Last reviewed 18 March 2016

Britain’s membership of the EU hangs in the balance, with most of the In-Out debate firmly focused on the economy, sovereignty, security and immigration. Environment issues were never part of the Prime Minister’s renegotiated EU membership package and are unlikely to be a deciding factor for most voters in the forthcoming referendum. Does it matter? John Barwise assesses the influence of the EU on UK environment policy and what this means for society and the business community.

The campaign over Britain’s membership of the EU is well under way with both sides of the In-Out debate focusing on the economy and jobs, sovereignty and security and immigration. These are the issues that matter to people and public opinion is unlikely to be persuaded one way or the other on whether EU membership has had positive or negative impacts on our environment. Yet, environmental regulations and directives passed in Brussels have played a decisive role in shaping UK environment policies over the years and continue to influence the way businesses trade with our European neighbours.

The UK’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 was driven primarily by the need to improve trading access to the Common Market, which was established by its founding members Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. In the same year, the EEC introduced its first Environmental Action Programme (EAP) and a common environmental policy, primarily to prevent national environmental standards from distorting trading competition for businesses operating across the Common Market.

Other factors influencing the EEC at that time included growing national and international concern over the state of the environment, symbolised by the UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, which brought into sharp relief the transnational characteristics of pollution and its effect on human health and the environment.

Pollution control

Historically, the UK approach to environmental pollution was to “dilute and disperse”. Dilute sewage and trade effluent in fast-flowing rivers and “disperse” smoke and other pollutants through tall chimneys — relying on prevailing westerly winds to carry pollution away from these shores. And, despite protests from Scandinavian countries over acid rain from UK coal-fired power stations and relentless local campaigning over polluted rivers, it took several years of continued pressure from European partners before the UK moved completely from its “dilute and disperse” practices to more acceptable means of pollution control.

The UK is, of course, not the only EU country to resist implementing European environment policies. Most Member States have, at some time or other, been brought before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for breaches of EU environmental legislation. Germany was recently taken to court for e-waste failings, France for poor waste water treatment and Greece for illegal landfill operations. The latest case against the UK, which is still ongoing, involves breaching EU limits for nitrogen oxide.

In recent years, the UK has taken a leading role in Europe on many aspects of environmental protection and sustainability. We were the first country in the world to introduce an emissions trading scheme and to set legally binding targets of 80% reduction on CO2 emissions. Other countries are starting to rise to that particular challenge. Yet we are still behind our European partners on some issues.

Collective EU responsibility

What is reassuring about the collective EU responsibility for environmental protection, is that Directives agreed in Brussels by Member States are legally binding on all Member States, helping to raise the standards of environment and health protection for all citizens, while at the same time creating a level playing field for businesses to compete on equal terms across the world’s largest trading bloc.

Comprehensive review

In 2012–2014 the Coalition Government carried out a comprehensive review of the UK’s relationship with the EU, with the aim of finding out how EU laws affect the way the UK manages its national interests. The project, entitled, Review of the Balance of Competences between the UK and the EU culminated in 32 separate Balance of Competencies (BoC) departmental reports, covering every area of EU activity that interacts with UK policy.

William Hague described the two-year project as: “the most extensive analysis of the impact of UK membership of the EU ever undertaken”. Despite the huge scope and cost of the £5m project, the Government decided not to publish a summary conclusion on UK/EU balance of competencies. As a result, the whole project failed to generate much political debate or media coverage, a move that was strongly criticised by Lord Boswell, Chair of the Lords EU select committee who argued that this would have informed public debate on the EU-UK relationship. He told the Observer at the time that of the 32 reports, there was “no report in which it was demonstrated that too much power resided in Brussels.”

The 32 separate BoC reports, which are still available from the Government’s website, provides a useful reference for voters still unsure of the likely consequences of staying or leaving the EU. Overall, the BoC reports are largely supportive of the UK’s relationship with the EU. The report relating to the environment and climate change, for example, argues that while there can be tensions between environmental standards and competitiveness, business sectors welcome some degree of cross-EU environmental regulation.

“EU targets on waste and on climate change were seen by many as providing greater certainty for investors and an important spur for growth in the rapidly expanding environmental and low carbon services and products sector. In addition, EU regulation on chemicals and other environmental standards was also seen by many businesses as important in providing a level playing field across the Single Market,” the report concludes.

The Department for Transport’s BoC report, which covered, among other things, the EU’s environmental competence in aspects of transport policy for road, rail and aviation, said the EU has “exercised its competence increasingly in the social, consumer and environmental spheres of transport policy”.

Environmental Audit Committee inquiry

Following the completion of the BoC project, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) decided to hold its own inquiry to assess the extent to which EU environmental objectives and policies have succeeded in tackling environmental issues in the UK. The inquiry is intended to inform the debate ahead of the referendum on EU membership.

Giving evidence to the inquiry, Lord Bourne, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), reiterated his department’s view of the BoC: “In general terms, on the balance of competences, as was examined by the Government in 2014, overwhelmingly all the evidence that we were seeing chimed very much with the Government’s view that the balance was, broadly speaking, where we need to be on energy and climate change.”

Speaking at the same EAC inquiry, Rory Stewart, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) said his department’s views were in line with those of DECC. “We tend to focus on implementation and better regulation, but we have not concluded that we need to return competencies from the EU in relation to the environment, and the Prime Minister’s current negotiations are not intending to do that,” Stewart told the committee.

The EAC inquiry is not restricted to politicians’ views on EU membership. In its submission to the inquiry, an alliance of leaders from business and civil society, said that EU environmental legislation has helped create a level playing field for businesses through the introduction of common environmental standards and regulatory compliance which are applicable in all Member States. According to the Aldersgate Group, it has also helped support economic growth opportunities for businesses through the introduction of common standards (such energy efficiency standards) applicable across the Single Market.

The Aldersgate Group accepts, however, that implementation of EU directives across Member States is often inconsistent, which can undermine the level playing field for businesses. Different regulatory requirements for offshore windfarms in the UK, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands have, according to the business group, added to the complexity of environmental management for developers.

Inconsistencies in the EU’s waste categorisation can also be a barrier for businesses wanting to improve their resource efficiency and make greater use of secondary materials, although the group stresses that the EU’s proposed Circular Economy Package should incentivise a greater use of secondary materials.

The environmental consequences of Brexit

Another group of leading environmental professionals and academics, including Sir John Harman, former Environment Agency chair, and Dr Helen Phillips former chief of Natural England, recently wrote to Defra minister Liz Truss expressing concern at the current lack of debate on the environmental consequences of leaving the EU. “Given the current lack of political discussion and minimal media coverage it seems unlikely these issues will have any impact on the vote to stay or leave the EU,” the letter said.

“There are many issues which will decide voting intentions at the forthcoming referendum, but on this issue which is so central to the British quality of life, the case is clear: We will better able to protect the quality of Britain’s environment if we stay in Europe,” the letter concludes.

The EU is now into its 7th EAP. According to the EU, the range of environmental regulations and support mechanisms put in place over the years has significantly reduced pollution to air, water and soil. Chemicals legislation has been modernised and the use of many toxic or hazardous substances has been restricted, safeguarding public health. EU citizens enjoy some of the best water quality in the world and over 18% of EU’s territory has been designated as protected areas for nature, according to latest EAP report.

If the UK decides to stay in Europe, we know that the 7th EAP will continue to influence UK environmental policy and inform businesses of environmental best practice, in line with our European neighbours. What happens if we choose to leave is less certain.

To date, there has been very little debate on whether the UK environment is better protected within or outside the EU. Sceptics could legitimately argue that money saved from our net contribution to the EU could be used to support environmental initiatives.

Croner-i will be keeping a watching brief on the In-Out environment debate with a number of opinion pieces from business leaders, setting out their views on the campaign over the weeks leading up to the referendum.