Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Why I'm voting Remain

In case you haven't guessed.  I have already decided which way to vote on Thursday's EU Referendum. But why?  What has the EU ever done for us? For our Environment?


Well, we can start with the Urban Waste Water Directive which covers the collection and treatment of waste water (sewage), mandating secondary treatment to the effluent leading to improvements in the quality of our river environment.

Then there is the Bathing Water Directive, a big EU success story which has led to significant improvements to quality of our bathing waters and improving safety for recreational use of bathing waters.

And the Water Framework Directive which pulls together the requirements of various directives into a framework for protecting water quality holistically over river basins, including both surface and ground water.  It is these directives which have seen an improvement in the water quality of our rivers, particularly in urban and industrial areas where once lifeless rivers are once again habitable by fish.


Then the Habitats Directive protects over 1000 animal and plant species, including the EU Red List of Endangered Species, and 200 habitat types. And the Birds Directive gives similar protection to threatened bird species.


The Air Quality Directive sets maximum levels for different types of air pollution, such as fine particles, Nitrogen Dioxide, Sulphur Dioxide and lead.  The purpose of this is to reduce the adverse effects on human health, with reports linking air pollution with up to 40,000 early deaths in the UK.


The Common Fisheries Policy has had its problems, but is an example where public pressure can drive change, removing the unintended consequence of discards.  The policy has seen the number of boats at sea reduce significantly compared with historical levels but this was necessary to compensate for the larger catches that each boat can take, partly as a result of technology, and declining stocks.  Quotas and no-fishing areas may not be popular with the fishing communities but they are evidence based and have been necessary to allow stocks to recover and ensure a sustainable issue.

 This list is far from exhaustive.

While these directives and policies and their implementation in UK legislation have their flaws, they represent a common approach across Europe to minimum levels of protection to the environment and society.  Without such an approach, there will be a tendency to move to the lowest, cheapest level of protection, if indeed any.  It is this type of legislation that many in the Brexit campaign seek to sweep away.

It would be wrong to say that a post Brexit UK could not enact strong environmental protection legislation but our track record has not been strong.  When parliament is directly affected it took action – such as following the Great Stink of 1858 which led to Bazalgette's new sewer system and the Great Smog of 1952, linked with thousands of deaths, which led to the Clean Air Act 1956.
These were in response to clearly visible/detectable environmental problems while much of the more recent EU driven legislation concerns less obvious issues.  The current air quality targets, which the UK continues to miss, offers a prime example.  Despite the link between poor air quality and a variety of health problems it is not visible, not detectable without specialist equipment.  The current and previous governments have taken little action to address this.  Would a post Brexit government continue to inactively fail to meet targets or would it simply sweep them away, brush the problem under the carpet?

One final point is that if we do leave the EU on the 23rd of June, we may still need to comply with the minimum standards of environmental protection set out in these and other directives if we want to continue trading freely with Europe.  Lead Brexiter Boris Johnson says that we are too big an economy for the rEU to ignore and that Germany would be "insane" to allow tariffs to be imposed, thus harming its own economies.  That may be true but if we can undercut their domestic producers by reducing environmental protections, I see it as a necessity for the rEU to impose trade tariffs with the UK.

Based on the evidence I have seen, and the vague promises of removing "red tape" from the Brexit campaigners, I am firmly of the opinion that we would be better within the European Union.  Within, we can influence policy direction, topics for action and levels of protection.  Many of our largest environmental challenges, such as climate change and diffuse pollution, require an collaborative international approach which can be more easily achieved within the Union,

But don't just listen to me.  One of the other important things under threat from Thursday's vote is the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).  But What has the ECHR ever done for us?

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