How to make an ecologist #9


One of the minor pleasures of this year has been digging out old 35 mm slides, scanning them into a digital form and then using these to trigger memories of the twists and turns in my professional life (see “How to make an ecologist #8“).   I have not done this for some time, largely because other topics have seemed to be a higher priority to write about.   None more so in recent weeks than the forthcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.   A serendipitous moment, however, led me to two boxes of slides documenting two periods of fieldwork in Italy in 1988 and, through these, to remember how difficult travelling around Europe used to be before the advent on the single market.

I visited Italy twice in 1988, as a postdoc on a project looking at Holocene vegetation history.  On both occasions we drove from northern England in a four wheel drive vehicle loaded with equipment.   I have two strong memories of those journeys: the distances we covered (Calais to northern Italy in a single day) and the hassle at every national border we crossed.   In those pre-open market, pre-Schengen agreement days we not only had to show passports at each frontier, we also had to queue up with the lorries and other commercial vehicles and go through a full customs check.   This had also entailed travelling to the Chamber of Commerce in Leeds shortly before we left to get a “Carnet de Passage en Douane”.   This was a document that allowed us to temporarily import our equipment for the duration of the project without the need to pay any customs or taxes at the border.   It entailed leaving a bond in the UK, which was returned if our Carnet de Passage was signed and stamped at every border to show that we had brought out the same as we had taken in a few days previously.  My memory is that the customs checks were not especially thorough; indeed, the officials rarely looked inside our vehicles.  But we did have to sit in the long queues awaiting our turn in order to get our carnet de passage signed.


Fieldwork in Italy during 1988: sampling surface sediments from a lake somewhere in the Appenines with Brian Huntley during our spring visit (left) and using a Livingstone corer to collect a sediment core in the fens beside Lago di Monticchio in southern Italy in September 1988.

Almost thirty years later, I take for granted that I can travel around Europe for pleasure or business with almost no constraints.   In my own small way, I run a business that depends, to some extent, on “exports” to the European Union.   I had forgotten, until I dug out these memories, just what that entailed.  The irony is that establishing a tighter control on our borders will, almost inevitably, make crossing those same borders slower and will generate extra paperwork, particularly for those of us who travel on business.  Of course, once we are in Europe, the open borders will mean that our progress across the continent will not be impaired.   And the stated aspiration of the “leave” campaigners is that there will be a free trade agreement between UK and the EU which will mean that we can continue to do business.

Like much of the rhetoric that surrounds the EU referendum, the reality is less certain than the protagonists suggest.  My own view is that leaving would be foolish but, if that is the outcome of the referendum, then a free trade agreement probably will be achieved, possibly on the lines of that currently enjoyed between Norway and the EU.   Brexiters such as Johnson, Farage and Duncan Smith talk glibly of this as if a deal strongly weighted in the UK’s favour was no more than a formality.   This is naïve: my own belief is that a free trade agreement will be contingent on the UK maintaining the “level playing field” for business which, in turn, will mean staying signed up to, amongst other things, key employment and environmental legislation.   It will also mean paying some money to Brussels to support the implementation of those aspects of EU law, and any other parts of the EU’s activities that are deemed beneficial (access to research funding, perhaps?).   That is something that the Brexiters have been rather quiet about over the past weeks.

Of course, I regard the prospect of the UK staying signed up to EU environmental legislation, in particular, as a small crumb of comfort in these worrying times.  That is partly down to self-interest, as helping with the implementation of EU legislation is a major part of my business.  But it is not just self-interest.  As I have written before (see “What has the EU ever done for us?”), I do genuinely believe that we get stronger environmental protection by being part of the EU than we would if we depended solely on Westminster and Whitehall.

I don’t expect that I will need a Carnet de Passage any time soon.  But remembering how things were, in the days before the European Economic Community morphed into the European Union and promoted genuinely free trade, is enough to remind of just how much we stand to lose after next week’s referendum.


A clump of umbrella pine, Pinus pinea, on a hillside, photographed during fieldwork in 1988.