Analysis: The last year has done little to allay fears over the effect of Brexit on the environment

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 31 August 2018 in Inside Politics

While Brexit continues to concern those in the environmental and rural  economy sectors, ministers have had problems of their own closer to home  
 

Image credit: PA

It’s been two years since the UK voted to leave the European Union, yet for those in both the environmental and rural economy sectors, it’s very difficult to find anything that signals increased clarity.

Sectors across Scotland are reliant on the EU in areas ranging from the labour force to regulation, but none more so than those overseen by Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy Fergus Ewing and Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Roseanna Cunningham. And if they were worried in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the last year has done little to allay their fears.

As Cunningham put it in 2016, the effect of leaving the EU on environmental policy was a “big unknown”. Six months later, she explained: “As consumers, we have benefitted from EU rules and as a society, we have achieved a high level of environmental protection and measures to combat climate change. This has helped Scotland progress our world-leading low carbon ambitions.”

Yet, as Theresa May put it in her disastrous 2017 snap general election campaign – albeit in refuting claims of a U-turn on a social care pledge – “nothing has changed”. Amid claims of a Westminster ‘power grab’ on devolved powers, Scottish ministers remain convinced the EU Withdrawal Bill, transferring European legislation into UK law, represents a direct threat to Scotland’s ambitions on protecting the natural environment and mitigating climate change.

For those in the rural economy sector, the main concerns stem from uncertainty over future trade relationships, and what they will mean for producers reliant on access to European markets. And although recent figures show the number of tourists visiting Scotland reached record levels last year, with talk of a so-called ‘no-deal’ Brexit growing, rural businesses across Scotland have been vocal in their concern.

Just last month reports emerged of plans to turn large swathes of the road to Calais into a giant lorry park in the event that a no-deal Brexit stops British trucks accessing Europe as normal.

The UK Government rejected these claims – though Brexiteers and Remain supporters have both raised the prospect of a ‘no-deal’ exit repeatedly – but north of the border, anxiety is palpable.

And while Theresa May’s Chequers plan would allow continued market access – she called it a ‘facilitated customs arrangement’ – the resignations of both David Davis and Boris Johnson raised questions over whether the offering would be accepted by her own party, let alone by her opposites within the EU.

In short, the UK’s approach remains mired in uncertainty, and it is clear that, for rural communities, any loss of jobs and revenue caused by a hard Brexit could be devastating. After all, the UK food and drink supply chain supports more than one in ten jobs, while contributing around £112bn to the economy. Included within the chain are farmers doing primary production, businesses providing seeds and feed, and the industries that purchase their goods, as well as those which manufacture, process and sell them on to others.

As a recent report from the National Farming Union (NFU) found, all of these businesses will be deeply affected by Brexit.

Fergus Ewing described his fears over a loss of market access and its effect on the rural economy, during an exclusive interview with Holyrood in June.

“At the moment, things look pretty tough because of Brexit, with costs like tariffs going up, income likely to go down through lower support, and uncertainty over whether businesses will be able to access the parts of our workforce that come from mainland European Union countries. You know, in abattoirs that amounts to more than 90 per cent [of the workforce], and how do you run an abattoir without staff? You can’t. Fruit picking, tattie picking, fish processing, off-shore fishing, in all these areas, we rely on people from countries like Poland and Estonia and so on to continue to be able to work here, and to want to work here.”

Meanwhile, for Roseanna Cunningham, it was not just uncertainty over the prospect of withdrawal from European regulation – around 80 per cent of Scottish environmental legislation is currently founded in EU law – that posed problems, with the environment secretary also under pressure closer to home.

There has perhaps always been a tension between Ewing and Cunningham’s briefs, but with an Environment Committee report on salmon farming raising serious concerns over the environmental impact of the sector coming out at the same time as Ewing backed calls to double production, the conflict reached a head.

Cunningham also faced difficult questions over the mass culling of mountain hares, with tens of thousands of the animals expected to be killed before the mountain hare shooting season ends on 28 February 2019, mainly by gamekeepers on shooting estates. Nicola Sturgeon herself described the large-scale killing as “not acceptable”, before opposition groups too weighed in, with Green MSP Alison Johnstone referring to “the start of a season of shame across Scotland’s hills and moors, with a blind eye being turned to large-scale culling of mountain hares” and warning that “the failure to ban this horrific practice shows commercial interests are driving government policy”.

But while the Scottish Government was able to point critics to its working group on grouse moor management – due to report in the spring – others rounded on the new Scottish climate bill, which is currently undergoing consultation.

Put simply, campaigners who have been calling for a 100 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 were left disappointed by plans to target a 90 per cent cut, alongside assurances that the net-zero target will be achieved as soon as possible.

As Royal Scottish Geographic Society chief executive Mike Robinson put it, writing for Holyrood.com, the bill “risks losing the edge Scotland has exhibited, and benefited from, by taking action on climate change to date”.

He said: “Can Scotland still claim to be world-leading if we don’t at least aim for 100 per cent by 2050? Striving for a 100 per cent reduction is a declaration of intent which would maintain our international status of bold innovation and moral leadership.”

And so, while staff from across the Scottish Government scrambled to respond to issues ranging from Brexit to climate change policy, a long-anticipated ministerial reshuffle saw a reorganisation of ministerial portfolios, as well as the faces fronting them.

Cunningham’s brief remained unchanged and Ewing saw his portfolio tweaked to remove responsibility for connectivity, which was then handed to Michael Matheson as the new cabinet secretary for transport, infrastructure and connectivity. But it was a level below which saw the biggest change, with the FM taking the chance to promote some of the new talent brought into parliament following the 2016 election.

For Mairi Gougeon, the phone call from Bute House meant a promotion, with the MSP for Angus North and Mearns given the newly created post of minister for rural affairs and the natural environment (reporting to both Ewing and Cunningham).

For Paul Wheelhouse, seen as a safe pair of hands in his previous ministerial role, the reshuffle meant moving from business, innovation and energy to take on responsibility for energy, connectivity and the islands.

The Environment Committee, too, felt ripples from Sturgeon’s decision, with Graeme Dey, formerly convener, shifted upwards to become Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans.

The new convener has yet to be announced, but while the reshuffle had long been anticipated, the issues Dey’s replacement will have to grapple with remain shrouded in the uncertainty brought by Brexit.

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