Britain’s departure from the European Union may free up officials in Brussels to tighten air- pollution regulations everywhere in the region — including in the U.K. because of a twist in the free-trade laws likely to remain in force.
The U.K. has worked to limit EU curbs on vehicle exhaust fumes in the form of nitrogen dioxide, saying it’s unable to meet 2010 rules until at least 2030. If British voters opt to quit the union in a referendum on June 23, one of the primary opponents to those restrictions would lose its seat in the debate where the rules are made.
Even outside the union, the U.K. would remain beholden to a number of environmental laws including the Air Quality Directive if it opted to remain in the European Economic Area free-trade zone, according to ClientEarth, a group of lawyers that successfully sued the government over its failure to cut pollution. The comments undercut the idea that Britain would escape red-tape made in Brussels if it departed the EU.
For the U.K., it would be “the worst of all worlds,” said James Thornton, chief executive of ClientEarth. “It would mean having to comply with air-quality laws which we then can’t influence. With a seat at the table on all EU laws, the U.K. has the power, hard and soft, to influence the direction of EU policy and find practical responses to the environmental problems we face.”
With the referendum almost four months away and the result uncertain, there’s little discussion about how Britain would manage an exit from the union. Also unknown is whether the U.K. would want to — or be able to — remain in the EEA. That may take years of negotiation to clear up in the event of “Brexit.”
Countries such as Iceland, Norway and Lichtenstein that are outside the EU and inside the EEA must enforce the pollution rules even though they have little voice in shaping them in Brussels. Switzerland isn’t bound by the directive because its outside the EEA, despite having its own free trade deal.
The European Commission offers EEA countries like Norway some “decision shaping” in the early stages of drafting a policy, said David Buchan, senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. This influence has diminished over time as more EU agencies were set up to advise on regulations, he said.
“If the U.K. joined the EEA, these directives would apply to the U.K. under the same conditions as Norway, which is perhaps a little bit of influence at the early stages but no final say in the decision making,” Buchan said.