Green Brexit? It's a question of trust

James Murray
Green Brexit? It's a question of trust

Boris Johnson's speech had little to say on environmental issues, but what it did say laid bare the deep ideological divide at the heart of government

Why are so many environmentalists and green business execs quite so worried about Brexit?

Only last month, the Prime Minister said "let me be clear, Brexit will not mean a lowering of environmental standards". The Environment Secretary has repeatedly promised to deliver a "Green Brexit", has vowed to strengthen environmental standards, and has unveiled a new green farming plan that promises to transform the UK's natural world. The opposition has stressed the retention of environmental protections is one of its top Brexit priorities, and there is no parliamentary majority for anything that smacks of weaker standards.

Even arch-Brexiteer John Redwood tweeted that "the Conservatives have made clear that we do not intend to remove any of the employment rights or environmental protections that came from the EU". Although he swiftly deleted that one, so perhaps best not to add it to the list.

But Redwood is not the government and the government's official line is clear. It's a green Brexit all the way. Why then are so many of the people who care about the environment and who are invested in the green economy so nervous?

Well, anyone looking for an answer should look no further than Boris Johnson's speech setting out the case for a "Liberal Brexit". Yes, it was confused. Yes, it was so light on detail it bordered on the facile. Yes, it was misleading in places. And yes, it was nowhere near as funny as Johnson likes to think. But it did manage to sketch out a vision of sorts, and it is this vision that explains why green business types remain so wary of the otherwise welcome promises surrounding a "Green Brexit".

Johnson made no mention of the "Green Brexit" promised by his Leave ally Michael Gove and was careful not to make any firm commitments on, well, anything really. But the speech could not conceal the deregulatory impulse and insouciance towards environmental risk that defines a sizeable chunk of the Brexiteer tribe.

His suggestions on which rules and regulations could be changed post-Brexit was cleverly couched in the sovereignty argument that remains the Leave camp's trump card and contained some environmentally positive proposals alongside the ideas that will ring alarm bells for environmentalists.

"We will be able, if we choose, to fish our own fish, ban the traffic in live animals, end payments to some of the richest landowners in Britain while supporting the rural economy," he said, all of which sounds great.

But he also declared that "we will be able to cut VAT on domestic fuel", which is probably the surest way to drive up carbon emissions and reverse long term energy-saving trends that you could think of.

And then he turned his attention to the newts and the vacuum cleaners.

"We can simplify planning, speed up public procurement, and then perhaps we will then be faster in building the homes that young people need," he declared. "We might decide, we might, that it was absolutely necessary for every environmental impact assessment to monitor two life cycles of the snail or build special swimming pools for newts, not all of which they use in my experience. But it would at least be our decision to do that."

This is a very clever rhetorical trick that stops short of declaring that we should dilute environmental impact assessments, but leaves the listener in little doubt this is what Johnson would like to see happen, on the absurdist assumption that it is not land-banking or the absence of rent controls or green belt restrictions or flat-lining salaries that have fuelled the housing crisis, but instead those pesky amphibians. As a noted classicist, I'm sure Johnson knows the technical rhetorical term for it. Either way, it is not as clever or subtle as he suspects.

He pulled the same trick when addressing the question of whether the UK should have to adhere to EU product standards for energy efficiency.  

"It is all about voluntarism," he said. "It is all about who decides. When it comes to EU standards for washing machines or hairdryers or vacuum cleaners or whatever, it may very well make sense to remain in alignment as a matter of choice. As something we elect to do. I am sure for the purposes of supply chains there are many businesses who understand the need for that. But I don't think we should commit as a matter of treaty that forever and a day we are going to remain locked into permanent congruence with the EU."

This all sounds perfectly reasonable, until you realise what Johnson is basically saying is "we may or may not choose to burn environmental standards to the ground and create years of confusion for businesses, but what is important is that we have the match and the kerosene and we can choose to use it when we like".

Effectively Johnson has dog whistled his deregulatory impulse, but insulated himself against charges of being opposed to a "Green Brexit" by implying this is all a question of sovereignty as the UK should be able to decide which regulations it keeps and which it ditches. The idea that government, and especially Conservative government, is the business of studied pragmatism is apparently dead and gone. In Johnson's world, the seminar room debating point of where sovereignty should ultimately reside steamrollers all practical concerns.

This is an extremely seductive argument that taps into a certain sense of patriotism. As the pro-Brexit economic arguments are bombarded by reality, sovereignty remains the most convincing and respectable argument in favour of Brexit.

But from an environmental perspective there are several reasons why Johnson's vision is such a cause for concern.

Firstly, in the real world of nasty, brutish, dirty real politics even when a vast majority of the British public favour strong environmental protections and want more wind and solar farms vested interests and political fringe concerns can deliver policies that singularly fail to command public support. Democracy rarely works perfectly, no matter how much sovereignty you have.  

There is a powerful tradition within British politics, and one which is particularly embedded in parts of the Conservative Party, which has spent decades lobbying intensively to water down EU environmental protections at every turn. Johnson's speech only fuels concerns that post-Brexit it will be hard to keep this camp in check, especially if the UK leaves the EU only to find a trade deal leaves it facing Brussels fines for breaching previously agreed air quality rules or renewable energy targets.

It is very easy to envisage a scenario where a government in awe of the Jacob Rees-Mogg tendency positions a scrapping of air quality rules or a dilution of emissions targets as a populist move to lower costs for motorists and free the UK from the yoke of Brussels. Make no mistake, Johnson's speech is an ear-splitting dog whistle to let the hard Brexit political tribe know that he wishes to keep the flame of deregulation alive.

Secondly, Johnson singularly failed to engage with the idea that shared sovereignty is appropriate for shared concerns. Yes, the EU may be guilty of over reach in some areas, but generally when addressing environmental issues what one state does impacts its neighbours. Where the actions of one fishing fleet can deny another access to sustainable stocks, where air pollution can cross borders, and where interconnectors integrate clean power grids, pooling sovereignty can increase rather than decrease control.

Finally, Johnson's hinted desire for a high degree of regulatory independence runs completely counter to the EU's insistence that if the UK wants a trade deal it must accept "continued adherence to… the Union's legislation and policies, in, among others, the field of the environment, climate change, the fight against tax evasion and avoidance, fair competition, trade and social rights, especially safeguards against social dumping".

The reality is that if the UK wants a trade deal it will have to accept a raft of EU environmental rules for the foreseeable future. Johnson even hinted at the strength of the economic rational for accepting such conditions, noting that supply chains would benefit from continued regulatory convergence. But he added that the UK should not make a firm commitment to such co-operation, on the grounds that "if you are going to come out you might as well take the advantages of difference".

And therein lies the problem. Johnson's prioritising of principle over pragmatism may appeal to parts of his audience, but is not much use for businesses trying to work out what happens next. The EU will insist on a high degree of regulatory convergence and environmental protection for any product entering the single market. If the UK wants a trade deal it will by default have to accept rules over which it has no say. Johnson may be able to declare victory if these rules are not firmly ascribed as "a matter of treaty", but regardless of the final fudged agreement for many companies the effect will be the same. If they want to sell into their largest market, the same standards will apply - they are standards that will be dictated from Brussels.

The question of what happens when this penny drops is one of the many great imponderables of Brexit. Nearly a year on from Article 50 being triggered we are still hardly any closer to knowing which vision of 'Green Brexit' will win out: Theresa May's assertion that "environmental protection is a vital part of any good regulatory regime - so where government needs to intervene to ensure that high standards are met, we will not hesitate to do so", or Johnson's unsubtle antipathy towards snails and newts, with a side order of US food imports produced using some of the lowest environmental standards around?

Ministers will no doubt insist there is no contradiction here; that Johnson wants to keep good regulations and only scrap bad rules. But this argument stretches credulity. Everything we know about the Conservative Party over recent decades points to a deep ideological split over the role of regulation and the importance of environmental protection. The Brexit talks to date have done nothing but paper over these cracks.

Businesses are now being forced to ask themselves who they think will deliver their Brexit vision? Will they be subjected to the ever higher environmental standards promised by Gove? Or will Johnson's desire to "take back control" allow a future government to declare war on environmental impact assessments and a lot more besides? They must try to answer these questions against a backdrop where the favourite to become the next Conservative leader genuinely thinks action to tackle climate change is a waste of time.

In the meantime, confusion reigns. Should farmers prepare for Michael Gove's promised subsidies in return for environmental enhancements or for Dr Liam Fox's US trade deal and the cheap antibiotic-filled meat it would bring? Should chemicals companies prepare for continued compliance with REACH or for the UK exerting its right to decide what chemicals regulations it opts for? Should energy companies plan for the wider use of interconnectors as part of a new trade deal or accept this avenue could be blocked off by the Foreign Secretary's suggestion we must be free to set our own energy trading rules? Should all businesses plan for a comprehensive trade deal or recognise the risk that when the EU refuses to blink and insists on a high level of regulatory convergence, the Foreign Secretary may decide to resign and trigger the collapse of the government?

Can the government deliver a green Brexit when its position on almost every aspect of the Brexit process remains so opaque? It depends on whether you trust the government's official line or the vision clumsily hinted at by the Foreign Secretary. The only way for the government to build that trust is for it to significantly strengthen the Withdrawal Bill to more firmly lock in future environmental protections and principles, which it has not yet done; set out a clear trade deal negotiating position that confirms close co-operation with the EU on environmental issues, which it has not yet agreed within cabinet; and visibly slap down those colleagues who keep floating the idea of the UK as a low regulation, high carbon, offshore tax haven, which it hasn't the political authority or nerve to do.  

Why are so many environmentalists and green business execs quite so worried about Brexit? Because they still don't know who they should trust.

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