Waste is surprisingly relaxed about the UK-EU stalemate

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
European chief negotiator for Brexit Michael Barnier

The continuous back and forth between the UK Government and its EU counterparts on the matter of Brexit has left the two sides in a seemingly unbreakable impasse, but many in the waste industry don’t seem too bothered by the implications. Should they be, asks David Burrows

Does anyone else feel we’ve reached Groundhog Day on Brexit? I was listening to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 one Friday last month and it could have been 6.10am (I have small children) on any other given day in the past 12 months. The news is basically: there’s a deadlock in talks. Conversations on the negotiating roundabout seem to be running a little like this:

UK: Please can we have a deal?

EU: Bien sur. But show us the money.

UK: Errr, what money?

EU: Au revoir.

UK: (murmurs something about ‘the enemy’).

I’m paraphrasing, of course. But it has left me wondering if David Davis, the UK Brexit secretary, and Michel Barnier, chief among the EU’s contingent, are speaking the same language.

(Which again brings to mind Groundhog Day, and the scene in which Phil Connors asks Mrs Lancaster: “Do you ever have déjà vu, Mrs. Lancaster?” To which she replies: “I don't think so, but I could check with the kitchen.”).

Brexit is serious stuff, but I am sure many of us are now able to empathise with Connors –the man stuck in a time loop. Indeed, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a think-tank based in Paris that counts 35 of the world’s richest countries among its members, has just joined those calling for a second referendum.

“In case Brexit gets reversed by political decision (change of majority, new referendum, etc), the positive impact on growth would be significant,” it said. Imagine replaying all that again.

It’s a “laughable” idea, ranted Change Britain chair and former Labour MP Gisela Stuart. But with every day that passes, it seems that (despite what Theresa May said during her campaign to become Prime Minister last summer) Brexit might not mean Brexit anymore.

I don’t want to labour the point but, see what I mean? Groundhog day.

Optimism in the industry

The irony of all this cannot be lost on those of you at the centre of work to create a circular economy. Thankfully, the stalemate has not left resource businesses staring into the abyss at the Brexit cliff edge, unlike those in the food industry, for instance. No deal is far from ideal – there will be a lot of material in the UK looking for new homes – but as Eunomia’s Peter Jones suggests: we are not a ‘just in time’ industry.

Others are similarly relaxed. Positive even. Suez’s director of external affairs Adam Read asserts: “I don’t think we need to worry much.” There’s even a possible upside, he notes. Three million tonnes of refuse-derived fuel has to go somewhere, so is this a chance for the UK to develop its RDF feedstock heat and power infrastructure as part of the new Clean Growth Strategy (published in October) and develop its remanufacturing base?

Listen to DEFRA secretary Michael Gove speak and it’s all about exactly those kinds of opportunities. “I want to improve incentives for reducing waste and litter, and review the penalties available to deal with polluters – all part of a renewed strategy on waste and resources that looks ahead to opportunities outside the EU.”

Fine words. But start to unpick the details and the reality may be quite different. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is the instrument the Government will use to (I’m simplifying again) copy and paste the body of EU law onto UK statute books. But as things stand, campaigners believe this will “rip out the heart of environmental law”.

For example, the proposals MPs have just started debating could jettison the precautionary principle, as well as the fundamental idea that the polluter pays – and that has led to courts in England and Wales imposing more significant fines for environmental pollution (significant in a sector such as waste that has long been tainted by laggards and damaged by criminals).

What’s more, the fact we don’t have anything domestically to replace the scrutiny and enforcement measures in place at European level (from the rile of the European Commission to the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice) means that upholding the environmental standards developed over the past 30 years could become extremely difficult. Laura Tainsh, a specialist in environmental law at Davidson Chalmers, believes there’s a “significant risk” of legal obligations and standards slipping.

Scottish confidence

In Holyrood and Senedd, ministers have similar fears. Much has been made of a “naked power grab” by Westminster that will see the UK government taking over powers that are devolved, but exercised in Brussels. In Scotland, policies relating to the circular economy held up. “We may need to update our legislation … that will be difficult if the EU (Withdrawal) Bill moves powers beyond the direct control of Scottish ministers,” said Scotland environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham recently.

Could progress be stifled by a UK-wide framework on the environment? England are certainly the laggards and this can lead to back-peddling. Indeed, it’s happening in Europe, where some member states are trying to drag down more progressive countries with changes to the circular economy package. Out or in, one wonders whether it’ll all make any difference when it comes to tomorrow?

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