As discussions on a UK in/out referendum pick up steam, it is necessary to discuss how the United Kingdom would be affected by such a change. While the current discussion on EU/UK relations in mainstream media (in the UK and beyond) tends to focus on migration issues, there is an important environmental dimension. As such, Andy Jordan and Michael McCarthy both made the argument that in leaving the EU, the UK would be likely to back away from ambitious environmental standards, with potential high impact on the British countryside and biodiversity. Yet in this post I contend we should also look at the question from another perspective – and discuss the growing risk for European environmental legislation of continued British membership. Recent developments in Brussels highlight that the focus by the current UK government on cutting ‘EU red tape’ (especially of the green persuasion) and the will of its European partners to placate the current UK government to keep Britain inside the club are leading the EU toward reduced environmental ambition and a growing likelihood of EU environmental policy dismantling.
This British government has been leading a campaign, starting with Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on Europe in January 2013 to challenge key EU environmental and social legislation (Birds and Habitats, REACH, Waste, Working Time Directive, etc.). Cameron’s and Chancellor Osborne’s long standing distrust of EU environmental legislation fuelled in particular the UK Business Task-force report “#cutEUredtape” published 13 months ago. Interestingly the link between EU environmental legislation and either ‘red tape’ or unnecessary sovereignty impingements has often been challenged: the Commission’s measurement of EU administrative burden found only 1% of EU administrative burden was due to EU environmental legislation, while the British Balance of Competence review found the balance of competence between the EU and the UK overall satisfactory – although still deeply contested.
Commission President Juncker announced that keeping the UK inside the EU was one of his five main priorities. Accordingly, Better Regulation and Subsidiarity, both issues of grand importance to Britain, were entrusted to a former Dutch Foreign Minister, Franz Timmermans, who, as David Cameron, had spoken against the “ever closer Union” objective in June 2013. Moreover, Timmermans was named first Vice President with the role to test every proposal brought to the college of Commissioners against loosely defined better regulation, subsidiarity and proportionality principles. Enacting for the first time the principle of political discontinuity, the new Commission is sorting through the ongoing legislation proposals investigating which ones to drop. For now, a list leaked in early November includes a number of environmental proposals – air pollution, waste management, energy tax and the classification and labelling of dangerous substances. Regarding existing legislation, Commissioner Karmenu Vella’s mission letter put particular emphasis on the reform of the Birds and Habitats directive and more generally on the need to continue to “overhaul the existing environmental legislative framework to make it fit for purpose”, to the dismay of European environmental NGOs.
Lowering EU environmental ambitions and cutting existing legislation may please the current UK government, but what about British citizens? The last Eurobarometer poll on European citizens’ attitudes toward the environment showed that 50% of Britons think environmental actions should be done jointly by the EU and their national government (up 5% since last poll in 2011). And what about other European citizens (on average 60% of whom support joint action)? Cutting EU environmental legislation may lead to a Europe closer to the current UK government’s position but as the balance of competence review showed there continues to be “considerable debate” on this issue within the UK. Crucially, this “UK friendly” Europe does not guarantee the UK would stay in; moreover it risks feeding criticism from other Member States, mostly Mediterranean countries criticizing the EU focus on austerity – fueling, not quenching citizens’ dissatisfaction with the EU. If worse comes to worse we could end up in an EU tailored to please the UK – without the UK.
Angela Merkel recently spoke out arguing that keeping the UK in the EU was not worth undermining freedom of movement for EU citizens. Arguably, EU environmental legislation may be another red line which is not worth crossing to keep the UK in the EU.