There can only be one topic to write about today. On Thursday, the UK voted, by a narrow margin, to leave the European Union and entered a period of uncertainty and instability as the nature of the “divorce” is agreed between London and Brussels. I know that most of my UK readers were in favour of staying in the EU but at least one was in favour of exit. And, as I know from personal experience that the EU is a far-from-perfect organisation, I am happy to accept that there is scope for intelligent people to hold different opinions on the benefits of membership. I also accept that being anti-EU does not necessarily equate with being anti-Europe, or a “Little Englander”. I do believe, however, that the “out” campaigns presented a distorted view of EU policy particularly on immigration, in order to play on the fears of sections of the populace.
However, what is done is done and now attention must focus on the nature of the future agreement between the UK and the EU. As the dust settles and the bluster dies down, we awoke to a horrible truth: the “out” campaign actually have no more idea of what the future will look like than anyone else. We now enter a period of negotiation with 27 countries, several of whom are both annoyed and worried by the UK decision, and they are not going to roll over quietly and let UK politicians dictate terms.
I have grave concerns for the UK environment after an EU exit. The campaigns from both sides involved stripping down highly complicated arguments to a few key points that would have traction with the electorate, and then rebutting the other side’s efforts at the same. It was, in short, a campaign decided more by political process than by principle. Unfortunately, this is exactly how environmental policy is decided at the highest level. The sad truth is that most people’s awareness of environmental problems comes from the media, not direct experience. Press stories can synergise with a general sense that summers are different now to when we were young to reinforce fears of global warming. At the same time, the patterns are not so robust that naysayers cannot spin their own interpretations. The same applies to the aquatic environment: we have (thankfully) passed the stage when many rivers looked (and smelt) appalling. The reason we know that our rivers are polluted now is more due to media accounts, and the reason we know that they are improving is due to the Environment Agency’s press releases. Beyond a dedicated band of anglers, few of us have enough direct experience to challenge either set of statements.
That’s where the EU played a role. They provided a level of scrutiny above that provided by domestic politics. I spent much of the past 15 years working towards definitions of the health of the aquatic environment that were applicable throughout Europe. That provides a benchmark against which claims of rivers improving or declining in quality can be judged. Bearing in mind that Europe extends from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean and from the Alps to areas that are below sea level, this was not an easy task, and what we have is a “work in progress” rather than a definitive product. But it is a positive step that, to push a metaphor, “detoxifies” debates about the state of the environment.
Unfortunately, interventions such as this represent exactly the sort of loss of “sovereignty” that Ian Duncan-Smith, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and others decry. So let’s unpick just what “sovereignty” might mean in this instance: it would mean DEFRA deciding on criteria to define the health of the aquatic environment, irrespective of the views of experts elsewhere in Europe. Bear in mind that DEFRA also has responsibility for agriculture (high political sensitivities), my comments above about the susceptibility of environmental policy to “spin” and the general advocacy for “small government” from the right, and this cannot be good news for the environment. I predict that the clause in the Water Framework Directive that allows “less stringent objectives” under certain circumstances (article 4, paragraph 5) will be applied very broadly in the UK, once scrutiny from Brussels is loosened.
What to do? We may have to wait and see how the “Brexit” negotiations unfold. My hope is that free access to European markets will require the UK to stay signed-up to legislation that ensures a “level playing field” for business, and that the environment will be part of this package. This would be similar to the deal that Norway has at present, and Norwegian colleagues continue to make substantial and valuable contributions to debates on how EU environment policy is implemented. That would mean “business as usual” for the UK environment.
However, changes in the Tory party may bring a more obstreperous breed of politician to the negotiating table and we cannot rule out the possibility that rattles will be thrown out of the pram. Plan B, therefore, may be for independent, non-Governmental bodies such as the river trusts to steps in to scrutinise UK environment policy and measure claims against evidence. As the Environment Agency will be even more liable to funding cuts once obligations to the EU no longer exist, such bodies will also need to watch that sufficient evidence is being collected, and maybe to collect some evidence themselves. All that will take money, and I don’t know where that will come from. But we need to start preparing for a world in which the “watchmen” return to being political pawns answerable only to Westminster and Whitehall.
Memories of happier times in Europe: Cadaqués in north-eastern Spain, June 2012. The top picture shows vineyards near Bäd Dürkheim, Rhineland-Pfalz, Germany (circa. 2000), the area where my love affair with continental Europe started in 1972.