Brexit poses big threat to nature

Ray Ryan reasons why EU leaders, legal experts, and envirionmental
groups fear Brexit could impact on legislative protection for nature

THE potential weakening of the legislative protection for nature represents the greatest environmental risk posed by Brexit.

European Parliament members, legal experts and envirionmental groups issued this warning at a recent conference in Dundalk.

They stressed that crucial cross-border co-operation to protect the environment across the island of Ireland must not be “diluted” by Brexit. There are currently over 650 pieces of EU legislation in force to protect the environment, habitats, air quality, waste, food safety, and a myriad of other areas.

They are the principal drivers for the vast majority of environmental protection in both the Republic and the North.

However, it is still unclear how these standards will be upheld in the future, with the British government yet to set out the detail of how it will achieve its stated aims with regard to the environment post-Brexit.

European Parliament first vice-president Máiread McGuinness warned that environmental standards “must not be diluted” by the UK’s exit from Europe.

“Brexit poses many challenges but the threat to environmental progress, which the EU has championed, is one of the most significant,” said Ms McGuinness.

“For Ireland, it is important to have the same high standards north and south of the border and a divergence of standards would be bad for citizens and for business.”

Environmental Pillar co-ordinator Michael Ewing said it was of paramount importance to avoid a hard ‘environmental border’ which would undermine decades of progress in addressing a range of issues.

In the potential absence in the north of any oversight from the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, he warned that effective compliance mechanisms will be critical to resolve and manage cross border environmental issues post-Brexit.

Mr Ewing also called for the island of Ireland to be recognised as a “single bio-geographic unit” and for the cross-border dimension of many environmental issues such as water quality, habitat and species loss to be addressed in the context of the negotiations.

The Dundalk event was key to giving people the chance to discuss the challenges and opportunities provided by Brexit and to articulate how these issues could be jointly approached on a north/south basis

Northern Ireland Environment Link chairman, Patrick Casement, said that environmental networks north and south are dedicated to working in tandem to ensure that environmental standards on both sides of the border are maintained.

“Our small island forms a single and unique unit in terms of our natural environment and our plant and animal species do not recognise the existence of a border,” said Mr Casement.

“Many of these species are currently at risk of extinction on the island of Ireland and any dilution of protection will place them in further danger.”

Mr Casement said there is also a strong economic incentive to ensure protection of the environment.

“It is estimated that Europe’s network of protected nature sites currently provide economic benefits of €200bn to €300bn per year,” he said.

“All-island co-operation on invasive alien species has been, and will be crucial. Invasive species were estimated to have cost the economies of Ireland and Northern Ireland a combined total of over €261m in 2013.”

Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan said the potential for serious environmental consequences from Brexit are very high especially for Ireland.

“If the British government opts for a hard Brexit they will no longer have to comply with EU environmental standards,” she said.

“The EU has established standards in environmental protection and food regulation that are significantly higher than in other countries.

“There is a real risk that in a hard Brexit scenario Britain would sacrifice those standards to increase trade with the US and other countries.

“Their ability to monitor food products coming into the British market would also be hampered as they would no longer have the shared resources of the EU and the European Food Safety Authority.

“This could be devastating for Irish farmers on the island who pride themselves on the quality of the food they produce.”

Many delegates noted that the changed situation post-Brexit could offer new opportunities for the environmental sector across the island to work more closely together in line with a joint commitment to maintain and strengthen standards.

The conference, organised by the European Parliament in partnership with the Environmental Pillar and the Northern Ireland Environment Link, was the latest in a growing debate on the likely impact of Brexit.

A delegation from Northern Ireland Environment Link also recently addressed the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement regarding the potential impact of Brexit on the environment.

Former agriculture minister Brendan Smith said when one engages in general conversation on Brexit, the environment is not the first issue that comes up.

“This has to be of major concern,” he said. “We all think of trade, tariffs and borders, and that is where the general dialogue on Brexit takes place.”

Stressing the importance of the environment, he said one of the reasons the State can export food to 161 countries is the quality of our production. The North would be much the same.

“It is the quality of our farming practices on the land, the processing of the final product and the environment in which our raw material is produced, be it reared cattle or other raw material,” said Mr Smith.

“We often underestimate the fact that one of the selling points for our food sector is the good environment in which our food industry is based. Anything that damages the provenance of Irish food would be very damaging to the sector and the broader economy.

“We must all send the message that any lessening of the attention that has been given on an all-Ireland basis to the protection of the environment will be detrimental.”


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