A Brexit fit for wildlife?

Theresa May’s speech on 17 January 2017 provided further detail on what the UK’s departure from the European Union will actually mean.

Although it might be an initial negotiating position rather than an unequivocal commitment to a final outcome, it appeared to confirm that the UK would not seek to remain in the EU Single Market, and may well not be within a customs union.

The consequences of these proposals for wildlife could be serious. At present, a high proportion of our wildlife law is based on EU environmental legislation. Given that many issues, from pollution to migrant birds, are clearly international, it makes sense to have legislation aligned over as wide a geographic area as possible.

The Government’s promised ‘Great Repeal Act’ is intended to incorporate a large body of EU law into UK law. Once that is done, it can be amended and adjusted through parliamentary process over the years following Brexit. Unfortunately, it’s not yet clear which aspects of environmental protection will be retained in that way. If the UK were seeking membership of the Single Market, that would have required us to retain most of EU environmental legislation. Without that, there’s no obligation on the UK to stick to the same environmental standards.

Wildlife does have friends in Westminster. The recent report of the all-party Environmental Audit Committee expressed concern that Brexit could threaten the protection which wildlife and the environment had enjoyed for decades. They called for an explicit commitment from Government to “provide an equivalent or better level of protection” than we have had in the EU.

The Wildlife Trusts are active members of the Greener UK coalition which is providing a unified voice for wildlife and the environment. That’s important. In the 1940s through to the 1970s, Britain was a world leader in conservation, and the science developed around nature reserves here influenced many other nations. It would be wonderful if an independent UK could regain that reputation as a global exemplar of how a crowded and prosperous country can protect and enhance its wildlife, creating a living landscape we can all enjoy.