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Expert View

No ‘Green Brexit’ on Emerald Isle without open Irish border

by Nigel Haigh | 13.11.2018

Nigel Haigh is an honorary fellow and former director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy.

The Irish border has become the intractable problem of Brexit. Part of the stalemate is over the need for the UK  to follow certain EU rules to keep the border as open as it is now – and one of the key areas is environmental policy. 

Irish environmental organisations stress that the island of Ireland is “a single biogeographic unit, sharing common geology, landscapes, water catchments, flora and fauna”. Cooperation between North and South is therefore essential for sound environmental management.

The Good Friday Agreement created the appropriate frameworks for this to happen. But the Agreement assumed that both the Republic and the UK were members of the EU, and the resulting cooperation is largely driven by EU rules and by EU money.

We already know Ireland is the EU member state that would be hit hardest economically by Brexit. But as the only EU country sharing a land border with the UK, the threat to its environment is fairly unique. Serious damage can only be avoided if common rules and governance can be devised to replace the current seamless system inside the EU.

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Environmental complexities on the Irish border are many:

  • Designated sites for nature protection straddle the border. Many animal and plant species – and their habitats – can only be coherently conserved on an island-wide basis.
  • Invasive species need to be controlled cooperatively.
  • Three cross-border river basin districts are managed in accordance with an EU Directive, while some inshore marine waters are shared between Northern Ireland and the Republic.  
  • There are cross-border flood management plans.
  • Adaptation to climate change requires collaboration, plus Northern Ireland will lose EU funding.
  • Waste crime could increase if landfill taxes and legislation diverge.
  • The Republic lacks the necessary infrastructure for treating hazardous waste and exports much of it to the UK. This will have to go elsewhere since EU legislation prohibits its export to countries that are not members of EFTA.
  • If UK legislation for chemicals diverges from EU standards, chemicals banned in the EU could be dumped in the UK and cross into the Republic.

Even if a Brexit deal is reached, environmental cooperation will become much more difficult if EU and UK rules become different and EU money is no longer available to support cross-border projects in the North. That could put another dampener on Michael Gove’s hopeful vision of a “Green Brexit”.

It’s also unclear how environmental policy will evolve between the different nations of the UK after Brexit. Environmental policy in the UK is largely devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but until now they have all been held together by overarching EU legislation. Without that framework, each country could go in very different directions. The UK government’s recent 25 year plan for the environment applies mainly to England, but says that the government “will continue to work with the Devolved Administrations on areas where common frameworks will need to be retained in the future”.

In Northern Ireland there will always be the need to collaborate with the Republic. Northern Irish environmentalists have called for new governance arrangements to replace the oversight and enforcement roles currently played by the European Commission and European Court of Justice. What is needed is a “common rulebook” for the environment that goes well beyond traded products as proposed in the Chequers White Paper.

There is a way of avoiding all these problems: call a People’s Vote and ask the public if they still want this mess of a Brexit.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe