: the bloc has been a positive force for decades now, in terms of environmental regulation. For instance, we owe it our clean beaches. When Britain joined the European Community in the 1970s, these were in a dire state, with sewage aplenty. We also owe the EU the environmental principles that have stopped genetic engineering from risking the safety of our food and the health of our ecosystems.
But there is another side to the story, and we should be careful not to view the bloc through green-tinted glasses. The EU has also been a largely negative force for the environment so far as agriculture is concerned, protecting harmful practices and hampering the development of greener ones.
A ‘Green Brexit’, therefore, would be one that saw the UK preserve the EU’s environmental regulations but jettison the way that subsidies work, so as to start to reverse the destructive effect that they have had. For make no mistake, across Europe, the industrialisation of agriculture has been hastened by the EU, and that has hastened the destruction of nature.
I got a sense of this first-hand on a railtrip to Romania three years ago. In Western Europe, the industrial artificialisation of agricultural lands was writ large. But when I reached Romania, I encountered huge swathes of the landscape where there were no such blots on it.
Instead, I encountered huge ‘flights’ (swarms!) of butterflies, something you simply never see any more in the UK; because agriculture in Romania, a poorer country and a more recent entrant to the EU, hasn’t been as comprehensively industrialised as most of Europe.
Moving beyond the CAP
At the heart of that harmful process has been the Common Agricultural Policy. After Brexit, Britain has the opportunity to replace this with something more sustainable, and the government has promised to do so.
The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. One key reason why is that EU subsidies have incentivised farmers to produce more, more more (hence those the infamous ‘butter mountains’ and ‘wine lakes’), but have not incentivised soil protection, organic farming, and so on.
Whether Britain’s farmland becomes less nature-depleted or not will depend on whether those government promises are delivered. Ministers have talked about replacing the European system with one more fine-tuned to benefit nature.
This would include, crucially, paying landowners for providing public benefits through ‘environmental land management’. This would be broken down into three elements: ‘sustainable farming’, including, for instance, subsidising the improvement of hedgerows, rather than their removal; ‘local nature recovery’ , to restore habitats (‘rewilding’) and change flood management approaches, to keep water on farms rather than allow it to overwhelm lowlands; and ‘landscape recovery’, to create forests, restore peatland and wetlands, and the like.
If this is how we replace the CAP, it would be transformative, the best shake-up the UK countryside has seen in generations. The devil will be in the detail, and we must monitor developments closely. It’s worth noting already that, while the Johnson government has set up these promising new criteria for farm payments, it is keeping the total of payments down. So it remains a possibility that environmental farming might get no more money than it got before.
Not throwing away our gains
While we can get greener by moving away from certain EU policies, it is just as important that we hold on to the massive gains that EU membership has given the environmental cause.
This means retaining in all regulation the ‘principle of prevention’ (which means, essentially, that when it comes to ecology prevention is always better than later attempting to find the cure).
The UK’s deal with the EU suggests mechanisms of ‘non-regression’ away from the standards and principles that are already in place (ie, EU standards). But the proposed enforcement mechanisms seem weak, and the devil will again be in the detail.
The worry therefore remains that the UK government is in effect pretty close to the Groucho Marx position: “These are my principles, and if you don’t like them, well, I have others…”
We must hope that what the UK-EU deal does is enough to deter the UK government from regressing from the principles of prevention and precaution. It may be necessary, in the coming years, to test through law the ways in which the UK might try to backtrack on those principles.
The role played by Michael Gove in Brexit is familiar story and is highly unlikely to endear him to readers of the to readers of The New European. And before that, he was a remarkably unpopular education secretary.
But, and it is a big but, if you can look past all that, his record is not all bad. He was an innovative justice secretary and, more recently, was probably the best environment secretary of the last decade.
It was in that role that he declared his avowed aim, for a green Brexit. I was among those called in to advise Gove face-to-face on how he might set about achieving this.
I explained to him how a how a more self-reliant Britain, with a re-localised economy, could actually produce that elusive ‘green dividend’ from Brexit. Such a strategy would systematically reduce the damage – including, crucially, climate-damage – that inevitably comes from dependence on (insecure) long distance supply-lines.
I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by the boldness of his ambition in this area, and by how much of an intellectual heavyweight he was, compared with his peers.
On the other hand, words are cheap, deeds less so. We need to face squarely the (poor) record of Conservative governments over the last few years, concerning most matters environmental: their permission of bee-killing pesticides; their backtracking on animal welfare (which they had claimed they would legislate for); their glacial slowness putting in place the new Office for Environmental Protection (badly needed, now that Brussels no longer has any enforcement authority here); and their failure to tax climate-deadly fossil fuels.
Gove has now gone from the environment job. If there is to be any prospect of a green Brexit, it will require leadership and vision from someone else. And they will need to be able to articulate and deliver a particular strategy…
So why has the Conservative record on all things green been, in recent years, so much worse than the likes of Michael Gove may have hoped or promised? There is a fairly simple answer. It’s the inherent tension between deregulation (‘tearing up red tape’), aiming for economic growth as much as possible, on the one hand, and eco-protection, on the other.
It’s not hard to guess which of these two competing pressures is likely to triumph, under a Johnson government. (Especially if that government, rather than looking to make the UK more self-reliant and food-secure, fantasises about becoming ‘Global Britain’, doing more – eco-destructive – trade around the world.)
But that’s not a reason to give up the fight. The government really don’t want to look like Brexit is coming at the cost of the environment; and they can’t afford to look like total hypocrites in the very year when they are hosting the world’s climate summit in Glasgow.
A green Brexit is achievable if the UK jettisons silly and dangerous hyper-globalist fantasies, about ‘buccaneering’ business and trade bestriding the world, and instead focusses upon building up this country’s self-reliance, which will be critically important in the years ahead. For the years to come are likely to see crazy weather and potentially terrible harvests.
So… smarter trade deals
The stakes are very high in the trade deals being negotiated right now with the USA and others. That American one is the most important of the lot, so worth focusing on.
It is really important not to get over-excited about the Biden presidency, in this regard. Yes, Trump has gone, but even negotiated with the Biden administration, a US trade deal could be disastrous for Britain’s wildlife, animal welfare standards, and citizen health.
The USA barely recognises the ‘precautionary principle’, a central environmental element of EU law, which essentially enshrines the idea that it is better to be safe than sorry. It is this that has protected us, so far, from chlorinated chicken, from potentially dangerous pesticides and so on.
Biden is no green and there are powerful vested interests paying the piper and even sitting at his cabinet table, for industrial meat-rearing, for fossil fuels, for business as usual.
A trade deal with the USA could undermine our food standards and result in a race toward the bottom on animal welfare and health. The UK government continues to insist (against House of Lords opposition) on preventing parliament from deciding on trade deals – a major democratic deficit, when Brexit will lead to a whole set of new agreements.
What we really need is not race-to-the-bottom trade deals, but agreements with other countries about how (to use a familiar term) we might level up environmental standards, worldwide.
In the balance
As with those trade deals still being negotiated, the issue of a Green Brexit is far from settled. In itself, Brexit is neither green, nor the opposite. But it is an opportunity for the environmental movement. Especially this year, with the COP-26 being held in Glasgow in November, it is an issue on which the government can be pressured and persuaded. It is a fight to be won. And the stakes could not be higher.
Rupert Read is a philosophy professor at the UEA, a Green Party campaigner and a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion. He was one of five members of the group called in to discuss environmental matters with then Defra secretary Michael Gove
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