The EU: environmental good or ill?

The next political tremor tomorrow when the Euro elections results are announced, no doubt will be reported by Nick Robinson on the BBC as a Magnititude 10 super quake. Has Farage got hold of polaroids of Nick as a student getting up to something dodgy? Robinson seems under some sort of geas such that he can only talk about Farage and UKIP.

Anyway, it got me thinking – from an environmental perspective, should the UK stay in the EU or not?

The EU has given us the Birds Directive (which led to the Wildlife and Countryside Act), the EIA Directive, which forced environmental considerations to be taken into account in the planning system, the SEA Directive which extended them to strategic policies, the Habitats Directive gave us SACs and strict protection for bats and newts.

Thanks to the Birds and Habitats Directives we have the Natura 2000 network of sites with SPAs covering 2.75Mha and SACs covering 8M ha (of which 2.9Mha are terrestrial). There is a very large overlap between the two. The EC (as of 2011) gives a figure of 1.77Mha of terrestrial European Sites – that’s quite a big discrepancy!

Anyway European Sites have relatively strong protection and this is applied to most (not all) of the best wildlife sites in the UK. There is a Marine Framework Directive as well – has this done anything? I don’t know.

The Nitrates Directive has sought to reduce the impact of Nitrogen on human health and the environment and the Water Framework Directive has sought to improve the quality of rivers and lakes. Latest in this line is the Invasive Species Directive which is just being finished off in Brussels.

I would suggest that had these EU Directives not been in place, the measures they required the UK to take would not have happened. Indeed the UK has been one of the biggest foot draggers when it comes to implementation. It took us 16 years to implement the EIA directive for agriculture and even then it was done so badly the mechanism collapsed 5 years later, to be replaced with a pathetically weak approach. THe UK continues to face legal challenges to its implementation of the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive, 20 and 30 years after they were created. So much for gold-plating.

On the other hand the EU has given us the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. Now of course the UK Government was subsidising farmers to increase productivity at the expense of the environment for long before we entered the Common Market. Most would agree though that that destruction increased substantially after we joined it in 1973. The Common Fisheries Policy has perhaps been an even bigger environmental disaster than the CAP, albeit mostly an invisible one, until now when we realise that subsidised industrial fishing has led to most of the fish disappearing. And we mustn’t forget the grand European Plans such as the Trans European Networks of motorways (and on the mainland high speed trains) and the EBRD funding environmentally disastrous mega engineering projects in and beyond Europe.

Overall then the EU has driven stronger protection for a small number of high quality sites covering between 5 and 10% of the UK land surface. But it has funded wholesale environmental damage on the 75% of the UK that is agricultural land; and even greater destruction in our seas.

Would the protection of wildlife have been as strong without the EU? Sites of Special Scientific Interest had been around since 1949, though they only received any significant protection in 1985. The main cause of loss of SSSIs was agriculture – in the 1970s and 1980s – funded by the CAP. And this equally applied to sites supporting important archaeology, history and community value.

Would the environmental damage wrought by the CAP and CFP been equivalent if the funding had come from HM Treasury? That seems less likely to me. UK Government funds were provided to farmers through the 1947 Agriculture Act, funds to intensify production.  This was the prize given to Farmers in return for their heroic efforts to increase domestic food production during the Second World War. Much damage was wrought in the 1950s and 60s with domestic funding. But would this level of subsidy have been maintained for as long as it has been?

Once in the EU, UK farmers benefited greatly from the French farmers strangle-hold over CAP policy, ensuring that generous subsidies were paid to the huge population of French farmers  – subsidies that quickly led to overproduction and the surreal world of milk lakes and butter mountains.  Some argue that the CAP was created as a way for the Germans to pay war reparations to the French by the back door. Whatever, this stranglehold continued, continues to this day. I suspect that if Agriculture had been under domestic control the generous subsidies of the 50s and 60s would have evaporated during the economic recessions of the 70s 80s 90s etc.

Enough of such speculation. Where do we go from here? That rather depends on what happens tomorrow – not just in the UK but elsewhere in Europe. The European public may have decided to call time on the great European Experiment, by voting in a rag tag of nationalist/neofascist/anti-european leftist parties hell bent on dismantling the EU from the inside.

Mind you they will have a major job on their hands, fighting the very well-entrenched Eurocrats in the Commission on the one hand, The Council of Ministers (many of whom will still be from the mainstream pro-Europe camp) and the massively powerful Euro-lobby of vested interests, whose sole aim is to ensure the flow of public funds to private interests continues – such as our own NFU.








About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agriculture, bureaucracy, Common Agricultural Policy, corporate lobbying, European environment policy, Habitats Directive, NFU, SSSis, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The EU: environmental good or ill?

  1. Mike says:

    Tricky one this. At the moment EU is protecting nature from ‘green crap’ attitude. Without EU there would be as much or more industrial farms as we’d have to compete more with foreign imports. Monbiot’sbleak illtop may be slightly more hospitable to wildlife. I personally hope we stay with Europe as the debate and action is more intelligent. And we should welcome the input of Scandinavia, Holland, France, who have a better, more equitable way of life.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Mike,

      I’m not at all sure that there would have been our would be more industrial farming without the CAP.

      I didn’t touch on the social or political benefits/disbenefits of being Europe, just the environmental ones.

  2. An interesting read. I do feel it prudent to add that it should be seen in a much wider, and unfortunately more complex, context: The combination of many directives should work towards a much more ‘all round’ protection of the environment – a symbiosis of factors in all landscapes. Thus the block on the soils directive, as well as those mentioned above, by the UK and Germany help to undermine all other directives – as well as links to progressive convention from the Council of Europe. The immense amount of assistance towards research, through FP7 etc., has been of huge value to everyone across the globe and should be added to this discussion.

    The UK are truly the very worse member state in terms of environment & sustainability – and both sides of the media driven ‘debate’ (which is nonsensical in itself) are responsible for this situation.

    It would be good to at least once read something positive and actually true with regards the issues from the UK political scene – but this isn’t going to happen thanks to the ever present iron ceiling installed by PR from the incumbent and failed myriad of organisations involved in land management and conservation in the UK. This can only be broken by truly adhering to Aarhus and the ELC – but this means squashing some ego’s, who are not prepared to give up just yet.

  3. Pingback: My tuppence worth on the EU Referendum – and a poll | a new nature blog

  4. Pingback: Hollow Promises: A Brexit impact assessment | a new nature blog

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