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For more detailed information about Brexit and environmental law visit the website of the UK Environmental Law Association (UKELA).

Brexit

The referendum vote for the UK to leave the European Union (or 'Brexit') could have a big impact on environmental law in the UK. This page answers some frequently asked questions.

Does Brexit mean I should ignore what this website says about environmental laws that come from Europe?

No. The environmental law information in this website reflects the laws that apply now. We review this material from time to time to try to keep it as up-to-date as possible.

How has membership of the European Union affected UK's environmental laws?

Currently, most of the UK's environmental laws and policies are based on European laws. This is because, as a member of the European Union (EU), the UK is bound to apply EU environmental laws.

The EU has power to make laws on environmental matters and has been very active in this area. Over the past forty years or so, it has introduced policies and laws dealing with a wide range of environmental issues. These include water quality, air quality, waste, nature conservation, environmental damage and climate change.

Now that the country has voted to leave the EU, will all those environmental laws change?

Not for the time being. The EU laws (Directives and Regulations) will continue to apply until the UK completes the process of leaving the EU. This is known as the Article 50 procedure because it is set out in Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. Once started, it could take up to two years to complete. Until this process is complete, the UK will need to keep in place all its domestic laws that give effect to the European laws.

The UK Government has said it intends to start the Article 50 process by the end of March 2017. Under that timetable, the process would be completed by March 2019 at the latest. A recent High Court decision has ruled that the government will have to consult Parliament before it can trigger Article 50. The Parliamentary process could delay things or event block the process of leaving. The government is appealing the court decision to the Supreme Court.

Will all these laws change once the UK formally leaves the European Union?

The UK Government plans to introduce a Great Repeal Bill that will 'convert existing EU law into domestic law, wherever practical' on the date that we leave the EU. We do not yet know whether any environmental laws might be lost or changed because it is not considered 'practical' to keep them.

In the longer term, in the years after we have left the EU, the government might decide to change more of our environmental laws. How far it will be able to make changes will depend on what kind of agreement the UK finally reaches with the EU. We don't yet know what that will look like. Here are two models out of the many possible options.

  • The Norway model: the UK continues to have access to the single market by rejoining the European Economic Area. If this were to happen, the UK would need to keep most of its environmental laws in place. This is because EU environmental laws in most areas would continue to apply. Some EU laws would cease to apply. These include the Birds and Habitats Directives, Bathing Water Directive and the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy. The UK government and devolved administrations would have to decide what to do with our domestic laws and policies in those areas.
  • The UK leaves the single market and is no longer required to apply EU environmental laws. In this case, the UK government and devolved administrations might decide not to change domestic environmental laws for other reasons. For example, if current laws are working well to protect the environment there may be little reason to change them. Changing things could have difficult knock-on effects for businesses and local communities. Also, some of these laws give effect to international law requirements as well as EU law requirements. As international law will continue to apply whatever happens over Brexit, the government may not want to make changes that risk breaching those international obligations.

Even if the UK government and devolved administrations wanted to change things, the laws are unlikely to change all at once. The sheer number of different laws means it will take time to review them and decide what to do about them.

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