My tuppence worth on the EU Referendum – and a poll


The big news for the Environment in 2016 is that, as a result of the divisions within the political right in England, we are being forced to vote on whether we want to stay in the European Union in a few months time.

Coming up to two years ago now, I wrote about the the EU and the benefits and drawbacks that being in the European Union has created for nature in the UK. I weighed up the benefits to nature from things like the Nature Directives (Birds and Habitats), the Nitrates Directive, the Water Framework Directive and the EIA Directive – and looked at the enormous environmental cost of thigns like the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. Back then I was in two minds – it occurred to me that outside the EU there would be far less money from the Treasury to subsidise farmers or fishermen, compared with what they receive via the EU.

Last year I looked at the state of nature across the EU, based on the EU’s own reporting. The state of nature across the EU is pretty dire, unless you happen to be a Birds Directive-listed bird or a Habitats Directive-listed species, in which case things are a bit better than dire. I suppose one question is, if the EU had not existed, would nature be in a more parlous state 50 years later, or not? Of course, it’s impossible to tell because we don’t have a second earth to act as a control for the experiment.

I think we can say that in the UK, the Birds and Habitats Directives, and the other European environmental Directives, even though they have been poorly implemented, have meant that things have not declined as quickly as they otherwise would have. And this is mainly down to the existence of regulation and legislation, rather than through the provision of incentives, such as via Agri-Environment Schemes. The combination of legislation (eg designating a Special Area of Conservation) backed up by funding from agri-environment or LIFE funds has been more effective than just legislation or just agri-environment.

In the 90% of the UK which falls outside the protection afforded by the European Directives, the Common Agricultural Policy is still funding damage to what little nature is left on the 75% of the UK which is classed as farmland. It’s not deliberate damage, of course, it’s “incidental” damage. If we left the EU, it seems very likely that the UK Government would continue to fund some sort of farm subsidy system, much as they did before we join the Common Market. There may be an opportunity to influence the rules around that system, though in truth, under this Government, the only people likely to have any influence on the new rules will be the NFU, and certainly won’t be Civil Society including the nature NGOs. UKIP has already clearly stated that they are only interested in supporting intensive farming and would remove environmental protections.

It’s worth remembering that our Farm minister George Eustice, who has already signalled he will be campaigning alongside Boris Gove et al to leave the EU, was a UKIP candidate before joining the Tories.

There is no doubt that the European Union has a great deal of problems. It is mercilessly lobbied by, and therefore often at the mercy of, corporates and private interest groups  – and this is why we still have such a ridiculous thing as the Common Agricultural Policy, doling out money to landowners just for owning farmland, with no requirement to provide public benefits in return. There are structural problems in getting 28 sovereign states to agree to anything quickly – witness the paralysis induced by the Syrian refugee crisis. But, the question is would be better off outside the EU, or inside it?

If we can reform the CAP so that it pays farmers to deliver public benefits, then we would achieve a great deal for nature in the UK and across Europe. It seems like an impossible task and Lord knows it has been tried and tried over the past 25 years. But then it really would be an impossible task if we weren’t in the EU. And there are many other countries in the EU whose Governments do want to reform things like the CAP, where their farm ministers are not under the influence of the most intensive farmers. There is a consensus across the EU on the urgent need to tackle climate change. But in the UK, climate change deniers are hugely influential and are successfully sabotaging actions such as the need to increase renewable energy sources like wind and solar. And if we lost the protection afforded to sites via the Birds and Habitats Directives, we would undoubtedly lose some of the places which we cherish, as reminders of what the British landscape once looked like, and the nature that once thrived there. This may well not be the nature which we should be looking to see thrive in the future, but nevertheless we should treasure these places, just as we treasure other aspects of our past, such as bronze age wheels.

I suppose in my own mind it comes down to this:

Do we as a country want to look backwards to Empire days, seeing ourselves as having the opportunity to once again be a big player on the global scene?

Do we want to look to America and the special relationship, liberty, the unfettered market and the supremacy of individual freedom?

Or do we want to value the positive relationships we now have with our long-time former enemies such as France and Germany (and an unprecedented period of relative peace in Europe), and play our part in a Europe that is influential globally, and can act for the good of humanity and nature.

I have no doubt how I will be voting in the referendum. How about you?

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 Birds Directive, Boris Johnson, Common Agricultural Policy, corporate lobbying, Europe, European environment policy, George Eustice, Habitats Directive, Nature Directives, NFU, public goods and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to My tuppence worth on the EU Referendum – and a poll

  1. James Swift says:

    I agree totally with you analysis (though it’s not *entirely* true that at least some of the EU agricultural subsidies – at least in Wales – are not to some extent linked to environmental benefits, however slight).
    I suppose though my question to you is more whether the *EU* wouldn’t be better off and more likely to make environmentally friendly decision-making about itself if the U.K. stayed well clear of it. After all, for instance much of what Cameron is fighting for in staying in is to enhance the power of big industry/big agriculture/big banks and get the EU to tone down their regulation of them – see this article:

    Certainly Labour and the Conservatives here are both dead set against a sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture that does not extend beyond the false siren-call of ‘sustainable intensification’. The alternatives to this approach do seem to be being entertained by at least some parties in some EU countries currently, e.g. France it seems.
    So, should we be voting ‘yes’ to Brexit in order to spare the other EU countries the U.K’s corrupting influences given the UK government just seems to want to impose globalisation, TTIP, and worse on its neighbours….

    • Miles King says:

      thanks James. You make a very interesting point. Should the UK leave the EU in order for the remaining EU 27 to stop being held back by the UK’s notoriously pro business, anti environment attitudes? In truth I think that UK corporate lobbying of the EU would continue whether we were in or out, and this corporate lobbying would work hand in hand with the very influential US corporate lobbying of the EU, and in particular the European Commission. Better that we stay in the EU and try and challenge the pro business anti regulation agenda being promoted by the UK and other countries, as well as by the current Commission eg the Refit agenda.

  2. asquith says:

    I’m for staying in, the EU does environmental damage but Farageist “policies” would do even more. Also, given that so much of the damage is heavily subsidised, Brexit would mean the rest of the EU going in a more protectionist, isolationist direction and the CAP becoming even worse in those countries to which it still applies.

    Brexit in my opinion would be bad for Britain and worse for Europe. This is why I was against Scottish seperation and it still holds true.

    I appreciate the range of opinions bhut I think Outers are better at saying what they’re against than what they’re for. They don’t know, and of all the possible Brexits I don’t like any of them.

    Readers may wish to read David Charter’s books on the subject.

  3. Diana says:

    Anyone serious about conserving nature will vote to stay in the EU. It’s a no brainer.

  4. Pingback: Last week’s EU Poll – the results | a new nature blog

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