What about devolution?

UK flags and French flag

When talking about ‘Brexit’ and the UK-EU referendum, most discussions concerns the whole of the UK, yet a vote to Leave followed by a Brexit raise different questions for the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom. 

This devolution aspect in the EU referendum debate is sometimes discussed in terms of border issues between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the possibility of a Second ‘Indyref’ in Scotland and fears for future funding for the devolved authorities. But it also raises questions about the content of devolved public policies, including the environment and agriculture.

How does the system currently work? 

Environment and agriculture are both devolved matters in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This means that policies in these two sectors are not uniform across the UK. 

Across the UK, many policies impacting the environment originate in EU legislation – the Common Agricultural Policy, or the Water Framework Directive for example. These pieces of EU legislation provide a common framework, both across the European Union and within the United Kingdom. While internal UK policies may differ between for example Scotland and England, they can only do so within the overall framework of the original EU legislation. This reduces regulatory divergence within the UK. 

What could change in case of a vote to Leave?

A Vote to Leave would, depending on the Brexit negotiations (from following a ‘Norwegian Option’ to negotiating Free Trade Agreements), remove the need to comply with EU environmental legislation ranging from a small number of key sectors (agriculture, fisheries, bathing water, birds protection…) to most sectors of environmental policy (with the likely exclusion of product standards, needed to trade with the EU). 

Removing overarching EU legislation opens the opportunity for the UK to devise its own legislation instead. As environment and agriculture are devolved matters this could lead to the creation of distinct Welsh, English, Scottish and Northern Irish alternative policies. These diverging policies could, on the one hand, be better suited to different local conditions in each of the four countries. But, on the other hand, increasingly diverging standards raise questions of equity and competitiveness. Thus, a sheep farmer in the Highlands may receive greater support than a sheep farmer in the Lake District. Furthermore, while governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been vocal in their opposition to GMOs the current UK government has been much more positive, opening the way for a much greater uptake of GMOs in England than the other UK countries. 

For more information on this topic:

  • Prof. C. Reid (2015) ‘Brexit’ and the Environment,  Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance Seminar.
  • Prof. C. Reid submissions to the Environment Audit Committee on UK-EU environment  (1) & (2)
  • V. Gravey (2016) Agricultural Policy Chapter of the EU referendum and the Environment Expert Review.


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