I’m writing this on the Tuesday evening following the referendum. Earlier this evening, Labour MPs passed a vote of no confidence in their leader by 172 votes to 40. Leading Conservatives are crowding into their leadership contest, which might all be over by September 2 (or it might not). There’ve been protests outside Parliament from pro-EU protestors, following last night’s by Corbyn supporters. The financial markets have taken a big hit. The devolved administrations and London are looking for ways around the overall UK vote. And there’s seemingly been a rise in racist incidents. Oh, and just now the SNP have said they’re making a bid to be the official Opposition in Parliament.
Politics seems set to be turbulent for some time. British politics isn’t usually this “interesting”. That British politics is pretty dull and uneventful is one of the consistencies in our national life for the last hundred years, along with tea, the BBC, grumbling about the weather and the National Trust’s oak leaf. Perhaps one of the ironies of the vote to leave the EU is that it’ll change Britain in ways people didn’t perhaps imagine…
But legally nothing has changed yet. The UK is still a full member of the EU. Once the UK notifies the European Commission that it does actually want to leave (and many of the Conservative leadership candidates seem in no rush to start the Article 50 process) then there’ll be a two year process to agree some kind of deal – though some think it’ll take a bit longer than that:
“Greenland has a slightly smaller population than Croydon and it has one issue, and that’s fish.
“So with one issue, small population, it took them not two years but three [to agree leaving the EU]. We have multiple issues. The idea that we can do it all in two years I think is highly unlikely.”
Gus O’Donnell, Former head of the UK civil service, March 2016 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-35921610
And even when the UK does actually leave, then UK laws will still be full of the framework that comes from the EU directives that the UK government and UK MEPs participated in developing over the years.
We’ve been working for a while on what either voting to stay in the EU or voting to leave would mean for the National Trust and our cause of looking after special places for ever, for everyone. Overall, we decided that it was not our role to take a position on the referendum but we said that either way, protections for the environment and heritage should be as good as, if not better, than current arrangements.
Our particular interests are mainly around:
- protections for wildlife (eg Birds and Habitats Directives) and how environmental issues are considered in big developments through environmental impact assessments
- measures to reduce waste and landfill and improve water quality
- the way farmers are financially supported and the extent to which they are incentivised to have more nature friendly farming through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and to look after rural heritage (around three quarters of scheduled ancient monuments are on farms)
- cross-European cooperation on heritage and conservation
Although there has been a clear vote to leave, it is not clear if there is consensus around what that means in practice. The UK could join the EFTA group (with Norway, Lichtenstein, Iceland and Switzerland) and be able to participate in the European single market through the European Economic Area agreement. The agreement means that EFTA countries aren’t free of EU regulations – the following table shows which environment directives apply to EFTA countries.
|Future status of important environmental legislation if the UK left the EU and stayed in the EEA|
|Would continue to apply||Would no longer apply|
|Urban Waste Water Directive Treatment Directive
Nitrates Directive Groundwater Directive Priority Substances Directive
Air Framework Directive (and daughters) Industrial Emissions Directive
Emissions Trading Directive
Directive on Carbon Capture and Storage Seveso Directive Directives on contained use and deliberate release of GMOs
Waste Framework Directive Sewage Sludge Directive
Waste Shipment Regulation Landfill Directive End of Life Vehicles Directive WEEE Directive Mining Waste Directive
REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals)
Ambient Noise Directive Water Framework Directive8
|Birds Directive Habitats Directive
Bathing Water Directive
Norway also pays into the EU budget despite not being part of the EU (at around £106 per head, compared to the UK net contribution of £128 per head). But the single market is premised on the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. After a referendum campaign where the Leave campaign was focused on migration, a deal that still allows for free movement of people could be controversial.
The other main alternative would be to negotiate new trade deals with EU states and others. There wouldn’t be a requirement to implement EU directives and it would allow the UK to compete internationally on a deregulatory agenda.
Oliver Letwin has been put in charge of developing a plan for the Government, which can be presented to the next Prime Minister once elected by Conservative members in September. The choice of model either way will have consequences both for policy and politics.
Either way, the UK has already transposed UK directives into UK law so we would enter any post-EU world with a full suite of EU derived protections. For those who see this as a good thing (and the National Trust does) the challenge will be to retain or improve these protections and ensure that the UK Government continues to ensure their enforcement and in meeting challenging objectives, for instance on the water framework directive where only a third of rivers, lakes and other surface water bodies are in “good status”.
The National Trust isn’t taking a position on which model for life outside the EU would be best, but we are calling on the Government to ensure that there is a full public debate on the options. It mustn’t be the case that the Government rushes into a model that has big implications for the natural and historic environment without fully engaging those who will have to live with the consequences.
What is likely to change quicker than the UK laws which implement EU directives are the various pots of money from the EU. The National Trust has applied for European funding on occasion and in the last financial year for instance, we received £276,000 from EU regional funds – that’s about 0.06% of our overall income that year. The funding has paid for specific conservation projects in a range of locations.
Funding from the Common Agricultural Policy is a bigger source of income for the National Trust. But we’ve argued for a long-time that CAP needs to do more to provide a public benefit considering how much it costs. If we are to actually leave the EU, then agricultural subsidies could be changed. We’re not hung up on the income we receive – the important thing is that there should be a stronger emphasis on public benefit, particularly to tackle the severe problems in the natural environment. The state of nature is such that the long-term future of farming is under threat.
Future farming subsidies should also be designed alongside new market mechanisms that recognise and reward farmers’ role in protecting natural assets which provide wider benefit for society and the environment and support long-term productivity in support of the economy.
Farmers are the stewards of much of the country’s natural environment and many recognise the problems that exist with the natural systems on which farming ultimately depends. But with fluctuating prices and squeezed by supermarkets, it can be difficult to look ahead. A little over half of overall farm incomes across the UK comes from CAP – and upland farmers in particular would suffer if CAP was switched off (on average upland farmers would make a loss of £9,000 a year if they didn’t receive money from CAP).
The National Trust has 1,800 tenant farmers and working with them is key to achieving the ambitions for land and nature we set out in our strategy. Both we and they need to have some idea of how farming subsidies will change so we can move forward together. The last thing we would want is a move back to old-style Treasury funding where there is a fight every year about how much is spent and on what.
European funding has also been important in creating cross-European collaboration on research on collections, on conserving our heritage and on how we celebrate our cultural inheritance. We very much hope that those networks will survive in a post-Brexit world and we look to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that these are not lost.
So, in brief
- Nothing will change immediately
- EU directives that protect the natural and historic environment are mostly transposed into UK law – we think they are worth keeping but independent enforcement is needed to ensure they continue to have effect
- EU funding will be the first to change. On farming subsidies, this should be an opportunity to improve on CAP and deliver more public benefit, but farmers and conservation organisations need certainty about the direction that will be taken.
Finally, a quote from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The novel starts in the midst of rows and confusion in the Oblonsky household and Prince Oblonsky shares his feelings with his servant. “Never mind, sir – things will shape themselves” is the reassurance he gets.
Things will shape themselves but it shouldn’t just be a few in Whitehall who are part of the debate about what shape they take so that the wider environmental, social and economic impacts are considered.
Richard Hebditch, External Affairs Director