The Referendum on whether the UK should exit the European Union is upon us. The debates on whether to remain or leave have many questions about the UK’s relationship with the European Union (EU) and the costs and benefits of membership. On the negative side, there is the centralising, undemocratic propensities of the Union. Yet, from a positive perspective, environmental policy has, perhaps more than in any other area, overwhelmingly benefited. Through EU membership, the UK government has been required to put in place a number of policies with strict targets that are legally enforced. There is also a requirement to provide regular reports on performance in relation to those targets that are made publicly available.
In the event of a vote in favour of ‘Brexit’, the path is far from straight forward. If the UK decides to leave the EU, there will be a significant period of negotiation to establish how the extrication will be achieved following the required two year notice period. In addition, there are further decisions on whether the UK will join the European Economic Area (EEA), thereby remaining as associate members of the European Union whether it will cut all ties as far as is possible within the globalised world economy. If the UK leaves the EU but joins the EEA, it will no longer be subject to many key pieces of environmental regulation and will have little say over other key areas of European regulation to which it will remain subject to regardless of membership.
EU membership has had a revolutionary effect on UK environmental policies. The policies that have been championed by members including Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Finland have improved environmental standards in other leading states including the UK whilst preventing any deterioration in less progressive areas. The influence of EU regulation on UK environmental policy has seen a re-organisation of the machinery of government and the introduction of new regulatory agencies. It has, most importantly, driven the adoption of strict emissions limits with clear judicial process to support the implementation and enforcement of policy. As a result, many of the most important UK environmental policies have emerged from EU membership.
European environmental policies also provide business opportunities to UK firms to become market leaders in the development of new technologies. The EU is our largest trading partner offering access to a larger marketplace and the opportunity to trade with other member states under favourable terms and conditions. If Brexit is followed by the UK becoming a member of the EEA, it will be bound by those laws that are included in the European Economic Area Agreement but will have no representation in the law making process.
Under the terms of its membership, EU law takes supremacy over national law requiring member states to implement EU law or face legal action. The UK government has shown a clear lack of commitment to driving down energy use, preferring to focus its attention on security of supply at any cost as demonstrated by the capacity market auctions. It has also given a directive to all government departments not to ‘gold plate’ any EU environmental requirement. If the UK leaves the EU, the government will be free to amend or repeal the acts adopted to give effect to the EU laws. It is possible therefore that the levels of environmental protection afforded by EU membership will be weakened due to the clear preference of the current UK government. In addition, the frequent attempts by Conservative ministers to weaken progressive environmental policy at a European level suggests the weakening of environmental policy is inevitable.
Another particular concern raised is that the majority of the rules that regulate the use of fracking are derived from European directives and are intended to make sure that fracking and other activities do not contaminate water, pollute the air or use unsafe chemicals. The government has suggested in the past that fracking legislation is an unnecessary burden. A vote for Brexit will pave the way for this barrier to be removed. There is therefore significant concern that fracking could be fast-tracked across the country if Britain votes to leave the EU, which could allow companies to not assess the potential damage to the environment and remove the requirement to conduct consultations with those living in areas that might be affected by fracking.
By being part of a group of nations where some at least are more environmentally progressive than the UK we can hope to mitigate some of the domestic deregulatory zeal that the current government is pursuing. Therefore for the sake of the health of UK citizens, the natural environment and progressive UK British business interests, European Union membership, despite not being a perfect choice, remains Britain’s best option.