For many living in the UK but feeling European, the referendum verdict was a great shock. With offices both in Brussels and the UK, Fern staff feel the decision particularly strongly. We have worked with Member States, MEPs, Commission staff and the Council, and seen first-hand the many benefits of being part of the EU.
During the weeks that led up to the referendum, misinformation and lies dominated the debate and surprisingly little was said about the way the EU works. As soon as the referendum results were announced, “What is the EU” became the second top question about the EU asked on Google. Discussions instead gave a platform to those who feel that “foreign influences” hamper their lives, and provided a common enemy in the EU. As well as being a vote to leave the EU, Brexit can be seen as a vote against globalisation, the neo-liberal economic model, immigration and support for refugees. The outcome has already inflamed nationalist sentiments within the UK and across the EU.
Sensible, constructive leadership is now required both in the UK and in the EU to make the best of a generally bad situation. But instead we are seeing is a leadership vacuum both in the UK and the EU. Negative impacts need to be remedied, legitimate concerns need to be responded to, but no-one seems to be in charge and able to move forward. At the time of writing, it is not even clear whether Brexit will happen - some are claiming it is unconstitutional - and hence all is still up for grabs.
So what might it mean for forests and forest peoples?
A pre Brexit article by Georg Winkel and Jacob Derks, which included Fern as one of the interviewees, looked at some of the impacts on forests and is well-worth reading. But to summarise, if the UK were to leave the EU, these would be our main concerns:
There is a possible positive side. The UK was one of the driving forces behind the EU’s aggressive trade agenda, which transfers powers from governments to companies, with often negative global environmental and social impacts. UK financial organisations were also a powerful voice against regulating the financial sector. There is some hope that a UK exit will lead to a different trade and finance regime.
Overall however, it looks like Brexit will be bad news for the UK, Europe and the environment. The EU has brought many environmental benefits for citizens and nature across Europe. Specifically in the UK, beaches are cleaner, air less polluted and biodiversity safer because of EU rules.
The UK has also brought many benefits to the EU. It has undoubtedly been one of the driving forces behind the most innovative policy on tropical forests the EU has ever developed: FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade). This programme to address illegal logging comprises the Voluntary Partnership Agreements, trade deals with timber-producing countries, and the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) to control illegal timber coming into EU market. This programme needs strong support; we therefore call on the UK to continue to champion both the VPAs and the EUTR. The Managing Director of the UK Timber Trade Federation, David Hopkins, has already expressed its support by stating: “I would like to remind all members that the EUTR is now a matter of UK law – regardless of the EU initials at the front! – and is still being enforced in the UK and across the EU. It is a sensible risk-based regulation and an approach we continue to support”.
Georg Winkel also points out that without the UK, the EU’s impact in international negotiations on forest governance will certainly be diminished. The UK was a strong ally on forest governance and on wider intergovernmental policies that affect forests, such as the present push for an EU Action Plan on Deforestation and Forest Degradation. We hope the UK will continue to work with NGO coalitions to achieve its own zero deforestation goals.
The UK is also a large donor of development aid for forests, although surpassed by Germany and the Netherlands. Political change in the UK may mean a drastic lowering of the UK aid budget in general and to forests specifically. If that were to happen, cutting the multilateral funding should go before the bi-lateral funding, which a PriceWaterhouseCoopers study for the UK Government showed is much more effective.
The biggest threat to forests both in and outside of the EU is climate change. The UK was a staunch supporter of a high climate target for 2030 and, crucially, was one of the Member States actively working to ensure accounting for forest carbon remains separate from fossil fuel carbon (see Fern’s new film Introducing LULUCF). The UK alone called for the EU to increase its climate target if LULUCF were to be accounted for in the Effort Sharing Decision. Now progressive countries such as France and Germany must lead the way.
The impact on European forests will be more limited: forest management decisions have always remained with Member States, and forest-rich countries dominate the forest policy debate.
Time will reveal the full impact of the UK’s decision, which will first and foremost depend on what the real implications of the referendum will be. Whatever the outcome, Fern will continue to campaign to make EU policies and practices work for forests and forest peoples and encourage the UK to remain part of that.