Today British voters will decide if the country will remain part of the European Union or if it should leave. In the last days, weeks and months there have been countless articles, policy papers, columns and blog posts about the potential impacts of a “Brexit.” Most of the topics that are covered in the media on this issue are on international trade, on the financial sector, on labor movement, and on immigration issues. However, a Brexit will have consequences for many other policy areas as well. One such area is the role of the UK and the impact of a Brexit on international environmental policy. So, maybe there is some space to give some thoughts on this issue and to write the “countless and first” blog post  about the Brexit’s impacts.

To tackle the transboundary nature of many environmental issues the EU has established a wide ranging and influential body of environmental law and policy over the last decades (IEEP 2013). Some prominent examples are the EU common fisheries policy, the EU common agricultural policy, the water framework directive and the habitats directive. Moreover, the EU environmental policy is active far beyond its own borders. The EU, and with it all its 28 member states, has ratified numerous international environmental agreements on global, regional and sub-regional level.  A Brexit would jeopardize the UK’s membership in these agreements.

Up to now there has been considerable uncertainty about the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the EU after an exit. This relationship will have an impact on the degree of integration between the EU’s and UK’s environmental legislation. In a recent report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy, the impact of two scenarios on the environmental policy were assessed – a scenario where UK retains access to the internal market through membership of the European Economic Area; and a second scenario where the UK positions itself outside both the EU and the other principal European Agreements.

So what’s the potential impact of a Brexit on the EU’s and UK’s international environmental policy? To answer this it is helpful to differentiate between two geographical scopes – environmental policy affecting the 28 member states and their close neighbors (over principal European Agreements); and environmental policy on a global or regional level, which reaches far beyond the EU’s borders.

Let’s start with environmental policy affecting the 28 member states and their close neighbors. If the UK decides to retain access to the internal market most of the existing directives will continue to apply for the UK (it would have then the same status as e.g. Norway). In case the UK and EU decide that the UK will step entirely outside the EU, none of the existing EU environmental regulations will be relevant for them. However, over the last decades the UK has more or less completely integrated the EU environmental policy in its national environmental legislation. It is reasonable to assume that UK’s environmental policy won’t change much in the short and medium run. A further incentive for the UK to stay aligned is that if the UK is going to import into the EU it needs to comply with EU environmental laws. In the long run changes in some policy areas can be expected in which the UK’s and the EU’s objectives differ widely.  One such area is the EU forests and forest-related environmental policy. The UK has been a specifically active driver on issues such as illegal logging, biodiversity conservation and climate adaptation. A Brexit could mean that EU’s perspective in future will focus more on wood production and timber markets (see a recent article about this issue).

An area which will be significantly affected by a Brexit is the EU’s common fisheries policy. In both exit scenarios the UK will leave the commonly managed fisheries management. Most stocks in UK fisheries migrate from and to neighboring fish grounds. This would result in numerous and potentially tedious negotiations of new fishing agreements between the UK and other states. Further, a shift in the UK’s harvest rate may subsequently shift the EU’s catch quota as well.

What’s about global and regional environmental policy? A Brexit would mean that the UK has to renegotiate these international environmental agreements, which have been ratified as an EU member. For the UK this will not only mean a considerable amount of negotiation time and transaction costs but also a significant shift in bargaining power. The outcome of these negotiations is unclear. Finally, a Brexit would also change the set of countries which are in the agreement and outside of the agreement. This will have an effect on the internal and external stability conditions of these agreements (see Barrett 1994).

To sum up: A Brexit will diverge some environmental policy in the long run and will change the UK’s position in the global environmental policy arena with unknown outcome. But a Brexit won’t mean that the UK and the EU stop cooperating in their environmental policy. For this the stakes (mainly from a market access perspective) are to high.