Thursday, 2 June 2016

The EU and the environment

I am grateful to Clean Slate, the magazine of Machynlleth's Centre for Alternative Technology, for an article on the environmental implications of the UK leaving the European Union. It is a shame that it has appeared when some people, including CAT members, will have already returned their referendum ballots by post.

The UK has a fair record for environmental protection - not as good as  Sweden, Austria, Spain, Germany, Czechia or Luxembourg according to the WEF, but better than south-eastern nations of the EU. Some of this improvement would have been made regardless of our membership, but Catriona Toms in her article makes clear that
a large number of EU directives have helped to enforce standards in areas as diverse as water quality, air quality, fish stocks, waste disposal, hazardous substances, radioactive waste, recycling, construction, habitat and wildlife protection, GMOs, animal welfare and climate change. [...] In the event of a "leave" vote, there's no clear consensus over which exit scenario the UK would follow but, irrespective of what the final arrangement might be, Brexit would result in some important changes:

  • Loss of the UK's voice in EU decisions affecting the environment.
  • In international negotiations, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UK would contribute independently. This would allow us to steer our own path, but we would lose influence over the EU position, which holds more sway at a global level owing to its size and economic importance.
  • The Common Agricultural Policy* and Common Fisheries Policy** would cease to apply and we would need to find alternatives.

On climate change, the EU made commitments at the Paris conference in December. They
are currently being developed into a package of new measures [...] The UK, along with other North-West Member States, has pushed for an ambitious approach to targets, while states in the South and East of the EU have been more reluctant. The UK has been particularly influential in determining targets for 2020 and 2030. [...] Under a Brexit scenario, EU policy may therefore become less ambitious

One area in which the EU's intervention changed UK policy for the better is bathing water:
The Bathing Water Directive was the main reason that the UK introduced improved water treatment from the 1970s onwards. Prior to this, the seas around the UK were some of the dirtiest in Europe, thanks to the government policy of "dilute and disperse". In the event of the UK leaving the EU, this directive would cease to apply. Although it is unlikely that the UK government would take the unpopular step of weakening standards in this area, there would no longer be pressure from Europe to keep our seas clean.

When I repeat to Eurosceptics the argument that we have not so much given up sovereignty as pooled it with other nations, a frequent response is that they don't want to dictate to other countries, let the Wops get on with their own affairs. I believe that water quality is a good example where we do need to impose common standards. Pollution knows no boundaries and stuff dumped in the Mediterranean by one country soon finds its way round the seaboards of others (including some of Brits' favourite beaches) and into food fish. We all need the strong voice of Britain within the EU.

* It has to be admitted that some farmers say that they would welcome a reduction in red tape and that they could manage fine without EU support. On the former point, one has the impression that much of the excessive form-filling is generated by UK civil servants and that therefore will not markedly diminish outside the EU.

** Many fishermen see leaving the CFP as an opportunity to increase their catches, unrestricted by limits imposed by the EU. 

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