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Why we’d be mad to leave the EU (hint: the public quite likes clean beaches)

Porthcurno beach and turquoise sea, Cornwall UK.This is a guest post by Caroline Jackson, former MEP and chairman of the European Parliament environment committee from 1999-2004.

“We need to examine whether the balance is right in so many areas where the European Union has legislated, including on the environment, social affairs and crime”

Thus said David Cameron in his recent “key speech” on Europe – and he sent an immediate shudder through the ranks of British environmentalists. What did he mean? Which bits of EU environmental policy is Britain going to raise in Brussels (when Owen Paterson has stopped worrying about horse/beef burgers)? What are the chances of getting anything changed anyway in existing legislation which it has been a pain to negotiate? Given that reform is needed in the EU approach to legislation (as I believe it is) is he going for the right targets?

Doubts over EU policy
Britain has not been happy with the way the EU tackled environmental problems from the start. During the 1970s British MEPs raised doubts about the legislative competence of the Commission over the bathing waters directive and the first of the waste directives. In the run-up to the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979 the Conservatives’ election handbook characterised the UK environment policy as having “a common pragmatic approach to environmental control and standard setting. It is not general practice for statutes to specify standards either for particular emissions or for general environmental quality.”

The trouble was, and is, that it is extremely difficult for the UK to argue for such liberal principles if to do so would result in weak legislation, or no legislation at all, on issues where the British public probably supports action, even by the EU: issues such as pollution, clean air, clean water, nature protection or all the other good things that the EU has done to protect the environment. So, for the most part, over the last 40 or so years British MEPs and Minsiters have gone through the ritual of questioning costs, and various technical details. But they have raised the basic question of EU competence much less often – although in essence this is, perhaps, what Cameron now wants to do.

Without the EU we would have lagged behind
I participated in EU policy-making on the environment from 1975 to 2009 and there is no doubt in my mind that without the prodding of EU collective action we would have been a lot slower in cleaning up our bathing waters, producing cleaner drinking water, and changing the way we deal with waste.

Occasionally we hit on something where we would actually take the lead – bird and habitat protection come to mind – but for the most part we muttered on the sidelines, reluctant participants. If we were ever mad enough to vote to leave the EU the danger must exist that we would revert to sloth because the stimulus of participation in an active, controversial, EU environment policy would not be there.

The need for reform
But for all this, there are problems which I believe a tactfully-led British initiative might address. We do need to address the issue of compliance. A vast amount of EU environmental law is not properly transposed to national statute books, or is not implemented fully. This lack of action that should lead to a thorough review of where we are with the laws we have: is the detail unrealistically demanding? What capacity/will does the Commission have to review existing law to see if it needs changing? How do we change a culture where revision is not given much priority (though it does happen) and the career-minded do not see it as a fruitful option? And, most crucially of all for Cameron, how do we ensure that we obtain results from Member States which are broadly in line with each other – for competitive as well as environmental reasons – if we take an approach that allows for more national latitude?

David Cameron needs to be mindful of the European Parliament in all this. The Parliament is a co-legislator with the Council in all aspects of environmental policy. It is simply no good a British Prime Minister negotiating with the Commission on something so central as alterations to the EU’s overall approach or to specific laws. Any changes that are meaningful will have to go through the Parliament in some shape or form.

Cameron’s speech posed one other question that is relevant to the environment. Can we, he asked, “really justify the huge number of expensive peripheral European institutions”? One of these is the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen. It is a toothless recording angel, producing excellent reports but with no ability to get the member states to report to it, or do anything. My idea to Cameron is to propose its closure and the withdrawal of its forces to back up the Commission’s staff dealing with environmental compliance in Brussels. Go on – I dare him.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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