I’m in Belfast this week for the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting. Whilst I’ll write a more comprehensive summary of the event next week, for now I want to talk (again) about the looming fragmentation that Brexit represents, its impact upon British ecology, and the ecological community in general.
I took a tour of the city on my first day here which focussed on Belfast’s history of violence, and I don’t believe this conference could have had a darker backdrop with regards to Brexit. Fears of a no-deal exit from the EU are sparking worries of the return of a border wall with southern Ireland, which could lead to local redeployment of the British army. Public opinion is starting to sway towards reunification with southern Ireland.
But complex local politics aside, the feelings inside the conference halls seem mixed. From my short time here, there seems to be a glimmer of possibility at the opportunity that Brexit could present, but it’s overshadowed by a layer of resignation, perhaps brought on by polls that suggest the conservative government will sweep tomorrow’s election.
“It makes me not want to come back. It’s sad and frustrating, because I’d rather be back in the UK, but I don’t think the opportunities will be as good.”
Lucy Kirkpatrick currently works in Belgium as a wildlife disease ecologist. She’s been overseas long enough at this point to qualify for Belgian residency, and with the UK seemingly determined on shutting themselves off from the rest of Europe, remaining in Europe seems the better option.
Lucy’s colleague Emily Simmonds feels much the same. She and her fiancee work jointly in Britain and Norway.
“We go back and forth a lot, which means Brexit will impact my personal life quite dramatically. Even though I’m a British citizen, if I keep working across two countries I won’t be able to get the benefits of British life, like free health care.”
They’re far from alone. The frustration with a government seemingly determined to isolate themselves from the European community among younger scientists here is palpable. Many of the projects that the attendees work on are pan-European, and it’s unclear what effect a hard Brexit will have on their funding, let alone their ability to effectively work with colleagues in other nations.
Yet in light of this frustration, there does seem to be a determined mindset to maintain international partnerships. Whilst there have been rumblings that forming projects with British partners would potentially be more tiresome going forward, the attitude here seems to be that people will ensure that collaborative science doesn’t fall by the wayside.
The Loss of Independent Oversight
Abigail McQuatters-Gollop mentioned this in our recent interview, and it’s a view that’s been echoed here. Brexit means that the European Court of Justice no longer has the right to punish Britain for environmental negligence or destruction, with that responsibility falling to Britain. A new Office of Environmental Protection has been proposed, but it essentially means that one branch of the government will have to fine another branch. As Abigail put it,
“That is a dangerous road to go down. Having independent oversight of how we manage our environmental resources is important for holding the government to account.”
More Bad News for Insects
One of the more enjoyable poster presentations here was by Amy Arnott, who works with insect communities in farmland in Northern Ireland. Many smaller farmers in the region are supported by subsidies from the EU, and without them are in danger of losing their land to larger corporations.
“If the subsidies don’t come through, we lose these small farms, which support massive amounts of insect biodiversity. The landscape gets homogenised and we lose that biodiversity. People always talk about how Ireland’s green, and that’s because we have so few forests, so these smaller farms are really important.”
As with many other instances, the current government has said that the subsidies will be replaced, but it’s unclear where the funding is coming from.
The Glimmer of Optimism
This is the thing that seems to be keeping people hopeful. That this could be a real opportunity for the UK to improve on the current environmental framework, and that they could end up doing more for their ecosystems than what the EU has laid out.
Unfortunately, that glimmer of optimism is tempered by the harsh reality that Boris Johnson’s conservatives seem likely to have their position of power solidified tomorrow. Environmental interests and conservative interests often don’t align, and the UK is no exception. The feeling if that while there could have been a valuable opportunity here, it won’t be taken.
And the rest…
There are other significant losses that Brexit could entail. The UK’s Natural History Museum receives a significant amount of funding from tourist dollars, and making travel to the UK more restricted could lower resources for one of the country’s key scientific institutions. The sending of biological samples between samples could become a lot more difficult. And as we’ve spoken about before, funding from European Research Grants would no longer be a possibility, which would remove access to around 3.4 billion euros in research money.
To echo that glimmer of optimism, I hope that when Brexit goes ahead, the UK maintains their vibrant community of ecologists, and creates an improved environmental framework. I guess we’ll have a better idea of how difficult that will be by Friday morning.