Seven things you should know about the EU and the environment
1. The EU is also an environment union
The EU was established for economic reasons but has evolved into an environment union. Threats like air pollution, climate change and habitat loss mean the UK and its neighbours have used the EU to agree over 100 new laws to protect people and the environment. These cover everything from reducing the risk of industrial chemical accidents to protecting rare birds. The EU now has the biggest programme of environmental legislation in the world.
2. It has transformed the quality of the UK’s environment
In the early 80s, the UK was ‘the dirty man of Europe’ because it produced more sulphur dioxide pollution, the main cause of acid rain, than any other European nation, and it was pumping large volumes of raw sewage into the sea. EU agreements meant sulphur dioxide pollution fell 89 per cent between 1990 and 2010. Now nearly six hundred UK beaches meet clean water standards, compared to less than thirty in the late seventies. While the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy and the Common Agriculture policy stand out as negatives on the EU’s green record, overall EU agreements have a hugely positive impact on our environment.
3. EU environment law is slow to develop but hard to ignore, unlike UK legislation
The story of Britain’s bathing waters is instructive. Successive UK governments were reluctant to act because it required major investment, but the gradual effect of EU enforcement means that we now enjoy clean beaches. When the directive was introduced in 1976, the Labour government designated only 27 beaches as bathing waters. After a decade of limited progress, the Commission began infringement proceedings against the UK. The Thatcher government increased the number of designated bathing waters to 397 but the Commission won its infraction case in 1993. The government then ensured that the newly privatised water industry invested more heavily in waste water treatment. By 2011, there were 597 designated beaches, raw sewage is no longer routinely disposed of in our coastal waters and now almost all our beaches meet EU quality standards.
This positive story contrasts with the impermanence of some UK legislation, like the Enterprise Act which set up the Green Investment Bank. It was introduced with cross party support in 2012 but, because the Treasury is concerned the Bank’s balance sheet will appear in government accounts, the government now wants to remove the Bank’s public status and legal green mission. Domestic legislation is quick to develop but very vulnerable to such short term pressures. European agreements are slow to achieve, but hard to unpick, and tend to create more stable public policy.
4. The UK has a big influence on EU policy, for good and ill
The UK has always been an awkward member of the European family, rarely showing love for its siblings, but frequently influencing their behaviour. We’ve fought attempts to regulate chemicals, most recently objecting to the ban on the pesticides suspected of damaging bees. We’ve objected to and successfully blocked binding targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency, overturning German support. But we’ve also successfully championed new approaches, recently persuading 27 European countries to adopt a more ambitious climate target which matches our own. We’ve been at the forefront of attempts to reform the Common Agriculture Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy, to make them less environmentally damaging, and the UK recently led a successful move to stop fishing boats discarding fish.
5. No one knows how many environmental laws would be lost after Brexit
No one knows what our legal status would be with the EU after Brexit, and campaigners who want to leave disagree about the subsequent relationship they want with Europe. It would also take the government many years to negotiate any new deals. This makes it very hard to assess which EU environmental agreements would remain.
In the most optimistic scenario, in which remaining EU countries agree to let us remain part of the single market (the ‘Norwegian’ option), we would still have to comply with the majority of EU laws, but wouldn’t have any influence over how they are developed.
Nevertheless, even in this case, some laws and regulations would cease to apply. The Habitats and Birds directives would go, for instance, which have driven action bringing species such as the Bittern and the Corn Bunting (pictured) back from the brink after years of decline.
If we were not covered by single market rules it is likely that the UK would no longer be obliged to comply with most European environmental legislation. Whilst EU policies written into UK law should continue to apply they can be changed easily once we are no longer tied into a European agreement, eg if the Treasury thinks a particular piece of environmental protection is an impediment to economic growth.
6. Some Brexit campaigners have made daft claims about the EU’s role in UK environmental policy
The co-founder of the Leave EU campaign, Aaron Banks, said that New Year floods were ‘made to order in Brussels’ claiming that European laws meant dredging projects were tied up in red tape and required hazardous waste permits to spread dredged silt on fields. The reality is more pedestrian. EU legislation gives flexibility to the UK government to adapt its policy, which is why, to the dismay of many nature conservationists, it is dredging extensively, and often overlooking opportunities to support natural methods of flood prevention. Silt is only treated as hazardous waste when the silt contains hazardous chemicals which, thanks to EU environmental agreements, is now rare in UK river catchments.
7. You don’t have to like Brussels to acknowledge the benefits of European environmental co-operation
The EU’s glacial policy processes, and the compromises required to reach agreement, can be frustrating. But if it did not exist to help us tackle common problems we’d have to reinvent it to protect our environment. We live on an island but nature knows no boundaries. We breathe the air and swim in the water that moves across and around the continent. We can’t restore damaged fisheries, control air pollution or stimulate the next wave of clean technology on our own. That’s why the EU has been central to the UK’s environmental progress and why it is important that we remain part of it in a volatile and changing world.
As a group of environmental experts have written in their letter to Environment Secretary Liz Truss, “There are many issues which will decide voting intentions at the forthcoming referendum but, on this issue which is so central to the British quality of life, the case is clear: we will better able to protect the quality of Britain’s environment if we stay in Europe.”
Green Alliance is encouraging debate around the risks to the UK environment of Brexit and believes that, to pursue stronger environmental policy and performance, the UK should remain a member of the EU. We co-ordinated a letter this week from 14 senior environmental experts to Defra Secretary of State Liz Truss, warning about the impact of Brexit on the environment. (see The Independent‘s coverage).
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