When the European Council finally drew to a close on February 19, 2016, the deal to help secure the UK’s continued membership in the European Union (called the ‘Anti-Brexit’ deal in continental newspapers) was finally agreed. After years of discussions and months of negotiations, there was a deal, publically available. This document provides insight into the issues highest on the UK renegotiation agenda, and how the UK and its EU partners were able to reach a compromise. Analysing it from an environmental perspective reveals a number of surprises.
Firstly, this document does mention the environment. Looking back to UK calls for EU reform over the last twenty years, this should not be surprising. Hence, in the wake of the Danish ‘no’ vote to the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the Major Government produced a ‘hit list’ of social and environmental legislation it wanted scrapped. In his 2013 Bloomberg Speech and in the discussions which ensued in the UK’s House of Commons afterwards, David Cameron identified environmental policies as an area in which the EU had gone too far. But when it came to the negotiation proper, the environment together with the Common Agricultural Policy — two usual suspects when it comes to UK-sponsored EU reform — were conspicuously absent. Hence it is surprising in itself that the environment even gets not one, but four mentions in the text (although two of these refer to the “changing environment” – a reference to the economic, not the natural, environment).
Secondly, environment is mentioned in relation to competitiveness – as part of “Section B” on competitiveness of the UK-EU deal as well as in the annexed European Council declaration on competitiveness. This, in itself, is not surprising. Recent British efforts to increase EU action on ‘red tape’ decried the economic cost of environmental action (e.g. the 2013 Business Task Force report pushed for a reform of REACH, and opposed the proposed soil directive). Similarly, at EU level, talks of REFIT and an ever greater focus by Team Juncker on better regulation has been interpreted as pitting the environment against competitiveness (and favouring the latter) by European environmental NGOs in their highly successful #NatureAlert campaign. No, what is surprising is that the environment figures in a rather positive light in this document:
UK-EU deal (p.15)
At the same time, the relevant EU institutions and the Member States will take concrete steps towards better regulation, which is a key driver to deliver the above-mentioned objectives. This means lowering administrative burdens and compliance costs on economic operators, especially small and medium enterprises, and repealing unnecessary legislation as foreseen in the Declaration of the Commission on a subsidiarity implementation mechanism and a burden reduction implementation mechanism, while continuing to ensure high standards of consumer, employee, health and environmental protection.
Competitiveness declaration (p. 30)
The European Council urges all EU institutions and Member States to strive for better regulation and to repeal unnecessary legislation in order to enhance EU competitiveness while having due regard to the need to maintain high standards of consumer, employee, health and environmental protection. This is a key driver to deliver economic growth, foster competitiveness and job creation.
So, what does this deal mean for the future of EU environmental policy? These EUCO conclusions confirm that, even when talking about environmental policy in a rather positive tone, EU governments are talking about its achievements in the past tense – it is about “continuing to ensure” and “maintain[ing]” “high standards”. It is not about raising standards and policy expansion. High environmental standards are caveats to the better regulation surge – not an alternative policy agenda. While this may alleviate concerns about the fate of the environmental acquis (i.e. the rules already in place) it does nothing to alleviate concerns about the EU’s capacity for increasing its ambition in the future. This is particularly problematic for areas in which the EU is already falling behind – with regard to biodiversity, where its current policies fall short of its objective to halt biodiversity loss by 2020, and with regard to climate change, where the surprisingly ambitious Paris COP21 deal means EU climate policies are not currently strong enough to deliver on the Paris pledge.