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UK not trapped in EU environment “straitjacket”

by Luke Lythgoe | 19.04.2016

Farming minister George Eustice says “clunky EU directives” are a “straitjacket” for the UK’s environment policy. He adds that EU membership means Britain has “lost its voice and voting rights” on the international stage. In fact, EU environmental policy allows the UK flexibility at home and a greater voice internationally.

Eustice’s comments come after the publication of a report by parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, which concluded that EU membership has been “positive for the UK environment.” The report adds that UK leadership has “ensured environmental action was taken on a faster timetable and more thoroughly” across the EU.

Eustice, who supports Vote Leave, begs to differ. “Our natural environment is rich in diversity, but is also complex,” he argues. “Imposing centralised policies through clunky EU directives has failed because these act as a straitjacket that stifles innovation in environmental management.”

But a main reason why environmental management is “complex” is that it spills across borders. This is why European coordination is attractive. Protection of migratory birds or stopping acid rain caused by pollution in neighbouring countries are not problems which can be solved by one country.

Moreover, EU directives provide flexibility rather than a straitjacket. They set goals for all member states to achieve, but allow national governments to choose how to get there.

Admittedly, the goals set in some directives are seen as “inflexible and prescriptive”. The National Farmers’ Union, for example, complains that the Nitrates Directive is too focused on processes rather than outcomes, and that the Habitats Directive fails to account for the impact of climate change. But the EU has shown itself capable of adapting to such criticism, for example by introducing more flexibility to the Industrial Emissions Directive.

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Eustice should also acknowledge that centralisation need not be “clunky”. On the contrary, the Ecologic Institute told the Environmental Audit Committee that a common EU environmental policy promotes eco-innovation “on a scale which makes it worthwhile for innovators to invest”. This in turn allows the UK to achieve environmental goals more cheaply. What’s more, Daniel Calleja Crespo, the European Commission’s Director General for the Environment, says that the UK has benefited in recent years from “€500 million in projects and environmental innovation” paid for by the EU Budget.

Eustice’s other contention is that the UK has “lost its voice and voting rights on many international wildlife conventions.” Brexit, he says, means “we will regain our seat at the table at these conventions. We would be able to innovate, to pilot ideas and to really deliver for our natural environment.”

It’s true that in some conventions, such as ICCAT – an agreement protecting tuna – the UK withdrew when the EU joined. For others, such as CITES – a convention against the illegal trade in endangered species – the UK votes as part of an EU bloc.

Of course Britain can pilot its own ideas outside the EU, but the question is whether anyone will care where it is flying. Currently the UK has a leading environmental voice in a 28-nation bloc with half a billion citizens. When up against global players such as China or America, the UK is most likely to be heard if it makes its case as part of the European Union.

Edited by Sebastian Mallaby