The UK votes tomorrow, and its relationship with the European Union hangs in the balance. With discussions focusing around economic concerns: primarily the UK’s possible expulsion and/or renegotiation into the free market, and the pros and cons of various hypothetical trade deals, it can be hard to engage. Possibly this is why issues such as immigration and sovereignty have proved so effective for the ‘Leave’ campaign. ‘Remain’, meanwhile, still seem to be less successful in touting benefits outside of the often hard-to-digest economic ones. Possibly this is due to reliance on a large amount of support from experts to legitimise the promoted economic benefits. The marginal and fluctuating projected difference between ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ in the polls is testament to the fact that merely showcasing expert certainty on impenetrable topics is not enough for many voters. However, the EU does provide solid benefits to the UK outside of economics, and one of the most crucial is the European focus on the environment.
This focus on environmentalism, and a drive for sustainability, is a key facet of EU legislation, and is something that will have a profound effect on future generations if Britain chooses to reject it. The EU is a world leader in environmental standards, something promoted by the Union itself and acknowledged in an IEEP report. The latter provides a solid rationale why environmental issues should be tackled at EU level, as opposed to on an individual basis (IEEP, p.2. onwards). Firstly, environmental issues by their nature cannot be divided by national borders. Animals migrate, and issues relating to air quality and marine life are equally impossible to manage in a fragmentary fashion. Politically, the EU acting as bloc when attempting to effect positive global change is more powerful, as it adds weight to the arguments. An individual state would never be able to wield such positive power. Cohesion in environmental policy helps keep the free market afloat too, removing barriers to trade that could arise if individual states demanded different levels of environmental standards on the products entering their borders. Further to this, cooperation in terms of environmentalism shares the cost and thus motivates progress, as well as quickening the development of green technology. A European Commission document explaining environmental policy, further estimates that if EU waste legislation was followed fully, it would generate 400 000 jobs (European Commission, p.5.).
Of course, most of this only matters if one believes it is necessary. Although most modern citizens are aware of a need to protect the environment to a greater or lesser degree, there is evidence that it is in fact a crucial, urgent concern. The European Union itself states, in the document cited above, that without change, by 2050, mankind will need two planets worth of resources to sustain itself (European Commission, p.8.), something that is obviously unsustainable. Furthermore, experts such as Dr Laura M Thompson champion sustainability as a concept which can strengthen, not drain businesses, due to reduced waste and customer preference for ethically-minded companies. The IFC concurs on the need for action, noting how “Population growth, a rising middle class, rapid urbanization, and economic growth are all fueling an increasing demand for food, water, energy, land, and other resources.”. It would seem, therefore, that there is considerable consensus on the need for change regarding treatment of the environment.
There is evidence, moreover, that the EU is crucial in ensuring the UK upholds high environmental standards. A Yale University study ranks countries on their environmental performance, the Environmental Performance Index (EPI). Focusing on the protection of human health and the protection of ecosystems, it is surely no coincidence that nine of the top ten ranking countries are all members of the EU. The UK, however, comes in at number 12, and while this is by no means a bad ranking, it is notable that not only is the UK not one of the EU’s top environmental performers, but it is not improving as fast as even some of the countries ranked above it. Slovenia, for instance, ranked 6th in the world, has enjoyed an increase in performance of 12.15% in the last ten years, while the UK has improved by 7.02%. At this rate, Slovenia would increasingly outstrip the UK as time goes on. It is perhaps suggestive, given that both countries are required to follow EU regulations regarding environmental issues, that the UK is less motivated as an individual state regarding such issues. Thus, were the UK to leave the EU, it could be reasonably theorised that environmental diligence would drop. It should be noted, in the interests of fairness, that the four top ranking countries have lower improvement rates, but past that point, the tendency is for higher improvement than the UK, over the past ten years.
This theory is further supported by reading the in-depth analysis of the UK’s performance. Although ranked 12th overall, its ranking on its fisheries, for instance, is 129th, with a drop in performance over the past ten years, whilst agriculture is ranked 130th with little change. Air quality, however, has improved by over 55%. There is no EU legislation on the efficiency of nitrogen use in agriculture (the criteria for agricultural performance used in the EPI rankings) and yet there is for improvement of air quality. Directive 2008/50/EC “…establishes air quality objectives…ambitious, cost-effective targets …up to 2020. It also specifies ways of assessing these and of taking any corrective action if the standards are not met.”. Brought in eight years ago, the EPI data would suggest this directive is doing its job. Meanwhile, as the UK also ranks poorly due to depleted fishing stocks, it is notable that regulations specifically targeting the issue of over-fishing are more recent. In 2011 the Commission stated that it would be making proposals over the following years to ensure that by 2015 EU countries were fishing only the maximum sustainable yield of their stocks, in order to help reverse the effects of over-fishing. Council Regulation (EU) 2015/104, which “sets the total allowable catch (TAC) for each species that EU vessels can take from different fishing grounds, both inside and outside the EU” was only implemented in January 2015, and thus is unlikely to have much influence in the EPI results yet. In fact, in this particular case, the toothless nature of the regulation may continue to allow UK over-fishing. Because it is individual governments who set the TAC for their country, UK ministers have negotiated TACs 18% above scientific recommendations. If this is the case under regulations, it suggests over-fishing might dramatically increase post-Brexit. The WWF states simply that not only does over-fishing permanently alter marine ecosystems, but in plunging fish stocks to very low levels, also endangers the livelihoods of those who rely on the fishing industry. In any case, when it comes to the environment, it seems there is a correlation between British negligence or recklessness, and less EU control. This is concerning.
Then, there are other environmental projects. For example, Natura 2000 guarantees protection of some of Europe’s most vital ecosystems and species, on land and offshore, including many sites in the UK. There’s the ‘Roadmap to a Resource-Efficient Europe’ laid out in 2011 (European Commission, p.8.), which articulates a plan for Europe over the next forty years, to exercise less strain on the environment whilst maintaining high living standards. There’s the EU’s chemical legislation, REACH (European Commission, p.12.), the most advanced in the world, which past 2018 will require all chemicals used, manufactured and sold in the EU to be registered with the European Chemicals Agency. The Union is also a strong advocate of reducing waste – if unable to be completely eliminated, this can be achieved through recycling (European Commission, p.12.).
In essence: concern for the environment, and adopting a sustainable approach to manufacture and business, is increasingly important for the future. There is no way to know, definitively, whether the UK would take greater concern over green issues outside of the EU, but a poor record in areas with little or no EU regulation compared to improvements in regulated areas, strongly suggests that environmentalism is not a UK priority. And yet, it should be: resources are finite. EU environmental concern, therefore, is a good example of something positive that the EU does for Britain. These are regulations that were shaped in part by UK representatives, and which help ensure that there is still a future to enjoy.
VOTE TOMORROW, 23rd JUNE. FIND YOUR POLLING STATION HERE.