by Dr. Charlotte Burns, University of York
As the remain and leave sides launch their campaigns in the run up to the 23rd June referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, the environment may at last emerge as an issue, with the publication of the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) report on the EU and UK environmental policy. Although this is the third report to be published since March reviewing the implications of the referendum for the UK’s environment, neither the remain nor leave groups has yet engaged with the issue in a significant way. The recent government leaflet explaining why the country should vote to remain in the EU makes only one passing mention of climate change and none of wider environmental policy. The Prime Minister’s reform mandate was also notably quiet on the subject. This silence is somewhat surprising given the widespread acceptance amongst experts that the EU has had a significant impact upon the UK environment. The UK was known as the ‘Dirty man of Europe’ in the 1970s and 1980s and the EU is widely credited with helping the clean up the national environment. Leading think-tank, the Institute for European Environmental Policy argued in its report in March that the EU has been good for the UK’s environment and expressed concern over the prospects for habitats and birds in the event of a ‘brexit’. I have been working with a group of independent experts, funded by the UK in Changing Europe initiative and our report suggests that on balance EU membership has been beneficial for the UK’s environment. The EAC report published today is similarly positive.
There are several key areas of agreement across the reports. First, environmental policy benefits from transnational governance arrangements: pollution does not respect national borders and therefore mitigation of environmental problems requires cooperation across and between states. The EU provides a vehicle for such cooperation. Second, dealing with environmental issues requires clear targets and deadlines. A key impact of the EU upon the UK has been the requirement for clear policies with strong enforcement mechanisms, which UK citizens can rely upon. For example, the UK government is currently facing legal action over failing to meet air quality standards. EU policy also provides a degree of long term stability, and a more certain investment climate for the kinds infrastructural development required to, for example, make the transition to a low-carbon economy or to secure better water quality via projects such as the Thames Tideway tunnel.
However, it is important to note that not everyone agrees with these findings. One member of the EAC, Peter Lilley, a leading Eurosceptic, insisted that a dissenting report expressing his views be appended to the main document. The calls from the Conservative backbenches for a bonfire of red tape have often had EU environmental regulations in their sights, and a recent Economist blog suggests climate scepticism often goes hand-in-hand with euro-scepticism. It seems unlikely then that any of these reports is going to change the mind of hardened eurosceptics. However, for those who are more uncertain about their voting intentions the findings of the EAC and other reports may provide food for thought.
The report in which I have been involved outlines three scenarios following the referendum: a vote to remain in a ‘reformed EU’; a vote to leave followed by joining the European Economic Area (EEA), the so-called ‘Norwegian option’; and a vote to leave the EU and develop a free trade agreement of some kind, the ‘free trade option’. In the first two of these options the UK government will continue to be subject to EU standards in most areas and subject to enforcement proceedings. However, in the third ‘free trade’ case, whilst the Government is still likely to be subject to product rules in order to access the single European market, it will enjoy more freedom to reform existing environmental rules than it does currently as an EU member, where it can strengthen those rules, but cannot weaken them. There is a shared pessimism amongst experts about the likely attitude of the UK government towards environmental protection under these circumstances. There appears to be a broadly cynical view that the UK government, regardless of its ideological composition, is unlikely to maintain the same level of protection or funding for the environment as that provided currently thanks to EU membership. We can only hope that the publication of the EAC report will force more explicit discussion of these issues by the campaigns with some detailed outlines of what a vote to remain or leave will mean for the UK’s environment.
Dr. Charlotte Burns is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Politics and Policy in the Environment Department at the University of York. She submitted evidence to EAC, is the co-author of The EU Referendum and the UK Environment: An Expert Review, and is the author of FoE Report, The Implications for UK Environmental Policy of a Vote to Exit the EU.