If you live in the UK, you can’t have missed the fact that, on 23 June, we get to vote on whether to stay part of the EU, or leave. The standard of the debate, from both sides, has been very poor: negative, fear-mongering, continued use of misleading statistics, and focusing on just a couple of issues. It seems to have turned into a Tory leadership contest. This has put many people off engaging with the topic – I have to admit, I haven’t watched the TV debates and interviews, because I know they’re not going to address the issues I care about. And even if they did, I don’t trust the people spearheading the campaigns to tell me the truth. But deciding whether to stay in the EU or leave is a really important step, so I think we (in the UK) all have a duty to look into it, beyond the negative headlines.
There are many important implications to consider when deciding whether to stay or leave. The impact it will have on the economy, jobs, protection of workers, immigration and free movement of people, security, science, sovereignty… the list goes on and on. It’s an important and complex decision. This post will try to summarise some of the environmental issues to consider.
The first thing to acknowledge in any discussion about the EU is that it’s not perfect. While some of its laws, policies and decisions have protected the UK environment, others have had a less positive effect, creating perverse incentives (eg. the Common Agricultural Policy). That means we need to weigh up the pros and cons. This is made harder by the uncertainty over what would happen if we did leave the EU. The Wildlife Trusts, WWF and the RSPB commissioned an independent report to look into these issues, and I’ve drawn on the summary here, together with other sources, as this issue clearly goes beyond my personal knowledge and expertise.
What has the EU done for the UK environment?
Our environment was not in a good state in the 1970s and 80s. We had the highest acid rain-causing sulphur dioxide emissions in the EU and our seas were polluted with sewage. Many of our species had suffered huge declines due to pollution or lack of protection. Membership of the EU has led to:
Substantial improvements in air and water pollution, thanks to EU legislation – we have cleaner rivers, beaches, drinking water and air thanks to the EU. The revival of species like the otter, thanks to our cleaner rivers, is testament to this.
- Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting
- Protection of species and our most sensitive wild places, mainly through the Birds and Habitats Directives – according to Friends of the Earth, before the Directives we were losing 15% of our protected sites a year – that’s now down to
- Increasing recycling and improving waste management
- Banning harmful chemicals, including some pesticides
- Legislation to protect our seas
- The requirement to carry out an environmental impact assessment if developers are planning a major development, or development in an environmentally sensitive area, so impact on wildlife can be taken into account in decision-making, and plans made to mitigate it, if appropriate
On the downside, the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy have created incentives for unsustainable practices which damage our environment and wildlife. And the TTIP deal currently being negotiated between the EU and USA could be very bad news for the environment.
Working together to tackle big issues
The EU brings together member states, and allows them to work together to tackle important issues. It’s particularly useful for issues
that have cross-border implications. Many of the environmental challenges we face do have cross-border implications, for example climate change, marine pollution, fish stocks, protection of migrating birds… Nature doesn’t acknowledge national boundaries, so some issues, by their very nature, are better tackled in a united way by many nations.
It’s very unclear what will happen if the UK decides to leave the EU. One scenario would be that the UK leaves the EU but stays in the European Economic Area (EEA) or the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and thereby retains access to the single market, following models similar to those in countries such as Norway or
Switzerland. This would mean that many EU environmental laws would still be mandatory in the UK, but there would be exceptions – particularly the Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive and the Bathing Water Quality Directive, which were responsible for several of the benefits from the EU listed above. There’s a clear risk that we would lose some of the protection for birds, special habitats, and improvements in water quality for our beaches.
Another scenario would be that the UK leaves the EU and sits as a completely independent State outside the EEA and EFTA agreements. This would mean EU environmental legislation would no longer apply. Our government would be responsible for developing legislation on all environmental issues. Given the current focus on economic growth at all costs, that prospect fills me with terror.
Over the years, a lot of the criticisms of the EU (or at least the criticisms that aren’t thinly veiled xenophobia) have been around the level of red tape the EU imposes. I’m not saying there is no unnecessary bureaucracy in the EU, but a lot of the ‘red tape’ those critics are referring to are the rules that protect our environment (or workers rights). In the current political climate, we’re unlikely to see adequate protection of the environment enshrined in any post-EU UK legislation – it will be an opportunity for the proponents of deregulation to quietly get rid of annoying rules that protect our natural world, and ourselves. Do you trust Boris Johnson, the man who buried negative findings about air pollution around hundreds of London’s primary schools breaching EU limits, to be involved in developing a newly independent UK’s environmental legislation? Or George Osborne, who has publically condemned the EU’s habitats directive?
There’s also no reason to assume that if we’re no longer part of the EU, we won’t end up with something along the lines of TTIP anyway: the UK has been one of the drivers of some of the most damaging clauses of the potential deal, and would need to look for trade deals with other partners if we were to leave the EU.
Areas for improvement
Friends of the Earth, in their position paper on the EU referendum, spell out some of the improvements they are campaigning for in how the EU operates. This includes changing priorities away from economic growth and free trade, improving their laws, and increasing democratic accountability. But despite this need for change, Friends of the Earth are still strongly advocating for the UK to remain part of the EU, as the benefits to the environment outweigh the harms.
The EU isn’t perfect, and it’s environmental record isn’t flawless. But its legislation does provide significant protection to our wildlife and natural resources. By being part of something bigger we can more effectively tackle cross-border issues, which pose some of the biggest environmental challenges we face today. And by being part of the EU we can try to influence it positively. The MEPs we vote for will have a say. If we leave the EU, we lose that voice.
This referendum is important. If you care about the issues I talk about here, please vote on 23 June.