EU Referendum — In or Out?

The UK Environmental Law Association (UKELA) takes a neutral position on the EU referendum and says its role is to inform the debate on whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave. This piece gives a summary of some key points.

In or Out? What does this mean for the environment?

The referendum on 23 June will give UK voters a say on whether the UK should remain in the EU. Media headlines and high-profile political debates have tended to focus on what this means for the economy, immigration and national security. But the outcome of the referendum could have a major impact on the environment.

Over the past few years, UKELA has been seeking to understand the implications for the UK’s environmental laws of a withdrawal from the EU (or “Brexit”). Our events and papers have considered both the range of possible options and the legal nitty-gritty of how to withdraw and deal with legislation derived from Europe.

Staying in the EU

How does EU membership affect UK’s environmental laws?

Currently, the vast majority of the UK’s environmental laws and policies are based on European laws. This is because — as a member of the EU — the UK is bound to apply EU environmental laws.

The EU has competence to legislate on environmental matters and has been very active in this area. Over the past 40 years or so, it has introduced policies and laws dealing with issues including industrial and agricultural pollution, waste, water quality, air quality, nature conservation, environmental damage and climate change. UK officials are involved in negotiating these laws. The UK has a say about whether to introduce them when Ministers from all Member States vote at European Council meetings. UK Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) also have an opportunity to influence the laws, through debates and votes in the European Parliament.

A decision to stay “in” the EU would mean continuing to be bound by European environmental laws. The settlement negotiated by Prime Minister David Cameron in February 2016 will not change this. A decision to stay “in” would have no impact on the UK’s own environmental laws and policies. The vast majority of these would need to be kept in place in order to continue to implement European laws.

UKELA’s response to the Government’s “Balance of Competences” review considered the impact that the EU has had on the UK’s laws and policies, and the pros and cons of keeping things the way that they are.

UKELA’s response to the Government’s Balance of Competences Review in August 2013

During the winter of 2015/16, UKELA gave written and oral evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into “the extent to which EU environmental objectives and policies have succeeded in tackling environmental issues in the UK”. Our view is that EU environmental policy and legislation has — on balance — had a significant and very positive influence on the environment in the UK, with related economic benefits.

Leaving the EU

What would Brexit mean for the environment?

UKELA has been exploring what might happen to the UK’s environmental policies and laws if the UK were to leave the EU. There is a range of very different possibilities. These include the following.

  • Little change because the UK still has to apply most EU environmental laws. This would be the case if the UK were to join the European Economic Area. To do this, it would first need to rejoin the European Free Trade Area. The UK would have little influence over the content of new EU environmental laws. This is because only EU Member States can vote on proposals in the European Council and Parliament. Certain existing EU laws would cease to apply, including the Birds and Habitats Directives, Bathing Water Directive and relevant controls under the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy. Decisions would need to be taken about what to do with our domestic laws and policies in those areas.

  • Keeping things the way they are for other reasons. For example, the UK might decide to preserve current waste management laws because those standards will need to be met by businesses that export waste to EU countries. The UK might also want to continue to be able to trade within the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) in order to meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets under other international treaties and agreements.

  • Developing “home-grown” environmental laws and policies. For example, the UK Government might choose to “go greener”, or to get rid of certain environmental protections because they are considered barriers to the free market. The UK Government would not have an entirely free hand in this. Many of our environmental laws serve to implement not only EU laws, but also other international treaties and agreements. The Government would also need to consider very carefully how to deal with national laws and measures that give effect to EU law, so as not to cause problems for businesses and regulators. Given the large number of laws and measures at issue, this exercise could take a huge amount of time and effort and will raise some knotty legal questions.

These bullets are just brief summaries of a few possible scenarios. Our events and papers have taken a much more detailed look at the legal and policy questions that would arise if the UK were to withdraw from the EU.

What do the EU referendum campaigners want?

A decision to leave the EU would mean that the UK would have to decide what to do about its environmental laws and policies. Each of the options above has very different implications for how we regulate the environment, ranging from “business as usual” to completely changing things.

UKELA is keen to understand what those campaigning to leave the EU want to happen if a decision is taken to withdraw. We are writing to them, asking them to set out their vision for regulating Britain’s environment. We are also writing to those campaigning to stay in, asking for their comments. We will publish all correspondence as we receive it.

The UKELA takes a neutral position on the EU referendum and says its role is to inform the debate on whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave. UKELA members each have their own individual views.