Brexit? I would fear for the environment

 Without EU regulation and the threat of infraction proceedings,I believe Britain would still be a country of landfills, toxic air and filthy beaches, says Matthew Farrow. 

As David Cameron secured his EU deal at the February Brussels summit,the media served up soundbites from the usual political figures. The one that struck me was Jeremy Corbyn’s – not his somewhat grudging support for staying in the EU, which was to be expected, but the fact that he was the only one who mentioned the environment.

Where Cameron had gone wrong, he intoned,was in not using the negotiation to strengthen EU action in areas such as the environment.

Three years ago, it seemed likely that green issues would play a part in the EU debate. David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech announcing the referendum singled out environmental red tape as a problem. But the government didn’t follow up, and this was not among the four areas prioritised in the Brussels negotiations.

EU brought big improvements. Green issues do however illustrate some of the tensions at the heart of the EU debate. There can be no doubt that EU law has transformed UK environmental practices.

To pick just one example, the government’s new-found determination to improve air quality and create a national network of clean air zones would not have happened without the ongoing legal action against ministers for failing EU air quality targets. The vast majority of EIC member firms value the long-term certainty that EU environmental law provides and would not want to see the UK leave.

These benefits are achieved by allowing our environmental laws to be decided at EU level, through processes which bring to mind Bismarck’s famous dictum of never wanting to find out how your laws or your sausages are made. EU treaties have given the EU environmental competence on the basis that looking after our shared environment is a common European ideal, which must not be undermined by the single market – something I heartily agree with.

The Commission, and whichever national government holds the EU presidency, might then come up with a reasonable aim, such as increasing recycling or restricting air pollution from manufacturing plants, and produce a logical technocratic proposal for how this might be done across the EU. The fun then starts, as the plan is fought over by 28 national governments, green NGOs and the European Parliament (all of whom will claim they are best placed to ensure the final outcome reflects the real priorities of the EU citizen), along with myriad business and other lobbyists.

What emerges is inevitably a compromise, albeit one that often works well and drives environmental progress.

But problems can arise. Sometimes,the final regulation ends up messy or flawed. This can mean that the desired improvements do not materialise – for example, the failure of some of the European vehicle emissions standards to genuinely improve real-world driving emissions. Or the legislation tries to fix issues which are very difficult to micromanage across 28 countries. The Waste Framework Directive Separate Collection Regulations (which covered how many bins households should have) would be an example – significant cost, disruption and legal argument has been caused in trying to implement a badly worded directive that tried to decide something better tackled through pragmatic national decisions.

And even when the regulations do work well, there has been little national democratic input into the process, and hence limited public ownership of the result. Some will argue this doesn’t matter – by putting environmental regulations beyond day-to-day national politics, technocrats can deliver progressive environmental laws that become the norm. 

Who would want to go back to 90% landfill or polluted beaches? 

But at a time when alienation from politics is already a major concern,expect the democratic deficit debate to loom large in the campaign.

Matthew Farrow is director-general of the Environmental Industries Commission, the leading trade body for environmental firms:


These arguments about damage to UKs environment if we leave EU are fallacious nonsense. First , the UK Government has pledged not to dismantle EU laws. Secondly, why would our own political leaders wreck our environment ? We would be able to do much more in a targeted manner to protect and enhance our environment and we would sensibly re-examine laws which were not working well to protect the environment and improve protection. It's really insulting to suggest that the EU looks after UK interests better than we could ourself .
Nicholas Finney is exactly right this is nonsense. Remaining in the EU with all the bureaucratic overload tends to end up with sub-standard legislation at great cost. There is no reason why we cannot select the best from EU law and implement even better additions for the benefit of our nation and others. We do not have to be politically bound to the EU to work with them.