Will nature be on the European Council menu?

September 19th, 2018

Both today and tomorrow, EU leaders are gathering in Salzburg for an informal Council summit that will end with a working lunch (sans Theresa May) to discuss Brexit.

On the menu is likely to be the state of play in the negotiations on the key withdrawal issues (including the Irish backstop) and an exchange of views regarding the key ingredients that should be included in the Political Declaration on the future EU-UK relationship.

This Declaration will then serve as the recipe for the future trade deal due to be cooked up after the UK’s exit from the EU on 29 March. For the sake of Europe’s environment, it is vital that common environmental standards are part of the mix.

Nowhere will the environmental impacts of Brexit be felt more keenly than on the island of Ireland. Nature does not recognise human borders.

As an EU Member State, the UK has been part of an agreed system for the protection of nature and management of shared resources and common natural heritage; the majority of environmental standards in place on the island are currently based on rules set at the EU-level.

Mr Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, 19 September 2018 Photo: European Union

At present, the proposed Irish backstop will provide for continued North-South alignment for a narrow subset of these rules, focused on those considered essential for avoiding a hard border post-Brexit such as those relating to plant and animal health.

However, this means that as we enter the frenzied ‘end game’ of the negotiations, key questions remain unanswered regarding what will happen to many of the most important environmental standards currently in place across the island – including those protecting wildlife and habitats.

These rules not only afford critical protection, but they also play a vital role in ensuring the fairness and sustainability of cross-border trade – providing a level playing field for businesses across the island.

The EU’s current negotiating guidelines, published in March 2018, make it clear that the future trading relationship with the UK needs to be based on a set of “robust guarantees” that “ensure a level playing field” on issues including environmental standards.

However, it is unclear what the guarantees will be.

It is vital that the Political Declaration makes clear what the guarantees will be for the environment so as to ensure continued alignment with the minimum standards of protection currently in place across the island.

So as the EU leaders enjoy their lunch, it is critical they leave room for the environment.

By Mike Walker

Mike is a campaign consultant with over 15 years’ experience working with civil society groups. He has developed and implemented key strategies in support of the historic reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy; contributed to the #NatureAlert campaign to protect the EU’s Birds & Habitat Directives; and was director of the Southern Ocean campaign that successfully advocated for the designation of the Ross Sea marine protected area (now the biggest in the world). He is currently advising the Environmental Pillar on Brexit matters. 

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