EU & the Environment

By Rick Bayles

As a keen amateur naturalist the state of our environment in the UK has always been of concern to me. When I was a kid I can remember most of our major rivers being little more than open sewers – nothing lived in large sections of them and people seemed to see them as a legitimate means of clearing industrial waste. Similarly our coastline was one of the dirtiest in Europe with our so called “dilute and disperse” approach to pollution control.

Successive UK governments had taken the view that environmental concerns are only something you deal with once they become a problem but, of course, by the time many environmental issues become obvious the damage has already been done. Before the EU got involved in setting environmental standards most UK policy in this area was based on voluntary agreements and any breaches were invariably ignored. One of the things that really worries me about Brexit is the possibility that we will go back to this laissez faire approach to protecting our environment. It’s no secret that many Brexiters see EU regulations as “stifling” for competitive business – it doesn’t matter if our air is unbreathable or our green spaces covered over as long as they can pursue the business of amassing a fortune. But modern society has to be about more than just commercialism and the pursuit of wealth – that money’s not going to be much good to future generations if they’re living in an industrial wasteland.

Some 80% of our environmental policy is based on EU directives. Our beaches are now clean and free of raw sewage because of the EU’s bathing water directive. Clean beaches mean more visitors and that means good news for local economies. Similarly, the EU is now aggressively pursuing major reductions in inner city air pollution – something that should be very important for those living in UK cities because we have some of the worst air pollution in the world; so much so that some 9,000 deaths a year are attributed to air pollution in London alone. 

The mainland European countries, largely driven by progressive policies in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe, have become very pro-active in dealing with environmental issues and that has had a beneficial effect for countries like ours, where government, traditionally, hasn’t seen the environment as a priority. Not prioritising good environmental policies invariably comes back to bite you. Problems like the BSE outbreak can be directly linked to poor awareness of environmental factors and, on a small island like ours, problems of this nature can spread very quickly, as we’ve discovered to our detriment.

When people ask “What have the EU ever done for us” they’d do well to stop and look at rivers like the Thames and realise that we now have around 125 species of fish living in a river that was considered dead less than 50 years ago. We have seals, dolphins and otters regularly spotted in those waters and an abundance of bird life along its banks. I genuinely worry that, if Brexit ever happens, we’ll see our environmental protection slowly stripped away to make this country more “competitive”. We’ll never see clean air acts brought in to protect those living in our cities and our countryside will be laid waste by chemical fertilisers and weedkillers designed to maximise farm yields at the expense of the countryside.

The European Union is as much about community as it is about trade. It’s about building a better world for all its members – a better environment to live in. That’s one of the major reasons why I want to see us stay in the EU. It’s better for us and it’s definitely better for the environment!


Ruth St John