The myth

The development of the Single Market has done more harm than good to the natural world and the EU’s environmental achievements are overstated. The UK can be more successful in protecting the environment and promoting sustainable development if we leave the Single Market and have the freedom to develop our own policies.

“Often well-intentioned environmental policies are outweighed at every turn by the more fundamental drivers of its bid to turn the whole of Europe into a paradise for (environmentally damaging) agribusiness and industry.” Jenny Jones, former Chair of the Green party, June 2016

“Once out of the Common Fisheries Policy the UK will be able to manage fish stocks and the ocean environment better.” Labour Leave, Leave Means Leave and Economists for Free Trade, September 2017

“We stand for a positive vision of a future Europe based on democracy, social justice and ecological sustainability, not the profit-making interests of a tiny elite. For these reasons we are committed to pressing for a vote to leave the EU.” Letter coordinated by Labour Leave, 17 February 2016

The reality

The EU has been an overwhelmingly positive force for the environment – strengthening legislation, preventing a race to the bottom and driving forward collective action on climate change. The framework of rules and regulations underpinning the Single Market is not, as some on the left have argued, a threat to the environment, but rather our best means of protecting it. Compounding the result of the referendum by choosing to leave the Single Market would be a mistake with terrible consequences for our ability to preserve the natural world.

It is this government, not the EU, that is a threat to the environment Few things are as incomprehensible as the resolute determination of climate deniers. No matter how often they are publicly caught cherry picking the evidence or distorting the truth their belief is unshakable. The rest of us are victims of a mass delusion at best or are left-wing conspirators at worst.

It is this last accusation that gives their game away. Climate denial is almost exclusively found on the political right. It is not hard to see why. If your core political project is smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation and markets ever freer from the bondage of government, you cannot have a problem with the climate. There is no more compelling reason for activist government than the urgency of stopping climate change destroying prosperity and security for everyone.

Those same political impulses drive Brexiteers: a Britain free from the bonds of EU legislation, able to do what it likes to drive taxes and regulations down and out from under the jurisdiction of a court that can make it obey the law is the goal. It is not a coincidence that Brexiteers and climate deniers fight together and use the same weapons. Illusions are not, however, a right-wing prerogative. There are those on the left in British politics who see the EU as a neo-liberal protector of corporate interests, always willing to put profits above people and the environment.

Brussels bureaucrats are too friendly to business. Our own Parliament can do a better job of protecting Britain’s environment. If you believe the last sentence you haven’t been paying attention to the sustained, if stealthy, Government attack on Britain’s environment. Starting with the abolition of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution when it came into office in 2010, Conservative-led Governments have consistently weakened the machinery protecting our environment.

Since then the independence of our environmental watchdogs, the Environment Agency and Natural England, has been seriously compromised. Access to the courts for judicial review has been restricted and made prohibitively expensive. The right of environmental bodies to lobby has been constrained and the rights of ordinary citizens under the planning system have been gutted.

Fortunately, Britain has many champions of the environment, from Buglife to the National Trust. Their combined membership is several times that of all the political parties in Britain combined. They probably know rather more about the will of the people than our political party leaders. They trust Brussels more than they do Whitehall and Westminster. They do so with good reason.

The Single Market encourages responsible environmental behaviour by business Air pollution kills some 40,000 people each year in Britain and costs the NHS as much as £15 billion a year.

Our air has exceeded legal limits since 2010. Environmental law firm Client Earth has successfully sued the Government twice. Each time the courts have required the Government to make our air legal. Each time the Government has evaded the courts’ requirements to act. Client Earth has now gone back to the courts for a third time to force the Government to obey the law.

Each time the Government has bowed to corporate pressure from the motor industry. Escaping from the European Court of Justice has been a crucial red line for the Brexiteers. This is because it has acted as a powerful force for ensuring that the UK Government complies with environmental laws. This is because the ECJ has, as a last resort, the power to impose sanctions for non-compliance. This can be very expensive, as the UK found out to its cost when a failure to implement the Nitrates Directive properly led to a crash spending programme in Northern Ireland of some £240 million.

This was to avoid the possible imposition of daily fines for noncompliance that could have cost even more. The UK Courts have no such ability to fine the British Government. Nor is there any likelihood that a future Government would be willing to allow them to impose fines or other sanctions.

The reality is that British membership of the EU has considerably strengthened our ability to insist on responsible environmental behaviour by businesses. Nowhere is this more clear than in 27 checking the activities of developers. As the effectiveness of our own planning laws has been systematically undermined by successive governments, the EU Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive have been strong constraints against rampant development on sensitive sites for nature.

The European Commission publishes a series of multi-annual environmental action programmes setting out its legislative agenda well in advance. It is certainly heavily lobbied on this agenda by corporations, but it is also lobbied by environmental and community organisations in a manner far more transparent than in Britain. The last time a British Government published a comprehensive environmental policy was in 1990.

A hard Brexit will pave the way for an assault on the environment We are now on a steepening slope towards a crash exit from the EU.

This will be a catastrophe for the British environment. If this happens it will leave Britain exposed to an economic hurricane. This will wash away all the warm words about the environment we have heard recently from Michael Gove.

As the need to fulfil the false promises he, and the other Leavers, made in the referendum grows the political imperative, over-riding everything else, will be expanding the economy. There will be a tsunami of deregulation. Everything corporate leaders ask for they will get.

Then there will be the much-vaunted free trade agreements. Without the bargaining power of the other 27 economies, Britain will be a deal taker not a deal maker. These days the so-called non-tariff barriers to trade are far more important than tariffs.

Another word for non-tariff trade barriers is environmental regulations. As we negotiate free trade agreements from a much weaker position it will be open season on our environment as foreign companies seek to compete in our markets by washing away environment, consumer and employment protections.

No-one could argue that the EU is a model of green perfection. It has not always succeeded in turning its high environmental ambition into the right outcomes. But it has provided a stable framework within which to make consistent progress towards a better environment. As Britain encounters the harsh economic winds of a post-Brexit world I fear we will often have occasion to recall the words of Joni Mitchell’s early eco-song Yellow Taxi, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone.’

Tom Burke

This piece was first published by Open Britain the full publication ‘Busting the Lexit Myths’ can be found here