HomeEuropeGreens should keep their powder dry: Brussels doesn’t always know best

Greens should keep their powder dry: Brussels doesn’t always know best

4785409_sThis post is by Matthew Farrow, director of policy at the Environmental Services Association, writing in a personal capacity.

I recently attended a judicial review hearing for the first time. The subject was Defra’s interpretation of certain parts of the revised Waste Framework Directive. As I spent two long days listening to highly paid QCs argue over the precise legal meaning of the phrases ‘subject to’ and ‘necessary to facilitate or improve’, I recalled the hostility from many in the UK’s green movement to David Cameron’s EU speech  back in January.

The prime minister mentioned environmental legislation as one of a number of topics where, he argued, we needed to get the balance right between EU and member state action. Later in parliament he suggested that EU green laws may have gone too far. The backlash from the big beasts of the UK green movement was immediate: he was planning “to turn the UK back into the dirty man of Europe” (John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace); he had “contempt for environmental goals”  (former Friends of the Earth director, Tony Juniper) .

Much UK progress has been driven by Brussels
In many ways this reaction is understandable. Anyone who wants to see high environmental standards in Britain knows that much of the UK’s progress in recent years has been driven by EU directives.  The environmental industry I know best, the waste and recycling sector, owes its modern scale and increasingly high tech investment patterns to EU legislation.

But I have my doubts over the tendency to automatically align progressive environmentalism with the ability of EU green legislation to supersede UK law making. First, the scope and ambition of EU green legislation has developed to the point where it is sometimes difficult to implement pragmatic policy improvements. The judicial review I referred to earlier is a good example. To my mind there is no single-market justification for the parts of the Waste Framework Directive that were being disputed, and UK stakeholders working together could probably have produced a UK-appropriate solution more easily without the protracted legal hair splitting.

Member states are at vastly different stages
Second, enlargement and the impacts of the eurocrisis in southern Europe have meant that the starting point across the EU for each new green target or law has become very diverse.  Some countries, often including the UK, need to be stretched by more ambitious goals, whereas others are clearly struggling to consistently apply even basic tenets of EU environmental law.

Third, while EU regulation can provide vital certainty for business in some fields, this is not always the case.  Take an issue like EU ‘end of waste’ criteria, which determines when waste can be re-classified as a product, eg after recycling. The mechanisms for setting such standards are opaque, beset by vested interests and very difficult for individual firms to engage with. Ultimately they may bring some marginal improvement in intra-EU trading of recyclates but, at the moment, they are probably holding back much needed investment.

Fourth, EU directives inevitably overlook cultural differences, but these can matter. It is not surprising that the landfill diversion targets set in the 1990s have steadily nudged the UK towards the north European model of high recycling rates, twinned with 20-30 per cent incineration with energy recovery.  But, the lack of a UK culture of district heating and NGO hostility to incineration has made this model highly controversial. In turn, this has made it harder to develop a consensus over the best way to treat residual waste, with the attendant problems in getting planning permission.

Strong EU leadership often necessary
Of course, there are issues where a strong EU approach is vital. Where product markets are clearly Europe-wide, and there is a pressing environmental need, EU level action is both right and necessary. Vehicle emission standards are a good example.  And, when I was responsible for CBI energy policy, we supported taking the power to set Emissions Trading Scheme allocations away from the member states and giving it to the EU institutions, deciding that the need for an environmentally robust system outweighed the clear loss of UK industrial sovereignty.

But all environmental policy choices involve trade-offs. While the public clearly wants high environmental standards, I suspect that people also want to feel some direct influence over those trade-offs in a way that EU processes and timescales makes difficult.

Tough love rather than upping targets
So what’s the solution?  It remains to be seen whether the government will have any success in getting support from other member states for any significant rebalancing of powers between the EU and member states.  But a more nuanced approach to policy making may be achievable. For example, when the Commission rolls out its review of EU waste targets later this year, rather than the default approach of upping existing targets and adding some new ones, I’d like to see a focus on ways in which the best member states could stretch themselves and for there to be some tough love to get the worst performing ones on a path to basic compliance.

Our relationship with the EU is likely to be a dominant theme in UK politics over the next few years.  Rather than automatically defending every clause of every green EU directive, better for those of us in the environment sector to develop our own red lines.


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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.