Sunday, 26 June 2016

The nature of Brexit. How the UK exiting the European Union could affect European forest and (forest related) environmental policy

Volume 70, September 2016, Pages 124–127

1. Introduction

The United Kingdom is the EUs third most populated country and its second biggest economy, but this might change soon. On 23 June 2016, British voters will decide if the country will remain part of the European Union or if it should leave. The scenario in which Britain exits the EU is commonly referred to as ‘Brexit’. There are ongoing negotiations and debates on the topic, and opinion papers, columns and articles appear in the media on a daily basis. The mere fact that there is a possibility of the UK leaving the EU fuels the debate about the future importance, approach and direction of European policy making. The topics that are subject to broad media coverage are the impact on trade and finances, and legal or illegal immigration issues.
A Brexit would, however, have repercussions for many domains. One such domain is forest policy, including both “forest sector” or “sustainable forest management” policy (Pülzl et al., 2013) and forest related environmental (e.g. climate, biodiversity, legality) policy (Winkel and Sotirov, 2015). While these issues have not been covered, e.g., by David Cameron's recent ‘renegotiation deal’, a Brexit would have an effect on this sector given the overall influence and often specific positioning the UK has shown over the years on forest and forest related environmental issues. While the EU does not hold a legal competency to regulate forest product markets, it has nevertheless a significant influence on forest policies of the member states through forest-related policies, notably via agriculture, environment, energy and regional development, and, in this sense, de facto, an EU forest policy exists (Pülzl et al., 2013).
In this paper, we take a look into the “what if” question of a Brexit. Basically, we ask what the possible implications of the United Kingdom exiting the EU would be for EU forest and forest related environmental policy. As the dynamics related to these EU policies are complex and largely unpredictable, this paper does not aim to model or forecast the implications of a Brexit. Rather, it aims to discuss possible implications of a Brexit for European forest related policy making based on expert assessment. The paper hence intends to explore the “what if” question, and to open up the scope for possible implications of a Brexit, rather than pin down possible concrete scenarios for the future.

2. Methods

The exploration of possible implications of a Brexit on EU forest and forest related environmental policy has been done in two methodological steps. Firstly, a brief literature review was carried out to better understand the role and importance of the UK in EU forest and forest related environmental policy. Secondly, nine policy experts on the topic were consulted by means of a qualitative expert interview and extensive E-mail communication. These experts have been selected based on the criteria of long-term expertise related to EU forest and environmental policy making, and with the expectation of distinct and possibly complementary perspectives on the issue. Respondents included both state and non-state actors at national and European policy level. Many of them hold key positions related to EU forest and environmental policy making, and for that reason it was important to them to stay anonymous. Consequently, in the paper, these experts will be referred to by numbers, with the numbers in this list corresponding to the ones used throughout this paper.
Expert with long term working experience for EU institutions
Director of an environmental research institute
Director of the international division of a global forest governance oriented institution
Head of a European environmental NGO
Commission and FAO expert
Assistant of an MEP of the European Green Party
Senior staff of an environmental and natural resource research institute
Professor in environmental policy
Professor in agricultural policy

Five interviews were conducted via telephone or face-to-face, while four other experts were successfully contacted through e-mail. The interviews, although based on the same framework, varied greatly in length. By keeping the moderation limited, we managed to collect broad and partially personal views and reflections. Each interview was fully recorded and subsequently transcribed. The quotes in this paper are excerpts from the literal transcriptions of the interviews.
The interviews targeted three main issues: (1) the role and importance of UK in EU forest and environmental policy making in the past until this day; (2) the possible consequences of a Brexit for UK forest and (forest related) environmental policy; and (3) the possible impact of a Brexit for EU forest and (forest related) environmental policy. In the following, we will present and discuss only the findings for the central, last question, but will partly also include data on the first two issues when needed to illustrate the responses on this third question. In doing so, we condense our findings down to seven theses relating to possible impacts of a Brexit on EU forest and forest-related environmental policy, followed by short summarizing conclusions.

3. Results: What would a Brexit mean for EU forest and forest-related environmental policy?

A Brexit will have an impact on EU forest and forest related environmental policy.

While all experts agreed that forest policy issues, and to a large degree also environmental policy issues, do not play any significant role in the current Brexit debate, there was a similarly shared assessment that a Brexit could have significant implications on EU forest and environmental policy in the future. Yet, there was far less agreement with regard to the magnitude and quality of the impact, with experts showing only limited agreement relating to some core issues, while disagreeing on other points. In the following, first, the points where experts tend to agree, or at least did not disagree, will be introduced (Theses 1 to 5), followed by issues where there was more disagreement amongst the experts (Theses 6 and 7).
Without the UK, the EU's forest (related) policy will become more producer and less consumer (importer) oriented.

Several experts underlined the importance of the UK as a timber importing nation. Together with The Netherlands and Denmark, the UK is seen as part of a “club of three countries which always dances a different dance […] than the rest of the European family with respect to forestry” (I1 as published in Sotirov et al. submitted for publication). The importers' perspective combined with a rather “advanced” (I3) level of consumer responsibility and an active environmental movement in Europe has been crucial for the UK's long-term support for policies against illegal logging and timber trade. The UK played a key role in pushing the EU Timber Regulation through despite the, at least initial, resistance of several forest rich EU member states (Sotirov et al. submitted for publication). A Brexit would significantly diminish this specific perspective in the European forest policy arena.
Without the UK, the EU will lose impact in international negotiations on forest governance.

Another main line of agreement was that, with the UK leaving the EU, the Union would substantially lose influence and diplomatic standing in global forest governance: “I would say that we are weakening our position without UK […in] international negotiations. […] The UK is really […] a sort of driving engine and we will weaken also our position in the way that we are no more speaking for that country, they are no more part of the European voice.” (I1)
More specifically, a Brexit could weaken the EU's positioning and influence relating to important forest related environmental issues such as climate change, illegal logging and, broader, good governance. The UK is described as being a “leader in this climate and tropical forest related EU policy.” (I3) This importance of the country in EU foreign forest policy is, by some interviewees, contrasted with a rather limited importance in forest policy within the EU territory itself: “The impact on EU forestry, I would say, has been relatively limited, but the influence on policies affecting tropical forests, notably the FLEGT program, is relatively big — and also on the REDD funding, the UK plays quite a big role.” (I4)
Beyond a specific, topic-wise interest in European foreign forest policy, possibly driven by the UK's importance as a timber importer and consumer, more general diplomatic skills are mentioned as having been crucial for the UK's impact on global forest policy: “That is for sure, because they are exclusively good communicators, they are exclusively good transporters of good ideas, and they have always played a very proactive role in the UN” (I5). With the UK exiting the Union, these diplomatic skills – that some interviewees related back to the advantages of being native English speakers as well as the heritage of the British Empire – would be lost for the EU. On the other hand, one interviewee also mentioned that the UK has in the past been rather sceptical about delegating negotiation competencies to the European Commission, and would have tended to maintain their own representation in global policy making. This being the case, one may speculate how an expected loss of influence of the EU in the event of a Brexit would relate to the effect of then having UK as an additional ally (not anymore represented through the EU), at least in the case both the EU and a then non-EU UK would still share a similar position, or would even coordinate their positioning.
Without the UK, the EU's internal diplomatic capacities will be affected, and negotiation power within the Union might shift towards Central Europe.

Related to the observation of a possible loss in negotiation power and diplomatic skills at the global policy level, some of the interviewees were quite explicit about a suspected negative impact of a Brexit on the EU's internal negotiation processes. As one expert puts it, in forest related policies, the Union would “suffer from the Brexit, because the UK, even if they were very critical sometimes and opposed to European federation ideas, they were always prepared, they were playing an important role and we would lose these, surely critical, but constructive contributions in coordination agreements” (I1). In line with this statement, the UK is described as playing a very professional role in Brussels, they would actually be “one of the best lobbyists in Brussels. […] They have been first and before the whistle is sent out, they already hear it. This is something which is, according to my experience in Brussels, one of the most remarkable properties of the British colleagues.” (I5). This critical, partly selfish, but also professional and constructive role is related back, by some, to the “history of the UK as an influential nation” (I3) that would have been “always very clever how to make sure that those things that are important for them, they can influence” (I3). In line with this observation, again, the empire is mentioned — in a slightly ambivalent way. Against a background of “270 years of experience in managing colonies” (I5), the relationship between UK and the EU could to some degree be understood as a “colonial relationship” by the UK, which would “know how to conquer systems” (I5). According to this expert, this specific facet of the relationship of the UK to the EU is not necessarily a disadvantage for the functioning of the EU.
Finally, some experts point out that with UK leaving the EU, the negotiation power within the EU would shift towards Central Europe, with Germany specifically mentioned (see next thesis).
Without the UK, the focus on free trade and market based mechanisms in EU forest and environmental policy would decrease.

An observation shared by most experts is that with the UK exiting the EU, the focus on trade and market based mechanism in forest and forest related policy might get weaker. In the UK positioning on global forest (related) policy issues, the “free trade ideal is [….] very present” (I1. Yet, it is connected to the idea of having “the right regulatory and public money intervention framework that free trade can function” (I1) in a way that would suit both the UK's economy and the general acceptance of free trade with regard to environmental concerns. As regards EU environmental and climate policies, the UK position would be frequently marked by the idea of economic efficiency. The country would be “ideologically in favour of what they would see as an efficient market-based low price decarbonization strategy” (I2). With the UK exiting the EU, this focus on market based mechanisms is seen as losing importance compared to more hierarchical approaches, e.g. related to directives and regulations, which by some are described as being championed specifically by the German government: “Without the UK you could see that there would be more regulation, less resistance to regulation amongst a lot of countries, and the German government, which is often in favour of regulation, would have less opposition and the UK is quite important, if you like, [to have a] counterweight to the German position.” (I2)
While – despite the indicated nuances – these five theses are rather consensual in the sense that none of the experts have argued against them (with not all experts, however, commenting on them), the last two theses are more controversial, and there was no agreement amongst the consulted experts about them.
The effects of a Brexit on EU forest related environmental policies are ambiguous.

The consulted experts had considerable difficulties assessing the effects of a Brexit on EU (forest related) environmental policy. Several experts point out the importance of UK in initializing and pushing through crucial forest related environmental policies: “You have to look into Birds Directive which […] has been shaped by British NGOs, very very effectively without any doubt. They have good basic data, good information, good structure, [are] well organized, and the advantages as a native speaker do pop up in any session (…) So they have been constructive in nature protection, they have been constructive in rural development, they are also leading in climate change adaptation.” (I5) Others, however, perceive the UK's role as less clear-cut, or even as negatively affecting EU environmental policy making, and highlight the importance of the country in blocking or delaying some major environmental legislation. In addition, the UK's current positioning related to the debate about EU's nature policy is mentioned here: “I do know that the UK was expected to be one of the driving forces to open up the Birds and Habitats Directives, and includes biodiversity offsetting mechanisms within that […]. We have been fighting very hard against that because we think [it will undermine] the Birds and Habitats Directives if that would happen and the UK certainly was not an ally; they were very much in favour of biodiversity offsetting.” (I4) On the other hand, experts underline a general pro-environmental impetus in the UK that would also have an impact at the EU level in case of a Brexit: “There's a lot of discussion about the environment, the [UK] government agencies are the biggest agencies in Europe, the [UK] NGOs are some of the biggest in Europe, the media talks a lot about it, and the government is rather active on all the dossiers, so I think the attention paid to the environment could [decrease], and it could also result in the more sceptical countries, for example Poland, the Visegrad countries [Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia], feeling more confident about their position. If you lose one of your larger, richer and more environmentally interested countries, it gives more weight to the countries who say ‘let's go for the economic development first’”. (I2)
In conclusion, there is no consensus on the possible effects of a Brexit on EU (forest related) environmental policy, with the perception of losing impetus and a push for environmental issues, especially also from the NGO and science community, slightly outweighing the characterization of the UK as a blocker or delayer of EU environmental policy projects.
Without the UK, there might be a greater chance of establishing a coordinated EU forest policy which might focus more on the economic aspect of forestry.

A last and central point concerns the question of what a Brexit could mean for EU forest policy. As said initially, the EU does not have a common forest policy approach comparable with the Common Agricultural Policy. At the same time there is a broad set of forest related policies that affects forest management. Overall, none of the consulted experts expects a significant effect of a Brexit on this overall EU forest policy related setting. A shared perception is that the UK's role in EU internal forest policy debates is “relatively limited” (I4), as the UK does not have an important (economic) forest sector. Experts reflected on the question as to how far a Brexit might ease the debate about a common European forest policy given the more proactive position and interest of other EU countries on the issue: “Maybe the UK going would make that easier, I'm not sure, it's difficult to say. I don't think that other countries would support a very much more proactive EU forestry policy. I suspect the days of that are not around the corner at the moment. There's a bit of an emphasis on subsidiarity, rather than the ambition for having a European common approach. The UK departure might make it slightly easier to have more of a European strategy.” (I2) Related to this point, experts point at the more environmental focus of British forestry in comparison to forestry in most other parts of Europe. With the UK being out of the debate, that might, according to some, create a new chance to strengthen a more coordinated EU forest policy approach with a stronger focus on economic issues. Yet, as other experts point out, the power houses relating to forestry, and also the opponents of a common EU forest policy approach, would be elsewhere: “the UK has not been the big driver of forestry policy. On the other hand, it hasn't been the big sceptic either. Obviously the Scandinavian countries have a very strong view on forestry and I think the UK has been inclined [to align itself with] countries that don't want to have a support regime for forestry, not to try to have a kind of full-scale common policy like for agriculture. Because its forest sector is actually quite small, it hasn't been a big player. In some issues I think it has been a positive player on environmental issues.” (I2) Hence, in conclusion, while the UK's positioning on an EU internal forest policy is mostly described as having been rather indifferent, it seems that the country has not supported an EU common forest (sector) policy, and specifically not with a focus on economic aspects of European forestry, while on the other hand it has partially pushed for environmental topics (cf. also Winkel and Sotirov, 2015). A Brexit may hence increase the chances for a more coordinated EU forest policy approach coming more from an economic perspective. Yet, the UK has not played a key role regarding this question, which is neatly summarized in the response by one expert when being asked about the increasing chances for a common EU forest policy in the event of a Brexit: “It's an interesting question, but I think because of the limited power of the UK and the already overwhelming power and effective political lobbying — I mean, as soon as Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the EU, within months the key positions in the Commission dealing with forestry were filled by Finns I seem to remember. You know, the UK doesn't really care about forests that much, so the countries who do care a lot put a lot of political weight behind it.” (I4)
Finally, one question that some of the experts reflected upon was whether a Brexit might also affect European trade and forest product markets. Two experts reflect on the likelihood that a more substantial part of the timber and forest products imported to the UK could come from non-EU countries in the future. This being the case, a Brexit might also slightly negatively impact the EU's forest sector depending also on the question of whether the UK would remain in the common market. Impacts of such an effect on EU forest policy, if there would be any, remain very speculative.

4. Conclusions

What can be learned from the exploratory assessment that has been done in this paper? We would like to warn against any far-reaching conclusions being drawn based upon this essay. Clearly, our data set is very small, and there was considerable disagreement amongst our small group of experts regarding key questions. Also, even if we to strove for a diversity of perspectives, viewpoints and arguments, and felt that this was achieved when analyzing the data, the views of nine experts are, and cannot be, all-encompassing. However, we found our conversations with the small but very experienced set of experts insightful. Expert elaborations on the impact and importance of the UK for the European Union's forest and forest related environmental policy remain relevant and an interesting starting point for further discussions, regardless of whether there is a Brexit or not. Given that the Brexit decision will have, most likely, been taken when this paper is read, it is then up to the readers of this essay if they discuss our theses against the background of a Brexit, or if they consider them as a basis to assess the future role and importance of the UK as an important country that remains a member of the European Union. In either case, it would be interesting to “re-do” the small empirical exercise we have carried out for this essay at a later time, and to explore the issue in much more depth through a broader policy oriented analysis, in order to better understand either the “nature of the Brexit”, or the nature of the United Kingdom as an important member country of the European Union.


We are deeply grateful to our interviewees for sharing their rich and deep knowledge about the issue with us. We further thank the Academy of Finland for supporting our work under the Strategic Research Funding as part of the FORBIO-project (decision number 293380). Finally, we would like to thank the Editor in Chief of Forest Policy and Economics for providing space for this paper in a very short time frame.


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