Crucial cross-border cooperation to protect the environment across the island of Ireland must not be ‘diluted’ by Brexit, warned MEPs, NGOs and legal experts at a conference (16/6) to examine potential impacts on Ireland’s environment, post Brexit. Potential weakening of legislative protection is seen as the single greatest environmental risk.

Cruit Island

Cruit Island, Co Donegal. Environmental standards for the island of Ireland must be upheld, post Brexit. Photo Gillian Mills  

The importance of ensuring equal status in environmental standards north and south has been recognised at European level. EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has highlighted the risk of environmental ‘dumping’ if a divergence of standards between the UK and Member States emerges.

Over 650 pieces of EU legislation currently in force (e.g. habitats; air quality; waste, food safety) are the principal drivers for most environmental protection both sides of the border. It is unclear how they will be upheld however with the British Government yet to declare how it will achieve its stated aims on the environment, post-Brexit.

Opening the conference, Mairead McGuinness – Vice-President of the European Parliament and Midlands-Northwest MEP – said 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,” she said.

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

Environmental Pillar Co-ordinator, Michael Ewing, added it was of paramount importance to avoid a hard ‘environmental border’ that would undermine decades of progress addressing environmental issues. He also called for the island of Ireland to be recognised as a ‘single bio-geographic unit’.

“Effective compliance mechanisms will be critical to resolve and manage cross-border environmental issues,” he said.

Northern Ireland Environment Link Chair, Patrick Casement, gave examples of how both networks were working to protect and enhance the environment, such as the All-Island Pollinator Plan. He added they were “dedicated to working in tandem” to ensure that environmental standards cross-border are maintained.

“Our small island forms a single and unique unit in terms of our natural environment. Plant and animal species do not recognise the existence of a border. Many species are currently at risk of extinction on the island of Ireland, and any dilution of protection will place them in further danger,” he argued.

Casement also pointed to the “strong economic incentive” to ensure environmental protection. Europe’s network of protected nature sites are estimated to provide economic benefits of €200-€300 billion per year. In 2013, invasive species cost the economies of Ireland and Northern Ireland over €260,000. 

“All-island cooperation on invasive alien species has been and will be crucial,” he stressed.

Sinn Fein MEP Lynn Boylan pointed to the potential consequences for food regulation and outlined how Brexit may be “devastating” for Irish farmers who pride themselves on the quality of the food they produce.

“Farmers could face a flood of cheap food entering the market” and in order to compete, they would be forced “to reduce their own standards or leave the business altogether,” she added.

“It is in the island of Ireland’s interests that any deal struck with Britain and the EU protects our food and environmental standards.”

New opportunities for the environmental sector to work more closely in line with a joint commitment to maintain and strengthen environmental standards could emerge post Brexit, delegates noted.

The conference was organised by the European Parliament in partnership with the Environmental Pillar and the Northern Ireland Environment Link.