The Guardian view on Theresa May’s Munich speech: partnership should be indivisible | Editorial

Britain is offering commitment and cooperation to Europe on security and intelligence. It should do the same in its Brexit strategy

Theresa May and Angela Merkel speak in Berlin on 16 February 2018






Theresa May and Angela Merkel speak in Berlin on 16 February 2018. ‘Theresa May is in every context except Brexit a traditional multilateralist.’ Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP

A year ago, the annual Munich security conference – the most important gathering of international defence chiefs and ministers in the calendar – met to debate the proposition: “Post-truth, post-West, post-Order?” A year on, this weekend’s Munich conference has a new theme: “To the Brink – and Back?” The sense of relief implicit in the difference between the 2017 and the 2018 themes is unmistakeable and, to an extent, justifiable. The Trump administration has not, after all, trashed everything in the policymakers’ world, as it threatened to do 12 months ago. Explosions in relations with Iran, North Korea and even China have been averted, for now. Washington has not so far rolled over in the face of Russian aggression in eastern Europe. The so-called Islamic State has been pushed back, for the moment. The insurgent political tide that swept the US and the UK in 2016 has mostly been kept at bay elsewhere.

Yet while the worst may have been avoided, genuine positives are thin on the ground. Global confrontations continue and in some cases – the Middle East, for example – to deteriorate dangerously. The alliances that exist to control and resist them are still in shock at the Trump effect. Theresa May is in every context except Brexit a traditional multilateralist. She will certainly give a less thoroughly provocative speech at the Munich conference on Saturday than the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, did at the same venue 12 months ago, when he ludicrously described Brexit as a national “liberation”. Yet, viewed from elsewhere in Europe, Mrs May still leads a country that, by voting for Brexit, has made a serious contribution to the problem of instability, not one that is playing a reliable role in solving it.

Mrs May’s rhetorical answer is the mantra that Britain is leaving the European Union but not leaving Europe. Her visit to Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday and her appearance at the Munich conference are designed to underpin that message and to make it a springboard for her Brexit strategy. Britain, Mrs May says, is fully committed to European cooperation, through Nato and in other ways, to deal with common threats to security. She will cite the fact that British troops are on the frontline against Russia in Estonia, that she has just pledged a new support role with France in the Sahel, that planned troop withdrawals from Germany are now being reexamined, and that the UK is a heavy-hitting and reliable partner in intelligence sharing and police coordination.

Security and intelligence have now been placed squarely in the vanguard of Mrs May’s political effort to persuade the rest of Europe that Britain remains a reliable and committed post-Brexit partner. The head of MI6, Alex Younger, appeared in Munich on Friday with his French and German counterparts to commit themselves to cross-border information sharing. His predecessor Sir John Sawers and the former GCHQ chief Robert Hannigan took to the media with a similar message. And the prime minister will cap this all off on Saturday in a speech that repeatedly urges closer cooperation with Europe and proposes a new UK-EU security treaty.

There are things to welcome here. After a grim two years of government negativity about the EU, it is a relief to hear the prime minister praising the union and being practical about it. Yet it is hard to see what EU partners are supposed to make of a prime minister who embraces the union at one moment then turns her back on it the rest of the time. The one thing that she could do to make her protestations more credible is to bolster it with a soft Brexit strategy. But this, disastrously, is the one thing she is terrified of doing.

Brexit bill may have broken international environment law, says UN

The British government may have breached a major “environmental democracy” law by failing to consult the public when drawing up Brexit legislation.

A UN-backed committee has confirmed it is considering a complaint from Friends of the Earth that the government’s EU withdrawal bill breached the Aarhus convention, which requires public consultation on any new environmental law.

Most of the UK’s environmental laws derive from or interact with EU law, and Friends of the Earth (FoE) has raised concerns that the bill gives ministers “unique and wide-ranging powers” to amend or delete EU-derived environmental law without public consultation, if ministers consider it appropriate.

According to Defra, “over 1,100 core pieces of directly applicable EU legislation and national implementing legislation” fall within the department’s remit.

The “polluter pays” principle and the precautionary principle could both be affected, as could the public’s ability to challenge changes to environmental laws.

William Rundle, lawyer for Friends of the Earth, said: “The government said Brexit was about taking back control, yet it has ignored the views of the UK people in taking it forwards. There has been no consultation on what the withdrawal bill could mean for the environment and environmental legal protections, or what is the best way forwards.

“The Aarhus convention requires effective consultation when new laws are being prepared that can significantly affect the environment, such as the EU withdrawal bill. This would have allowed environmental issues to be debated and understood, but also built democratic accountability and public confidence.

“The current approach by government in conducting Brexit fails to do this; they didn’t even try. Nobody thought Brexit would be easy, but the government cannot ignore its legal obligations, or the views of the people.”

According to the Aarhus convention’s three pillars, information relating to environmental legislation must be provided by public authorities “in a timely and transparent manner”, and the public must be allowed to participate in the development of new laws at an early stage of their preparation. The third pillar is public access to justice, should a party violate or fail to adhere to environmental law or the convention’s principles.

The government may have breached the convention in two ways, FoE says: by failing to set out a consistent legal framework to allow public participation in the preparation of new environmental legislation (article 3), and by not giving the public an opportunity to comment on the bill before it was presented to parliament to be made into law (article 8). FoE says the government failed to consult with the public, and by calling a snap election, any possible engagement with the bill’s white paper was prevented.

In a letter to Friends of the Earth, the Aarhus convention compliance committee says: “the committee has, on a preliminary basis, determined the communicant’s allegation concerning the preparation of the draft ‘great repeal bill’ and the alleged lack of a clear, transparent and consistent framework to implement article 8 … to be admissible”.

Michael Mason, associate professor at the London School of Economics, says the government remains legally bound by the Aarhus convention after withdrawal from the EU, and by abolishing laws relating to Aarhus provisions the UK would be in breach of the treaty.

He says: “The UK would not be able to cherry-pick provisions in the convention: the UK is either fully in or would have to pull out from the treaty. To stay in, the UK government will have to retain all EU-derived law implementing Aarhus obligations.

“A withdrawal from the Aarhus convention would be disastrous for UK environmental policy.”

A House of Lords report calls the EU withdrawal bill a “bill of the first order in terms of law-making powers being granted to ministers”. It says “this bill is expected to generate another 800 to 1,000 statutory instruments in the near future.”

The bill does not require that current environmental standards are maintained after Brexit, nor does it contain a general requirement that the public should be consulted on potentially significant changes to environmental legislation. It does not require ministers to replace the existing European commission complaints procedure on breaches of EU-derived environmental law, which is currently available to UK citizens free of charge. The UK government could still include a requirement for public consultation, however.

In February 2017, campaigners won a case against the Ministry of Justice over proposed changes to cost protection orders that could have made legal challenges to government over environmental issues too financially risky to pursue. A UN committee at the time criticised the government for failing to meet its legal obligations on access to justice under the Aarhus convention.

A government spokesperson said: “The purpose of the withdrawal bill is to provide a functioning statute book on the day we leave the EU – it is an essential bill in the national interest. While we can’t comment on proceedings, we believe we have complied with all of the relevant obligations in developing this crucial legislation and remain committed to maintaining the highest environmental standards. We will be submitting our full response in due course.”

The government now has until 5 June to provide its written response to the complaint. The committee will then decide whether the UK government is in breach of its obligations.