The EU Referendum: what would Brexit mean for the environment?

Given the enormous amount of coverage the the EU referendum debate has been given in the media, I have been hugely disappointed by the lack of attention that has been given to ‘the environmental question’.

Fortunately, that is beginning to change. If like me you have been hankering after a single document that objectively sets out the environmental case for both sides of the argument then I have good news: one exists! The Institute for European Environmental Policy, funded by RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and WWF, has produced a 104 page document that sets out the pros and cons of a potential Brexit. It is the sort of document that the British public have been howling for; objective and unbiased, rigorous and academic. And it is pretty unequivocal:

“In conclusion, it is likely that a potential UK departure from the EU would leave the British environment in a more vulnerable and uncertain position than if it were to remain as a member of the EU.”

The document tackles the major issues and arguments: the strengths and weaknesses of the EU and EU policy,

environmental quality, nature protection, climate and energy, agriculture and fisheries. While in places critical of EU policy (which we’ll get to later), it finds that Britain has seen a positive impact from EU membership in all of these areas, and all of them would be likely to be negatively impacted by Brexit.

The document highlights two main arguments for remaining in the EU. The first is that current rigour of British environmental legislation, including Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Birds and Habitats Directive, is all down to meeting EU standards. Put simply, for the last forty years, Britain’s environmental legislation has been light years behind other EU member states. In the case of Brexit, this reticence towards environmental legislation could be disastrous: “judging by UK government responses to a range of environmental proposals from the European Commission in recent years, it seems more likely that the current government, and possibly its successors, would opt for a less ambitious approach than that adopted by the EU in a number of areas, including air pollution, recycling, and aspects of nature conservation.”

The second argument is that with regards to the environment, which does not give a hoot about borders and boundaries, a larger bloc working closely together will be more successful than a series of small groups ‘doing their own thing’. Working within a large, pan-continental organisation with real international clout makes far easier to tackle global issues such as the decline of migratory birds and fish, climate change and habitat loss. Practices like illegal hunting in the Mediterranean make a huge impact on British breeding migrants. From within the EU, the argument goes, Britain is better placed to lobby for their increased protection.

Turtle Dove declines: A global problem

Turtle Dove declines: A global problem

The release of IEEP’s report has seen a number of charitable organisations coming out in favour of the EU.  Sam Lowe of Friends of the Earth UK makes the point particularly concisely: “given the narrative of Brexit, and the policy positions of our current government, we think that were the UK to leave the EU, our environmental protections would be weakened.”

One could argue (somewhat weakly) that, by employing a green think tank like the IEEP which has worked with the EU in the past, the report is biased towards a pro EU agenda. Therefore at this point I would like to furnish you with another document which highlights the potential environmental advantages of Brexit, and has been financed by distinctly pro Brexit organisations. Unfortunately, there isn’t one.

And it is a similar story across the Brexit campaign. Leave.eu contains no reference to environmental policy, nor does the Betteroffout campaign, or Voteleave. In fact, where there should be an environmental policy from at least one of the Brexit campaigns, there is only a gaping hole. Indeed, it is a real struggle to find any published articles that make an environmental argument for leaving the EU at all, let alone a strong argument. It is equally hard to find anyone with environmental credentials who is ‘for’ Brexit. If one wins an argument simply on the basis of the company that one keeps, then the Brexit campaign is looking flimsy indeed.

The most vocal campaigner for Brexit’s environmental potential is the former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. He has said that  “we would do a much better job if we were outside … We would be able to interpret the legislation, such as the Bern Convention (on wildlife conservation) to our own flora and fauna, while also being an active participant in other bodies.”

This is the same Owen Paterson who is widely regarded as being the worst Environment Secretary in recent history. A climate change denier, he is pro fracking, pro scientifically unfounded badger culls and anti windfarms. During his tenure he is said to have forbidden Defra officials from using the phrase “ecosystem services”. This is the same Owen Paterson who suggested bulldozing ancient woodland to make way for housing, as long as new trees were planted elsewhere. The is the same Owen Paterson who, having been in charge of Defra while its flood defence budget was slashed (losing 550 jobs from flood defence), now believes that it is the EU who is at fault for British flooding (see link).

Paterson’s argument boils down to having a British environmental policy for a British environment. It is a deeply questionable argument, given that, as we have seen, the environment tends not to understand the concept of human boundaries. While I appreciate that certain habitats and landscapes are dependant on cultural tradition, and are therefore largely exist only in Britain (for example grouse moors and heathland), that does not preclude those habitats from being subject to the same environmental legislation as any other habitat.

The strongest argument for leaving the EU comes from the EU’s agriculture and fishing policies. For years, on and off, environmentalists have been at odds with the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The CAP’s primary aim is to increase food production, often at the expense of environmental protection. In some cases it encourages farmers to tear up valuable habitat to create worthless farmland (in other cases, however, it pays them to protect it.) Meanwhile, the CFP has long been criticised for its policies regarding bycatch and quotas, which leads to fish being caught, killed in the process, and then returned to the sea.

The CAP: a controversial European issue

The CAP: a controversial European issue

These are points which the IEEP’s report picks up on. It says that “considerable distance remains between the present model and a truly ‘green’ agriculture policy, and there are major concerns about the current “greening” provisions.” With regards to the CFP, it says ‘‘the performance of the policy in environmental terms has been unsatisfactory in many respects and much further progress is required.” The question remains, however: would a British government deliver anything better of its own volition? “It is far from clear whether the UK environment would be better served by a new set of national agriculture policies, which would follow from Brexit.”

There is a possibility that, on leaving the EU, the UK government would increase protection to wildlife and the environment – that the EU is holding it back. Such a scenario is, to say the least, unlikely. Within the EU Britain has a reputation for being among the dirtiest states, least willing to increase environmental protection, and has been so for the last forty years. Some have questioned, somewhat obtusely, whether Brexit would actually be good for the EU environment, at the expense of Britain’s. The argument goes that with Britain out of the way and free to mess up its own environment, the rest of the EU would be freer to enact stronger environmental protection laws. Speaking as a Briton, I can only say that I do not like the idea of my country’s wildlife being martyred unnecessarily for the sake of the EU’s environment.

The fact remains, however, that the last forty years have seen a huge decrease in both the abundance and biodiversity of European wildlife, and the destruction of swathes of habitat. While it would be unfair to lay the blame for this on the EU, particularly as this issue is replicated globally, there can be no doubt that the EU can do more to protect the environment. And it is worth pointing out that the EU’s environmental laws are not as robust as they could be. Currently the Birds and Habitats Directives are going through a ‘fitness check’, which leaves them exposed to ‘watering down’. Fortunately environmentalists the length and breadth of Europe have been lobbying for their protection, though they are not out of the woods yet.

While the EU is an important part of environmental protection in Europe, it would be foolish to think that the EU is in and of itself the answer to environmental protection in Europe and beyond.

I will leave the final word to Dr Charlotte Burns of Friends of the Earth: “to conclude the Cameron referendum gambit is a poorly-thought through policy designed to see off his political opponents from the right with too little consideration given to the consequences of a UK exit for our environment, economy and international standing.”

http://www.ieep.eu/assets/2000/IEEP_Brexit_2016.pdf

https://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/eu-referendum-environment-81600.pdf

http://www.dw.com/en/would-brexit-damage-the-environment/a-19131877

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/cross-party-committee-blasts-environment-secretary-owen-paterson-for-terrible-morale-at-defra-9042396.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/weather/12086367/Leaving-the-EU-will-protect-UK-from-flooding-says-Owen-Paterson.html

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/energy/2016/03/what-does-brexit-mean-environment-its-question-leave-camp-cant-answer

Image credits:

Turtle dove, Wikimedia Commons

Sheep: Michael Palmer, Wikimedia Commons

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Andy Painting

Writer, I guess.

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