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Exiting the EU: an upcoming British environmental disaster

The past couple of months have seen a surge in fresh anti-EU discussions across British media. While the seemingly strained relationship between the UK and the EU is relatively mainstream news, the recent vociferous hatred spewed by some British MPs towards the EU is overshadowing some valid points: should Britain leave the EU, what impact will this have on the environment and other social dimensions that drive the country?

Photo credit: Rainer Hachfeld

It is quite undeniable that through the course of EU membership, the UK has managed to increase the conservation of wildlife and habitats and also reduce pollution to provide a better quality of life for people in the country. As argued by a recent article in The Guardian, experts conclude how an exit from the EU would not reap as many ‘green’ benefits when compared to the promised economic ones:

“An analysis for Friends of the Earth, published today by the EU policy expert Dr Charlotte Burns from the University of York, provides a damning critique of UK environmental performance over decades, and highlights the huge risks of EU withdrawal”.

Such a statement, I feel, also resonates exceptionally with other European countries including Malta. As cynical as it may seem, I firmly believe that no single country would willfully implement environmental changes – especially those which are detrimental to business and GDP. Having an institution such as the EU to regulate these laws is crucial towards their implementation. If you think about it, politicians and NGOs alike throw the terms ‘EU law’ and ‘EU policy’ quite freely as they actually carry significant weight. Should the EU seal be removed, what is there left to stop a country from mounting a catastrophic assault on its natural resources?

The European Otter (Lutra lutra), one of the numerous species in the UK benefitting from the EU habitats directive (Photo credit: mape_s)

Historically, the UK has seen far worse days from its current green and luscious pastures. It had the highest levels of sulphur dioxide emissions for any European country, which travelled atmospherically north and reaped havoc on Scandinavian forests through acid rain. Seas and rivers (especially the Thames) were discharge sites for untreated waters, culminating in heavily polluted drinking waters.

The British approach to the environment

Something which I personally learnt across my recent studies is how British politicians mitigate environmental issues. They use the excuse of ‘scientific facts’ to provide public assurance, in order to defer from reaching a solution and often take action only when irreparable damage has been done. This can be historically exemplified by:

The 2,4,5-T case – Herbicides which where scientifically proven to be safe for public use in the UK, albeit being banned in the US, Canada and the former Soviet Union. This chemical was allegedly responsible for causing chloracne, birth defects, spontaneous abortion and cancer. Many farmworkers incurred such diseases, but the government never backed down as it trusted the ‘science’ more than the peoples’ voices. This herbicide was never banned in the UK, but have since become heavily regulated and its effects thusly reduced.

The BSE (mad cow disease) case – A very prominent story of our generation. The British government stalled decisions on this issue for years, with then agriculture minister John Gummer famously feeding his four-year old daughter a hamburger to publicly assure that British beef was scientifically tested and safe to eat. Needless to say, people who lived in the UK between 1980 and 1996 for more than six months cannot give blood as this carries the risk of transmitting the human form of mad cow disease – a classic double  EPIC FAIL with cheese!

In 1990, John Gummer famously ate a beefburger with his daughter Cordelia in front of the press at the height of the mad cow disease scare. These were the tactics employed by British MPs when such environmental issues gained public attention.

The EU does not follow such a science-based approach to the decision making process. Instead, it adopts the precautionary principle which dictates that policies are enacted if there is a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or the environment, unless otherwise scientifically demonstrated. This is what happened to the recent banning of neonicotinoids, which were suspected of causing harm to bees (oh, and BTW the UK was against the ban of these chemicals since not enough scientific testing had been carried out…).

This different approach to environmental policy making, pioneered by the more progressive Scandinavian countries, the Dutch and the German, has resulted in the UK having safer drinking water, cleaner bathing waters and cleaner air. I also have to mention the importance of key transnational directives, such as the EU habitats directive, the bathing water directive and the EU Birds directive, which provide a vital framework for the protection of wildlife and habitats. There is also the European Commission, that has historically lambasted Westminster when these Directives were not upheld (something which Malta may learn very soon as well, hopefully).

British holiday destinations such as East Looe at the south Cornish resort of Looe (above) have failed to meet the water quality standards as set by the EU. This means that if such beaches are not cleaned up, from 2016 onwards they will be required to put up danger signs to warn people not to swim – imagine a scenario where this will not be enforced anymore? (Photo credit: Karen Roe)

Should the UK leave the EU, these directives would all hastily go out the window much to the detriment of the British public. Even while still within the EU, the UK keeps opposing environmental policies on account of them not being scientifically rigorous. Thankfully, more forward thinking countries are in favour of such laws (from the bees, to green energy, to sustainable use of resources), so countries like the UK can be steered in the correct environmental direction.

As an EU citizen living in UK, I am first to comment on how much animosity is felt by the British towards the EU. My personal experience has shown me that this aversion is quite frankly cultural, as the British want to stand on their own two feet and not be bogged down by the EU. As I have been told numerous times, ‘you Europeans’ (since the British do not feel as such) cannot understand the ‘horrors’ of being part of the EU. Countries like Malta and other smaller economies obviously benefit from the EU at the expense of bigger economies such as the UK.

While I am not an economist and cannot comment freely on this issue, it is quite clear that the British environment would suffer under the singular management of a narrow-minded and scientifically-driven government.

The key players in the UK's EU membership debate: Former Conservative Chancellor Lord Nigel Lawson (left), current British Prime Minister David Cameron (Centre), MEP for the UK and leader of UKIP, UK Independence Part (Right)

The key players in the UK’s EU membership debate: Former Conservative Chancellor Lord Nigel Lawson (left), current British Prime Minister David Cameron (Centre), MEP for the UK and leader of UKIP, UK Independence Party Nigel Farage(Right). Can these men or their successors be trusted to maintain the current environmental standards in the UK?

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