What has the EU ever done for us?

This is the text of an article published in the Quaker magazine The Friend on 12 May as part of my contribution to the debate on the UK’s membership of the European Union:

I should declare my interest in the outcome of the EU referendum: my work involves helping clients (government agencies, mostly) translate European environmental legislation into practice.  I once tried to explain this to Enoch Powell.  His put his face close to mine and, eyes blazing, spat contemptuously “what business of theirs is it if we poison our rivers?”

It was a fair question.  If I was a Dutchman, I would have pointed out that all of our major rivers rose elsewhere and received effluents from sewage works and industries in several other EU States before crossing into their territory.   Were I Swedish, I could point to the role of EU legislation in reducing emissions from power stations elsewhere in the European Union, leading to less air pollution blowing over their territory.  But what about the UK?   We have a short land border with the Republic of Ireland, mostly running through rural areas.  Other than that, the patterns of North Sea currents mean that our coastline is less affected by pollution from the River Rhine than by our own rivers, and the prevailing winds from the Atlantic mean that it is our pollution that blows to continental Europe and Scandinavia, not the other way around.  There is, relatively speaking, less direct benefit to the UK’s environment than is the case for many other countries.

Environmental management can be summarised as devising a path from where we are to where we would like to be.  That destination might be expressed in the language of science but it is tangled up with a slew of social and cultural factors.   Ambition, in many cases, is tempered by what is perceived to be the Art of the Possible, framed by a collective vision.   An environmental regulator responsible for a densely-populated region with a long history of urban and industrial development will, rightly, gain a sense of achievement from any significant movement towards a cleaner environment.  And the Environment Agency in England has made considerable progress over recent years.  But “better than before” is not the same as “good enough” and where European Union legislation goes beyond what the UK alone can achieve it is by establishing this collective vision.

But regulation of the environment the UK as a whole suffers from a more systemic problem: the lack of clear policy separation between agriculture and the environment.   It is, of course, foolish to pretend that environmental policy does not have implications on agriculture, or vice versa.  The problem is that the ambition for the environment can never be entirely separated from issues of farm income or food security.  What may be presented as joined-up thinking on rural affairs may also end up as a fudge.  Far better to lay out the ambition and then make cogent arguments for why that ambition may need to be balanced by pragmatism.

That, to me, is the biggest advantage of the EU to the UK: it brings a clear ambition for sustainable development, based on a continent wide view, independent of views of other sectors.   My point is not that these other viewpoints are not important, or that there may be situations where they have to take priority.   It is that we must not let these sectors influence the setting or implementation of environmental targets.   The accommodations that are necessary to make high principle rub up against reality can be dealt with by derogations within the legislation (as is the case in the Water Framework Directive, for example) rather than by fudges during the process of policy development.

But this debate is less about the minutiae of legislation, whether environmental, trade or any other sector, than it is about how the UK sees itself in relation to the rest of Europe.  The logic of pulling back from international co-operation at a time when national boundaries seem to be increasingly irrelevant, defeats me.  The environment epitomises this: a crude analysis suggests that the UK gains fewer tangible benefits than some other countries, yet this misses the point.  The true benefit of Europe to the UK’s environment is not measured by the absence of negative effects, so much as by the share that we hold in a collective vision that is greater than the sum of its parts.


An abandoned lead mine draining into the River Nent in Cumbria: one of many challenges facing the UK environment where we benefit from engagement with the European Union.

2 thoughts on “What has the EU ever done for us?

  1. Pingback: How to make an ecologist #9 – microscopesandmonsters

  2. Pingback: How green is my party? – microscopesandmonsters

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