The United Kingdom – back to being ‘The Dirty Man of Europe’?

The impact of Brexit on British climate policy

With the UN climate summit fresh in our minds and Brexit in its final stages, it is time to reflect on the potential impact of Brexit on existing climate change policy. In the midst of all the political chaos, climate change issues seem to have fallen by the wayside. Unjustifiably so, says Liesbeth van de Grift, associate professor in the History of International Relations and member of the Utrecht Young Academy. The climate change policy to be implemented is an issue that benefits from being managed and overseen by the European Union as an umbrella organisation.

The Member States of the European Union have agreed to cede powers in certain policy domains, which allows cross-border issues to be organised and managed in an overarching manner. ‘Environmental policy is a classic example, where agreements, such as on greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, the quality of rivers and fisheries, are more effectively regulated by Member States collectively.’ This subsequently yields a number of benefits and allows shared expertise to be developed by virtue of the combination of knowledge. Exiting the European Union means that the United Kingdom will no longer be part of this process.

A split of this nature, without any legislation in place, entails a number of risks.

A Weaker Trading Position

The magnitude of the impact will depend on the agreements made. ‘Worst case scenario, we’ll have a No deal Brexit. A split of this nature, without legislation in place, entails a number of risks. Although the British government has made promises to abide by existing directives as much as possible, this provides no guarantees.’

The United Kingdom will be more easily overwhelmed.

The United Kingdom will have to sign new free trade agreements as quickly as possible in order to keep the economy going. Meanwhile, the country will be at a loss regarding new regulations, resulting in the trading position of the United Kingdom potentially weakening. ‘Superpowers like the United States and China, which generally impose less stringent environmental policy standards, will be able to take advantage of this. The United Kingdom will be more easily overwhelmed.’

Another key difficulty is the political sensitivity between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. ‘Up to now, any differences between them with regard to the policies to be implemented have always been mitigated by their collective link to the European Union.’ After Britain exits the EU, new agreements will have to be drawn up between them. At present, there is still a great deal of uncertainty on how the United Kingdom will do that.

Nevertheless, those who are optimistic refer to a ‘window of opportunity’.

Opportunities for greener policies

Brexit seems to be a point of concern in relation to climate change. ‘Nevertheless, those who are optimistic refer to a window of opportunity. For example, the United Kingdom has always been a proponent of a greener agricultural policy – a key priority that has always found little support within the European Union due to the significant interests of countries such as the Netherlands and France that would be affected.’ Withdrawal from the EU would provide the United Kingdom with opportunities for the central government to tackle this issue in a more progressive manner, for example, through a greater focus on landscape conservation and nature conservation.

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Economics versus ecology

In any case, Brexit would lead to new tensions between the economic and ecological policies to be implemented.

‘Things will become interesting when the United Kingdom enters into bilateral negotiations as an individual state, which means that it will be in a weaker position than it was as part of the European Union, which is a major economic power. The standstill and chaos brought on by a No deal Brexit would not offer the best position from which to pursue progressive climate change policies. ‘Hopefully, this doesn’t mean that Britain will fall back into its old role as the “Dirty Man of Europe”.’