How the EU has protected us and the environment – book review

Book coverThe first rule of politics is ‘be there’ and Nigel Haigh was there. In and out of Brussels for some 30 years, both influencing and observing the emergence of EU environment policy.  

He helped to amend the EU’s founding treaties to provide a commitment to sustainability.  He was the first director of the Institute of European Environmental Policy (IEEP) in the UK, an organisation, as he puts it, not academic, consultancy nor pressure group, but fleet of foot and with elements of all three.

His accumulated experiences, as recorded in his new book EU environmental policy: its journey to centre stage, bring arcane processes alive, penetrate the mysteries that are EU policy making, and add up to a powerful argument for celebrating and retaining the institutions and body of law that Europe has spent 40 painstaking years developing.

Pioneering pollution laws
Some states, including the UK, Germany and The Netherlands, began to enact environmental laws some years before the EU got involved.  But what the EU has done, Nigel Haigh says, in simple terms, is to “transmit to the weaker states some of the policies of the stronger.”

When I started my career in the environmental movement in the 1980s, the UK was certainly regarded as one of the weaker, despite its history as the cradle of the industrial revolution, and thus some of the earliest pollution law.  This was because controls were far from comprehensive, and the UK in common with other states has benefited enormously from the ability to make supranational regulations and enforce them.  This, as Nigel Haigh points out, is not just about harmonising approaches across countries, but also about acting on topics that no country had yet tackled. Chemicals regulations ‘the Cinderella of policy making’ and large scale pollution, such as that from power plants, are leading examples of the EU’s pioneer credentials.

No longer swimming in our own sewage
So, in the current climate of growing British Euroscepticism, when anyone mutters “what has the EU ever done for us”, Nigel Haigh reminds us that the list of advances is long. Without pan-European legislation we might still be swimming in our own sewage (Bathing Waters Directive); mixing toxic waste with domestic rubbish in open pits before sticking the lot in holes in the ground (Landfill Directive); pumping sulphurous pollution from our power stations to fall as acid rain in continental Europe (Large Combustion Plants Directive); and building over our few remaining truly natural areas (Habitats Directive).

We might not have a Thames now considered one of the most transformed rivers in the world (Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive); hunters might still be shooting our birds on their way back from migration (Birds Directive); and we might still be near the bottom of the European recycling league, in single figures rather than nearing 50 per cent, and with millions of tonnes of useful material remaining uncollected (Landfill, Packaging, End of Life Vehicles, Batteries and Waste Electronics Directives).

We might not be familiar with the C02 emissions of our cars, which have been driven steadily downwards, through mandatory emission reduction targets for new cars, (notwithstanding recent scandals); and we very likely would have no means of improving the energy efficiency of products on a Europe-wide basis (Ecodesign Directive).  This last is one of the most powerful, yet unsung, bits of European standard setting.  It is estimated to have saved UK consumers at least £158 on their annual energy bills by making electrical appliances more efficient, and an estimated €90 billion could be saved across Europe by 2020, translating into 400 megatonnes of CO2, if the process was speeded up by enhanced political backing.

It changed the international dynamic on climate
It’s largely thanks to the EU that the world has risen to new challenges such as tackling greenhouse gas emissions. It has been the EU, acting as a bloc over the past decade, which changed the international dynamics and allowed a climate deal in Paris to be agreed.

Nigel’s observations on early climate change policy and other issues with global reach, such as CFCs, give unique insights into the personalities and problems involved in forging multi-state action in the face of scientific uncertainty and political division.  Many of the chapters in his book derive from papers written contemporaneously with the policies they are discussing, giving a unique snapshot of key moments. Different cultures, both social and political, have been brought to the table.  They included “the southern European who reluctantly admitted that many of his fellow countrymen thought it acceptable to eat protected wild birds, unlike outraged northerners who, as he said, poisoned them with pesticides instead.”

People support EU environment policy
The main point of this timely book is to show how  EU institutions have achieved something that nation states could not achieve alone: a transnational, enforceable, globally influential response to pretty much every environmental challenge.  Addressing the question of whether there is such a thing as ‘European public opinion’, Nigel Haigh is confident that it is supportive: “Despite such differing perspectives, the regular social surveys conducted by Eurobarometer show that the public in Europe generally understands the reasons for EU environmental policy and views it positively.”

And so it should. To take one last example, after the Chernobyl nuclear explosion, the EU acted quickly for cross border public protection, by setting safe levels of radioactivity in the food grown across Europe on contaminated land.  Some restrictions have only recently been lifted, nearly 30 years after the accident, including some in Cumbria and Wales. This capacity for concerted, sustained environmental and public protection is a benefit that must come to the fore in the forthcoming debate on the merits of EU.

Reading this book it is hard not to share Nigel’s belief that if the EU didn’t exist we’d have to invent it, to align forces around a better way to live in Europe.  And we should all celebrate his tenacity, intellect and lifetime commitment to that cause.

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