Should we apply the Precautionary Principle to Brexit?

By Rupert Read and Samuel Webb

If the last six months have proven anything it is that negotiating Brexit is quite clearly an unmanageable task.

With the likelihood that Britain will be forced into a no-deal scenario the very future of the UK itself looks rather poor at this point. And when the government starts to talk about stockpiling food and medical supplies against the risk of a no-deal Brexit then it is clearly time to rethink whether leaving the European Union is logically worth the risk.

With populations and the environment in a predicament of likely serious or irreversible harm of an uncertain/non-calculable magnitude, the question of applying the precautionary principle against Brexiting itself could be a genuine option to safeguard the country’s future. 

The crux of the precautionary principle [PP] is that where actions risk causing serious or irreversible harm, alternative routes must be pursued. At the heart of the principle is on common sense. Where dangerous and irreversible harm are an entirely possible outcome, why continue hurtling toward destruction?

Some readers might think that the PP is a principle that only applies to the environmental sphere. And it’s true that the main debate hitherto on the PP in relation to Brexit has been on the question, an important one, of whether the PP with regard to environmental threats will be adequately preserved if Britain leaves the EU (Because the PP has mainly featured in our laws, to date, as a result of its being present in EU law). We have written on this important question previously here and here.

It would be naïve however to isolate the precautionary principle as exclusively environmental. It applies too for instance in the financial realm, as shown here. And it could and should be used in regards to Brexit, because the future of Britain is recklessly being gambled with. 

If we have got to the point of worrying about serious societal difficulties such as food shortages as a potential outcome, then that in itself suggests a precautionary case for considering alternative routes to the ones marked ‘Exit’.

An alternative route: a ratification referendum

The recent slow, painful, partial but significant shift in Labour’s position on this question needs to be noted. Momentum has been gathering behind the idea of a second/ratification referendum on EU membership for some time; Gary Lineker’s launch of a campaign for the same objective was a landmark and now Labour are edging towards where the Greens and LibDems have been for ages. This is because it is increasingly clear how risky exiting the EU will be: economically, environmentally, etc… Moreover, consider this poll and others like it; this shows that UK opinion on Brexit has changed and many now favour remain over leaving.

So the alternative route is not only possible, it is feasible.

Much has been said about what the question could possibly fairly be on the ballot if there is a deal to consider that the May government manages to negotiate. The worry has been expressed that it would be unfair to have a three-way ballot question: Remain, Deal or No-Deal; because this appears to split the Leave vote, unfairly ‘guaranteeing’ victory for Remain. There is an easy answer to that worry: have such a referendum be offered on the basis of preferential voting / supplementary voting (like in the London Mayoral election). In other words: rather than simply putting an ‘X’ beside one’s favoured option, allow voters to express both a 1st and a 2nd preference. The option that received the most votes after the 3rd-placed option was eliminated would then win. So, for example, if 40 per cent voted for ‘Remain’ as their first preference, 35 per cent for the ‘Deal’, and 25 per cent for ‘No Deal’, the ‘No Deal’ votes would be redistributed. If the great majority of those transferred to ‘Deal’, then Britain would leave the EU under the terms of the deal negotiated. If on the other hand the second preferences of the ‘No Deal’ voters split fairly evenly between ‘Deal and ‘Remain’, then the Remain option would win out.

A ratification referendum with an option to Remain would be a democratic way out of the current mess – and would at least give the UK a shot at avoiding what we are suggesting is the now highly risky Brexit process. The broadly precautionary case against Brexit could itself be made, as part of that new referendum campaign.

Back to the environment

The relationship between the riskiness of Brexit itself on the one hand and the precautionary principle on the other cannot help but press to our attention once more our species’s current severe environmental predicament. In our view, the protection of the precautionary principle itself is already a strong reason as to why the dogged approach toward Brexit should be abandoned. As it stands, this principle is enshrined via EU law and is subjected to review should Britain continue its commitment to Brexit. Tactical movements by the British government throughout the past two years have seemingly shown their hand against implementing the precautionary principle. The Rt Hon Secretary of State Michael Gove may have publicly stated that he supported the Precautionary Principle in January this year (here), but it remains unclear whether the PP will actually be entrenched in UK law.

Whilst the government’s 25 year plan for a green Brexit plan continues a ‘commitment toward core environmental principles’, there is a risk that the precautionary principle is to be reduced or even redacted, enabling reckless principles that promote untethered growthism, degradation of our environment and a weakened stance toward Britain’s commitment toward tackling human-caused climate change. This risk is particularly present in the desire of some Brexiteers for a bonfire of regulations and for scrapping the PP so that a trade deal can be made more easily with Trump’s America.

The precautionary principle is incorrectly understood as an obstacle to profitability, and to economic and technological innovation. It cannot be stressed enough that the precautionary principle is misunderstood here; the principle does not restrict these benefits to societies, rather it ensures that developments are indeed, beneficial. Simply put, growth and development mean nothing, should we meet our end first…

The PP against Brexit

So, we make two, connected arguments against Brexit: that Brexit puts the PP at risk; and, more originally: that exiting the EU is itself is without precaution.

Is now really the time to debate the alteration or replacement of our safeguards against catastrophic risk? Recall examples taken at random from the past few years; Hurricane Irma claimed the lives of 134 people and decimated parts of the Caribbean. Sri Lanka experienced catastrophic rainfall and monsoon conditions claiming the lives of 213. Similarly, South Asia was hit by extreme monsoon conditions, flooding and landslides claiming over 1200; the list goes on and on. If we finally take a moment to connect the dots and recognise the impact man made climate change is having upon the world, it can only be prudent if not outright common sensical to ensure our political institutions are doing their utmost to reduce – and protect us from – such catastrophic impacts. Here Brexit arrives at a critical juncture for the future of Britain; not only in the protection of democracy, social mobility, development and infrastructure, but rather as a composite of these elements under Britain’s responsibility to urgently act upon human-cause climate change and other environmental threats. We stress that the retaining the precautionary principle is not only a must in post-Brexit Britain, but that the threat of its redaction provides strong grounds as to why Britain’s pursuit of independence is reckless. The putting at risk of the PP is itself a key example of the kind of thing that the PP militates powerfully against.

And, given that exiting the EU seems increasingly likely itself to lead to unpredictable maybe serious harms, we have on our hands here a novel reason why we should think very carefully indeed before risking the route of Brexiting.


Rupert Read is Reader in philosophy at the University of East Anglia, Chair of the thinktank Green House, a and former Green Party MP-candidate.

Samuel Webb is PGT research assistant at the University of East Anglia; he is working with Dr Read’s project ‘Promulgating a new explication and defence of the Precautionary Principle’.

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