I’ve spent the last few days contemplating the implications of a UK exit from the European Union, my thoughts focussed by a stimulating workshop in Birmingham organised by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management. Reassuringly, many of the other participants echoed the view that I aired in a post at the start of the year: that the immediate implications of a UK exit (I refuse to use the term ‘Brexit’) for the environment will be limited, as most EU law has been transposed into UK legislation (see “122 days to go …”). We also have a strong body of domestic legislation that dovetails with EU Directives to such an extent that it is difficult to unpick the unique contribution that EU Directives have made to the state of our environment. If I had to point to one event that truly marked an upturn in the fortunes for English and Welsh rivers, it would probably be the privatisation of the water industry in 1989 and the creation of a strong, independent regulator, the National Rivers Authority (see “The state of things, part 1”). That was nothing to do with Brussels.
My biggest worry about a UK exit is less tangible, not so easily supported by hard evidence, but no less real. It is that the EU, with the UK as a willing and constructive partner, defines our collective ambition. Legislation such as the Water Framework Directive (WFD) sets out a vision for the sustainable use of Europe’s water that goes far beyond anything that domestic legislation had ever contemplated. Maybe it is not leaving the EU that is the major concern, so much as what such a step would say about the mentality of a significant proportion of my fellow citizens? My ‘vision’ will be their ‘red tape’ and, gradually, the ideals enshrined in legislation such as the WFD will be chipped away and watered down.
Let’s be honest and admit that the UK is far from perfect at the moment. It has been dragged into the European Court of Justice for infractions of EU environmental legislation on a number of occasions and, if we vote to stay in the EU, we will probably find ourselves there again. Think of the European Court of Justice as the speed cameras on the environmental highway. Simply knowing that there are speed cameras along a stretch of road is enough to quell the temptation to speed and the same principle applies to environmental law. The ‘No’ campaign will claim the moral high ground but, realistically, the more challenging aspects of EU legislation will be quietly revoked as time passes, without this scrutiny from a higher body. The phosphorus standards for freshwaters, which I helped to develop, would be an obvious candidate. This is partly because they represent the small print in environmental protection, rather than headline-grabbing issues. More pertinently, they are sufficiently tight (for which read “realistic”) for many utility companies to struggle to achieve them. Quietly letting them drop from the legislative agenda could even be turned into a PR success (one less reason to raise water charges).
I realise, at this stage, that ‘No’ campaigners will be nodding sagely at what I have just written. ‘Exactly’, they will be saying, ‘that is what we want to happen.’ Leaving Europe is a vote against interventionist approaches to government but, when it comes to matters of environmental policy, the political right has not yet demonstrated a better alternative (see “When Right is not right”).
Of course, the environment will be competing for column inches with high profile issues such as the economy and immigration over the next few months. Immigration presents us with an interesting parallel: when you next consider the free movement of people across European borders, think, too, about the free movement of migratory birds across a continent, and the benefits that joined-up environmental policy has on organisms that cannot be constrained by national borders. You might also like to consider the free movement of atmospheric pollution; again, no respecter of boundaries.
Leaving the EU would be a double whammy for the environment. Not only will it water down our ambition, it will also reduce the amount of independent scrutiny. The ‘No’ campaigners may allude to our “Green and Pleasant Land” in their rhetoric, but don’t expect it to stay that way for long.