What has the EU ever done for the UK environment?

Viviane Gravey |

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Reg, a character played by John Cleese, famously asks what the Romans have ever done for the people of Judaea. That no one had asked this question before may have been because Roman rule had become taken for granted. But after a moment’s reflection, his fellow freedom fighters quickly reeled off a long list of benefits that it had delivered.

In drawing this analogy, I am not equating the European Union (EU) with the Roman Empire, nor suggesting that Europhiles should claim that it has introduced sanitation, education and public order to the UK. But what I am suggesting is that there is a very palpable sense in which the environmental movement in the UK is now much closer to a ‘Reg moment’ than at any time since 1973.

Engaging with a restless public

As public disquiet about the EU intensifies, powerfully expressed in the sweeping gains made by anti-EU parties in May 2014’s European elections, more searching questions are likely to be asked about the costs and the benefits of European integration. In their hearts, those in the environmental sector know that they should engage with this matter; after all, last year, David Cameron identified it as one in which the EU’s influence had “gone too far”. But whether they have worked out when and how to engage with rising public anxieties about the EU is far from clear.

That the issue of Europe divides mainstream political parties and business is already well known. Amongst environmentalists, however, Europe has become a rather taken for granted feature of the status quo. Indeed, pro-environmental pressure groups, businesses and government departments have often been only too eager to accept the credit when the EU has done environmental good in the UK. The slow and, for the most part, unforeseen manner in which the EU has Europeanised national policy makes for an interesting story, but it has never been told by the mainstream media. Consequently, to the extent that they are even aware of the EU’s influence, members of the public lack the facts to formulate an informed understanding of what the EU has or has not done for their environment.

At least, that was until the publication, earlier this year, of the Government’s Balance of Competences Review. This report provides the first systematic insight into how the EU affects the UK and, by implication, what might be lost if the status of the UK’s membership changed. Its origins lie in the intensely political process of constructing the 2010 coalition agreement, but the Review itself is a commendably dispassionate piece of analysis which I think will be of huge value to public debates about the EU in other countries. Running to over 100 pages and drawing on over 900 pages of evidence, it spectacularly fails to conform to many predictions: a thin piece of ‘policy-based evidence making’ to justify withdrawal from the EU or, at best, a more even-handed but nonetheless crude cost-benefit analysis of membership.

One of its more newsworthy messages is that there is no widespread appetite for Cameron’s idea of rolling back EU action or, for that matter, a shift to the ‘one in, one out’ approach advocated by a Treasury established Business Taskforce mid-way through the review process. On the contrary, there is general agreement that EU action has delivered many important benefits: much higher national standards; a more formalised and transparent policy style; and greater predictability in problem solving, which has allowed some businesses to invest with greater confidence.

How the EU shapes British environmental politics

Policy analysts like me are used to thinking about how politics shapes policy. But those who read through the Review will find plenty of evidence that forty years of EU led activity has fed back into and subtly reshaped politics in the UK. For example, environmental pressure groups have been given new points of leverage over policy; powers that once rested with local implementing officials have been removed by Whitehall departments to ensure that EU laws are fully complied with; and politicians have found their ability to adjust policy to cope with short term exigencies has been greatly curtailed.

In the next year or so, the political feedback effects that will be most closely observed are those directly pertaining to UK membership of the EU. David Cameron has promised to hold an in/out referendum in 2017 if the Conservatives win a majority in the 2015 election. If – and it is a big if – that happens, the environmental movement will need to find a voice on UK-EU matters that until now, it has seen no pressing need for. Even though the Review studiously avoids a systematic assessment of the different options that may arise (e.g. continuing versus changed and possibly even no membership), it contains the evidence around which an environmental case for a strong EU could conceivably be assembled. After all, Eurobarometer polls have repeatedly confirmed that the UK public is still relatively positive about EU action in this area.

But even if Labour wins and /or enters into a coalition with the Lib Dems and the likelihood of a referendum in 2017 diminishes, it is difficult to believe that the need for more collective thinking and communicating will completely go away. UK environmental pressure groups fighting in Brussels will for example need to find a ways to counter the much greater influence enjoyed by anti-EU parties over the EU institutions. It would certainly be unwise to assume that these parties, which currently constitute a rather disparate mix of ideologies and tactics, are incapable of ever working in partnership with one another. Meanwhile back at home, UKIP’s share of the vote will, I think, dip after May’s elections, but there remains an inescapable sense in which the UK public will not rest until it has had a more direct say on the country’s European future. Given the direction in which domestic politics is moving right now, all the political leaders will come under continuing pressure to clarify their views, even if their parties countenance a referendum only in situations of significant treaty change.

A new strategy? A new collective voice?

The UK environmental movement has got used to being a quiet and passive beneficiary of EU action. There are indications both in the evidence submitted to the Review and more generally, that it now realises that no longer should it take EU membership for granted and/or assume that the EU will continue to move in an environmental direction. In that respect, the Review makes for a rather sobering read, because opinions about different aspects of EU action are shown to differ quite markedly, even within the same sector. Building an environmental coalition for EU action may therefore be harder than first appears. But as UK-EU relations continue to move in a more unpredictable direction, environmentalists would be wise to begin rehearsing some answers to the kinds of Reg-like questions about the EU’s future that members of the public seem ever more determined to raise.


An abridged version of this piece appeared in The ENDS report (June 2014, Issue 472)