This is an edited version of an article that features in the latest issue of Green Alliance’s journal Inside Track which focuses on the environmental case for staying in the EU.
Lord Deben is chair of the Committee on Climate Change. He was secretary of state for the environment, 1993-97, and minister for agriculture, fisheries and food, 1989-93.
Britain was once the dirty man of Europe but, of course, we didn’t admit it. Our water, our beaches, our recycling, our wildlife protection, even the way we allowed every kind of waste to be thrown into landfill, was all way behind the times. Yet, the official line was always that the UK was doing perfectly well. It was only after we joined the EU that we began to think differently. We saw how effective some of our neighbours had become about recycling and water treatment. We noted that there were real gaps in the protection of migratory birds, in Britain and in the rest of Europe. We began to see that a third of our air pollution was coming from other countries, as much as we were causing it in theirs.
We also saw that this community of nations made it possible to do something about these things. Being together gave us more power and greater sovereignty. We could only deal with dirty air together. As the world’s largest trading bloc we could insist on cleaner factories, safer products, more efficient, cleaner cars and buses. We could clean our air at source.
It did mean greater expense, at least to begin with. People feared our competitiveness would suffer. Yet, doing these things together not only made sure we could do them at all, but it didn’t distort competition; indeed, it provided the very level playing field on which Margaret Thatcher was so keen.
Nevertheless, as I learned when I was secretary of state for the environment, even though we were within the EU, there was considerable unwillingness in the UK government to make the necessary environmental changes. If we had been outside the EU, I don’t believe we would have cleaned up our water or our beaches or protected our wildlife to the extent that we have done.
What if we left the EU? We’d no longer manage these things together and that means we’d probably not do them at all. No longer part of the world’s largest trading bloc, we would have very much less clout. Our businesses would be more hard put to achieve favourable trading arrangements and, therefore, would be much less willing to accept environmental restrictions.
And yet, the EU would still set the rules and we would have no say in them. Britain’s burgeoning car industry would be subject to EU pollution rules because that’s where so many of its cars are sold, and will continue to be. Those rules would be made without our input, and would favour continental manufacturers.
It is a two way street. The UK has changed because of our membership but, in changing, we have learned to play a constructive part. Because of the UK, EU regulation is less prescriptive and less invasive, we have persuaded other EU members to care more about animal welfare, we insisted that agricultural support should include environmental goals and we have led on tackling climate change.
Brexit would destroy all this. The UK would no longer have a vote or a voice, we would no longer be able to lead on these important issues. Our influence on climate, animal welfare, and environmental farming would be lost. At home we would see the backlash immediately after an out vote. Even the leave campaigners have admitted that agricultural support would be cut by one third. That estimate is optimistic, because without the backing of the continental farming lobbies, a British government of any party would have little appetite to replace the CAP. As an agricultural minister of seven years I’ve seen just how antagonistic the Treasury is to farming support, which is why I believe George Eustice’s Brexit estimate of a one third cut is very optimistic. However, based on this figure, farm incomes would be cut by at least £1 billion and environmentally friendly farming would become a rarity. Farmers would be totally preoccupied by making ends meet and would have to do only what made immediate economic sense.
So, overall, in a Britain shut out of the free trade area, negotiating from a point of weakness new terms of trade with the EU and US, the pressure to relax environmental protection would be immense. Without the support of our European neighbours, the stark economics of the powerless would win out. Many of the battles environmentalists had thought won would have to be refought. Who really believes that the habitats directive or the birds directive, would remain intact in a Britain fighting to make its way without any of the advantages of the European Union?
We have gained so much environmentally from our membership, and we have contributed a great deal to building a better Europe and a better world. The UK should be proud of what we have achieved as a member of the EU. How pathetic it would be to throw it all away in favour of a future with less influence, less certainty, less security and less opportunity to improve our position. The UK still has too much to gain and give to the world as part of the EU, for us to retreat now into the isolation of Brexit.