If the UK votes tomorrow to leave the European Union, giving a clear run for the ‘Vote Leave’ politicians, elite supporters and advisors to flex their muscles in the corridors of power, how will that affect our wildlife in the future?
Until recently, we’ve had rather few clues to work on from the ‘Vote Leave’ camp. But in the last couple of weeks or so the mask of apparent disinterest in the environment has slipped. The gloves are off and the heavyweights are keen to express their contempt for the EU’s record on environmental protection, with a clear belief and stated intent to go it alone in safeguarding British wildlife and our natural environment.
First, at the end of May, we had some opinions offered to The Guardian by the Rt. Hon. George Eustice, MP for a sizeable chunk of Cornwall –the Camborne & Redruth constituency– currently Minister of State for Farming, Food and the Marine Environment (and earlier in his political career a wannabe UKIP member of the European Parliament). Mr Eustice claims that we shouldn’t worry about wildlife. The article quotes his views that “The UK could develop a more flexible approach to environmental protection free of “spirit-crushing” Brussels directives if it votes to leave the EU …” and “If we had more flexibility, we could focus our scientists’ energies on coming up with new, interesting ways to protect the environment …”. I’m sure that the capacity of the British scientific community would indeed be up to the task. But would the Treasury really provide the resources for such activity, and would politicians be inclined to put the necessary legislation in place? This would rather buck the trend of the UK Governments’ track record over recent decades in respect of environmental legislation backed by ‘hard law’. For example, the UK was dismissive of the Habitats Directive when it was first proposed back in 1988, drafted by Stanley Johnson then working in the European Commission; the UK remained unenthusiastic during the negotiations of the final text of the directive which was eventually adopted unanimously by all Member States in 1992. Since then, the UK has been obliged through a series of actions in the European Union Court of Justice (EUCJ), promoted largely by environmental NGOs, to implement the Habitats Directive properly and effectively. Miles King’s blog looks at Mr Eustice’s comments in more detail.
A further kick in the teeth for wildlife came from the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign a few days later. Matthew Elliott, Chief Executive of ‘Vote Leave Limited’, founder of the eurosceptic Business for Britain, joined in to mock and criticise the relatively small sums of EU money spent to co-finance actions to safeguard threatened wildlife (with the remaining funding coming largely from wildlife and other charities). The Sunday Telegraph on June 5th reports on the Vote Leave campaign chief executive’s views of an innovative ‘Little Tern Recovery Project’, a multi-partner initiative across 20 sites in Britain: “Matthew Elliott … of the Vote Leave campaign, joked that the idea is ‘one for the birds’. He said: ‘If you asked most people whether they’d rather spend money on aphrodisiacs for birds [or] the NHS I think I know what they would choose… If we vote to leave on 23 June we’ll be able to spend our money on our priorities again’.” The EU fund which supports the project is miniscule in comparison with the both the overall EU budget and the UK’s national health budget. Is Mr Elliott really suggesting that the competition for funds is so binary that it’s either NHS or wildlife? That’s simply ridiculous and seems to be clutching at straws to shore up a Vote Leave belief that everything ‘saved’ by leaving the EU will be diverted into social and community services like the NHS. What preposterous nonsense!
And then the Rt. Hon. Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire, ex-Secretary of State for the Environment who in 2014 formed and currently chairs the right-of-centre think-tank ‘UK 2020’ wades in. In a speech to his own organisation on June 8th Mr Paterson bent his considerable intellect to attack on EU environmental policy and laws, re-inventing history along the way. I’m not sure how long it took to deliver the 4,000 word speech under the abbreviated title ‘A Greener Future Outside the EU’. It would take about the same space to rebut properly, so let’s focus on one element: the notion that the Council of Europe’s Bern Convention is better than the nature directives at protecting UK wildlife. This is utter rubbish. The EU Birds Directive and the Bern Convention were both adopted in 1979; the first came into force in 1981; the second in 1982. So two legal instruments delivering ‘European level’ bird protection came off the grid at more or less the same time with the UK’s 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act giving effect to both. The key difference is that the Birds Directive requires an effective network of protected areas (Special Protection Areas, SPAs) to be established across the member states; the Bern Convention doesn’t have this provision. The Birds Directive is also backed by the European Union Court of Justice (EUCJ); the Bern Convention, while “a binding international legal instrument” has no such judicial support. So half a decade on, and the protection of birds, including the SPA network, is making substantial progress, with help from emerging EUCJ case law obliging EU member states –including the UK–to be more effective than they might otherwise be inclined. In contrast, the protection of other wildlife and habitats –in principle covered by the Bern Convention– is not doing so well. ‘Civil society’ in the form of British NGOs make it their business to get wildlife habitats and non-bird species on the same legal footing as birds, and in the mid-1980s the fight for what we now know as the ‘Habitats Directive’ begins. There’s no cosy partnership between UK government and civil society anywhere to be found. We know that the Birds Directive has been effective, in the UK and across the rest of Europe – not perfect, but threatened European species are doing far better within the EU than in countries outside the EU. Rigorous analysis has demonstrated this. It’s too early to perform the same test on the outcomes from the Habitats Directive, but the evidence points in that direction. The UK might have been in the lead with other governments in establishing the Bern Convention. But I’d rather have effective EU legislation to protect UK wildlife than rely on an unenforceable multilateral environmental agreement with no teeth, and at the whim of UK governments.
The Vote Leave campaign and the leading promoters of UK out of the EU really don’t care about the environment, and care even less for protecting nature and wildlife. So in my view, a vote to leave the EU will send nature conservation back into the dark ages.