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?