Balance Sheet for Europe | Paul McNamee

Paul McNamee from the RSPB takes a look at how Europe has influenced environmental and conservation policy in the UK.

The UK’s wildlife is pretty well-travelled. From the humpback whales that travel past the west coast of Scotland on their thousand-mile migrations each year; to the swifts that arrive every Spring to breed before heading back to Sub-Saharan Africa at the end of Summer; via the countless bird, insect and marine species that reside in the UK but donot call it solely their home. The one thing they all have in common is that they do not recognise national boundaries.

Add to these species the shared resources of the world such asair, freshwater, the seas and oceans, and the natural capitalvital for tackling climate change such as forests and peatlands,and it is obvious why there is general agreement that most environmental problems are best dealt with on a trans-national basis.

This is why it is vital over the next few months that the environment plays a pivotal rolein our conversations aroundthe EU referendum. There aremany examples of EU legislation being beneficial for the natural environment but there have also been several disadvantages due to the UK’s ongoing membership. The question to be asked is whether there are realistic alternatives to the EU in its current structure for dealing with environmental threats and climate change on a global scale.

The environmental advantagesof the UK being a member ofthe EU are numerous. When Iwas at school in the early 90sthere were three core principlesfor any playground joke: Skodas were slow; people only went into bars in groups of three varying nationalities; and Blackpool beach was absolutely filthy. Fast-forward twenty years and Britain’s beaches are a completely different placeto be, thanks to the EU’s minimum water quality standards, and strong implementation from successiveUK Governments. The UK’s seaside towns have become more attractive places to go and, as a result, have seen an upswing in tourist numbers and the various economic benefits that accompany them.

The UK renewable sector has also seen economic benefits from EU policies – incentivising ambitionand development whilst keeping costs down through innovationand competition. The sector has benefitted from the level playing field and market access createdby the EU that has given UK Governments the confidence to start a successful domestic transition to sustainable energy production.

In terms of the natural environment, the minimum standards set bythe Nature Directives (the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive) across the 28 member states have been the backbone of nature conservation for the past 30 years. These standards have meant that business and Governments in every country have been working on the same page, providing stability and avoiding a race to the bottom that can so often occur to nature when it comes to development. The Directives have also created a network of protected sites across the continent, connecting people at a local level tosome of the most important environmental sites in the world.

Often, not only does the process of working as a collective avoid a race to the bottom, but actively pushes our aims further. Being part of the EU negotiating bloc has given the UK a significant voice at international talks in the fight to tackle climate change. The EU has long been the most ambitious developed-countries bloc in the international climate negotiations, raising the bar and framing the debate for other countries in attendance. We have also seen this happen on issues such as illegal wildlife trade where EC Wildlife Trade Regulations are more stringent than the international trade convention (CITES) that the UK is also signed up to.

Finally, there is the practical argument of shared resources having to be managed collectively. We are surrounded by the waters of several other countries, share water catchments with the Republicof Ireland, and only last year saw how dust from the Sahara quickly turned into smog over the south of England. Increasing globalisation and connectivity also leads to new problems for nature. Climate change is an obvious one but invasive species and foreign plant diseases are increasingly seen as some of the biggest threats to the natural world. We can only manage our alien species, our fish stocks, our air quality, our carbon emissions, our rivers and lakes, by actively engaging with the countries around us and setting out the frameworks that we all can work towards.

But the EU is not perfect. Some of the policies the UK is signed up to through Europe are actively harmful to the environment. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which makes up over 30% of the EU budget has watered down the principle of public money for public goods and led to a system where farmers are paid for the amount of land they own and rewarded for unsustainable land management practises. With farmland making up 70% of the British countryside, this is having a negative impact on many of the UK’s most iconic species and habitats.

EU legislation can also sufferfrom flexibility between member states and individual responsibility for implementation. The Water Framework Directive is a pieceof legislation that committed all member states to achieve a good quality status of all their water bodies by 2015. But control of implementing this was put into the hands of individual member states and has led to widespread use of derogations to avoid full implementation. The stabilityand level playing field that such a piece of legislation should create has been made almost redundant thanks to the differing standards of separate Governments.

Finally, there is the argument that by setting a minimum standard across all 28 countries, we encourage the most progressive to go no further. A stringent EU-wide framework on nature protection could be seen to thwart ambition of the more environmentally-friendly EU states with the standards being set seen as a ceiling rather than a floor.

We know that the environment is rarely a top issue for the general public during elections. However, the upcoming referendum gives an exceptional opportunity to push this agenda forward and ensure it is central to any vision for the future of the UK. It is undoubted that the natural world is best managed across national borders and polling shows that the general public understand this. The challenge to the two campaigns now is to show why they believe the environment is best managed either in or out of the structure of the EU.

The Remain campaign must set out a vision for the European environment that builds on the good work already done whilst aiming to reform the areas that are currently lacking (and often damaging) and not trading away vital environmental protections in the name of deregulation. The Leave campaign needs to demonstrate that the strong environmental protections that currently exist can be guaranteed in the case of a Brexit and to identify how the UK will engage in addressing international problems once outside of the EU structure.

Either way, it is vital that the environment becomes a visible factor in the discussions about the UK’s future: I hope to see it as an issue on the doorsteps, in campaign literature, and in the debates and hustings across the country as we get closer and closer to the big question. Because the environmental presence of the European is substantial and needs to be protected and championed if we remain; likewise, it is reasonable to demand that answers are given to the environmental risks presented by leaving the European legislation we currently adhere to. 

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