Press Release: All-Ireland environmental coalition in Brussels to voice concern over Brexit

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An All-Ireland environmental NGO coalition is in Brussels today to voice their shared concerns over the serious impact Brexit may have on crucial cross-border cooperation to protect the environment.

As the fourth round of Brexit negotiations gets underway, representatives from the Environmental Pillar and Northern Ireland Environmental Link will be meeting with high-level European representatives, including several MEPs from the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Committee, over the next 48 hours to highlight what they see as the key environmental challenges posed by Brexit.

The coalition will stress that cross-border cooperation currently plays a crucial role in addressing issues such as biodiversity loss and climate change across the whole island but could be undermined by Brexit. [1]

There are currently over 650 pieces of EU legislation in place that act as the principal drivers of environmental protection in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The coalition will point out that the island of Ireland, as a single biogeographic unit, has benefited hugely from this common set of environmental standards.

According to the coalition, these common standards have resulted in a more coordinated and consistent approach to addressing cross-border environmental issues such as the conservation of species and habitats on an all-island basis. [2]

As set out in their joint submission to the Dail’s Good Friday Committee, and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster, the natural environment does not respect borders and its protection needs to be addressed on an all-island basis. [3]

Given that 1 in 5 species are currently threatened with extinction from the island of Ireland, it is now more important than ever to preserve close cooperation in addressing such issues.

Representatives will emphasise the importance of maintaining common environmental standards across the entire island in order to avoid the emergence of a hard ‘environmental’ border.

The coalition will also point to the potential weakening of legislative protection in the North as perhaps the single greatest environmental risk posed by Brexit.

The EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has himself recognised the damage that any divergence of standards could cause, especially in relation to future cooperation and trade. [4]

A further concern is that without formal oversight by the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, a significant ‘governance gap’ could open up in the system of environmental law enforcement in Northern Ireland, leading to a de facto weakening of environmental protection on the island of Ireland. [5]

As such, the coalition will be calling for equally robust enforcement mechanisms to be in place on both sides of the border post-Brexit. [6][7]

A landmark conference was held in Dundalk earlier this year to discuss Brexit’s potential impact on the Irish environment and to explore opportunities for new ways of working together on cross-border issues.

MEPs, legal experts and environmental groups outlined the potential weakening of legislative protection for nature as the single greatest environmental risk posed by Brexit.

Delegates at the conference particularly emphasised the importance of ensuring equivalency in environmental standards north and south of the Border. [8] [9]

Coordinator of the Environmental Pillar, Michael Ewing, said:

“The Brexit deadline is fast approaching, however, to date, negotiations and discussions have been focused solely on the economy, with little mention of the potential negative impact on our natural heritage.”

“Our time in Brussels gives us the perfect chance to highlight the challenges Brexit brings for environmental protection and to articulate how these issues can be averted through continued cross-border cooperation and the maintenance of high environmental standards both North and South.

“It is only by avoiding a hard environmental border that we can ensure our joint efforts to protect and enhance the environment for the benefit of all is not undermined.”

“We want to stress to that all environmental issues such as water quality, habitat and species loss have a strong cross border dimension.”

“Therefore, it is crucial that the island of Ireland and its surrounding waters are considered as a single bio-geographic unit and mechanisms exist to effectively manage cross border environmental issues post Brexit.”

Chair of Northern Ireland Environment Link, Patrick Casement, said:

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

“Any future divergence or lowering of standards on either side of the border would be bad for the environment, bad for citizens, and also bad for business. It is estimated that Europe’s network of protected nature sites currently provides economic benefits of €200 to €300 billion per year.

“For example, all-island cooperation on invasive alien species has been, and will continue to be crucial. Invasive species were estimated to have cost the economies of Ireland and Northern Ireland a combined total of over €261million in 2013 and are a major threat to our native flora and fauna.

“Many environmental organisations have the experience and expertise to offer assistance in the time ahead and we look forward to working on a local, regional, national and all-island basis to meet these environmental challenges.”

ENDS

[1]Since 1973, environmental cooperation on the island of Ireland has been underpinned by the common set of environmental standards established at EU-level. This cooperative framework was recognised and strengthened by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the establishment of the North South Ministerial Council – with a remit that includes facilitating co-operation and coordination in EU matters, with environment listed as one of the six key areas for cooperation.

[2] The vast majority of Annex 1 bird species on the island of Ireland as listed under the EU Birds Directive occur on both sides of the border. For example, 90% of the Canadian Flyway population of Light-bellied Brent Geese visit the island of Ireland each year, with the majority using designated wetlands in Northern Ireland during the autumn staging period (Oct-Nov) and designated wetlands in the Republic of Ireland during the main wintering period (Dec-March).

[3] Northern Ireland Environment Link and the Environmental Pillar. (2017). Brexit and Shared Environmental Issues between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement: https://goo.gl/IYqmGt 

[4] Speech by Michel Barnier, Chief Negotiator for the Preparation and Conduct of the Negotiations with the United Kingdom, at the plenary session of the European Committee of the Regions (Brussels, 22 March 2017): https://goo.gl/Xu6lTt 

[5] For example, see this briefing produced by the ‘Greener UK’ coalition: http://greeneruk.org/resources/Greener_UK_Governance_Gap.pdf 

[6] The European Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union currently play a crucial role in overseeing and enforcing compliance with these standards and securing access to justice for citizens and civil society organisations

[7]Both the British and Irish governments have a long history of failing to comply with their environmental obligations, with numerous cases currently before the European Court of Justice: https://goo.gl/397Tp3 

[8] The conference took place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Dundalk and was organised by the European Parliament in partnership with the Environmental Pillar and the Northern Ireland Environment Link: https://goo.gl/fNAinx 

[9] Conference photos: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/5sa1ushzy8ndllo/AACmgbmgYHecNNP6TptkXwMDa?dl=0 

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