Thursday, 12 May 2016

European Union Protects Nature (a long blogpost)

As the referendum on whether the UK should stay in the European Union or leave, nature and the environment as issues seem to be getting less coverage than other issues. Here are some of my thoughts, with plenty of links to articles where you can find out more. (This is an uncharacteristically long post!) If you live in the UK, please remember to vote in the referendum and think about nature and the environment as you cast your vote.

Overall my impression is that it is better for nature and the environment if we stay in the EU, though acknowledging that the EU isn't perfect, but better to stay and reform it, than to leave.

The European Union's ‘Birds Directive’ dates back to 1979 and was brought into UK law through the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act. It was joined in 1992 by the ‘Habitats Directive’. They are often referred to together as the ‘Nature Directives’. These directives target species and habitats which are most threatened at European level, including migratory birds, which by their nature require an international approach to protecting the sites and habitats that ensure their survival. The two key mechanisms to put the laws into practice are:
  • Establishing a network of protected sites (Special Protection Areas –SPAs, under the Birds Directives; Special Areas of Conservation –SACs, under the Habitats Directive) across EU Member States; and
  • Requiring the strict protection of species from deliberate or negligent actions which would harm them or their important habitats (for all species in the case of birds; for a defined list of other animals and plants)
According to Friends of the Earth before the Nature Directives, we were losing 15% of our protected sites a year. Now it’s down to 1%.

The Environmental Audit Committee said efforts to reduce pollution and boost biodiversity had happened "faster" than otherwise would have been the case and have lead to cleaner beaches and rivers across the UK. At the same time there is some agreement that the EU Common Agricultural Policy has, through intensification of farming, had a negative impact on biodiversity.

As well as the Nature Directives, EU legislation on nature and the environment include the Water Framework Directive and renewable energy targets.

It's also worth bearing in mind that the controversial TTIP trade agreement currently being discussed (though facing stiff opposition from protestors and the French government) between the US and the EU would lead to deregulated industries and reduced environmental protections (a race to the bottom as Greenpeace said in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper). So this may in the long run be a negative effect on our wildlife and environment if we stay in the EU. On the other hand, our current government seems to be very much in favour of TTIP and would probably try to broker a similar deal for us with the US if we were to leave the UK (though President Obama recently said that that the US would be unlikely to prioritise such a deal with an individual country rather than a trading bloc such as the EU).

Unfortunately a lot of the time, nature and the environment aren't getting into major debates on EU membership. Environmental issues did not form part of the negotiations, Prime Minister David Cameron held to reform our relationship with the EU. Some see this as a sign that as a country we see nothing wrong with the EU's environmental law, but perhaps it's a sign that our government doesn't care? After all, there is still a threat hanging over the future of the Nature Directives (you can read my earlier blog post about this here).

There are two sides to this, as there are to every discussion. However, nature and environmental issues do not respect national boundaries and we are better to work together where we can.In addition, better I think to work within Europe to improve the already effective Nature Directives and the continue reforming the still less than ideal Common Agricultural Policy than to leave and scrabble around trying to salvage what we can while the Tory party is still in power in the UK Government, a party that once called itself the 'greenest government ever' but actually has never had a clue about nature or the environment.

WWF, RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts recommend that the public ask ‘In’ and ‘Out’ campaigners these key questions:
  • How would you make sure that action on nature protection, pollution and air quality is maintained and enhanced? 
  • How would you exercise international leadership on climate change? 
  • What is your vision for more environmentally responsible agriculture and fishing in the UK?

Worth reading on this topic

The Wildlife Trusts' view on EU referendum and nature and the environment.

The potential policy and environmental consequences for the UK of a departure from the EU

The EU Referendum and Sussex Wildlife Trust.

UK membership of the EU: what it means for wildlife and what might happen if we leave.

In search of the environment in the Referendum debate (RSPB).

EU Membership good for environment say MPs (BBC).

Why environmentalists should question their support of the EU (Ecologist).

EU moves to put an end to seabird bycatch (RSPB).

Friends of the Earth series on What has the EU done for the environment? (scroll down for more articles).


Simon Douglas Thompson said...

As I keep saying, the argument is pitched squarely in "We hate foreigners, we do" terms.

sage said...

I wish our news would tell us more about this--I've heard of the upcoming vote but very little as most of our coverage is what stupid thing a certain presidential candidate said