Feature

Brexit and the Environment

Published on 5 May 2020

Professor Colin Reid has been heavily involved in work on the big impact that Brexit will have on the environment, and environmental law

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The UK’s environmental law has been transformed over the last few decades and most of this development has been shaped by EU laws and policies. As Brexit gradually becomes a reality, there are major questions to be answered about the future shape and direction of environmental governance.  Professor Colin Reid has been heavily involved in work on the impact of Brexit on environmental law throughout the slow, and still far from complete, move towards total withdrawal from all the EU’s structures.

Since before the 2016 referendum, Professor Reid has engaged with academic, professional, and parliamentary audiences on a range of aspects of Brexit. He has participated in governmental and professional advisory groups and now serves as an adviser to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee of the Scottish Parliament.

There have been three main areas at the core of his work. The first, which has been settled, relates to the continuity of environmental law.  He was one of those who from the beginning of the withdrawal discussions pointed out the impracticability of replacing all of the legal measures either found in or based on EU legislation. Accordingly the withdrawal arrangements have provided that all the law in force when the UK formally left the EU on 31 January 2020 remains in effect. The UK can now decide when and whether to adjust the law to suit its own needs, subject to any international treaties - existing ones or new ones setting out the future relationship with the EU -  which may require certain provisions to stay in place.

The other issues continue to be matters of active discussion. One arises from the devolution arrangements which mean that environmental matters are predominantly the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament and Government. Yet it clearly makes sense for there to be collaboration and co-operation across the UK on many matters. How this is to be achieved remains uncertain, with disputes over the boundary of devolved matters, the mechanisms for common frameworks across the UK, the extent of the power that the UK government is seeking to hold and the place of the devolved administrations in the making of international agreements.

The final issue relates to environmental oversight. Leaving the EU means losing (at the end of the transition period) the external oversight exercised by the European Commission and Court. These have provided a means of ensuring that the government has lived up to its environmental commitments and provided a way for citizens to complain where things are going wrong. No Scottish or UK mechanism can replace such powerful external supervision but something must be put in place to ensure accountability.  With different parts of the UK working on different timescales there are still debates to be had on the structure and powers of the new arrangements and how they can operate effectively and with guaranteed independence.

Through many avenues Prof Reid continues to be a key commentator helping to shape responses these challenges.

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