Stanley Johnson is an environmentalist and author who is a former Conservative MEP and parliamentary candidate.
Today, a new group, Environmentalists for Europe (E4E) is being launched at the House of Lords, hosted by Baroness (Barbara) Young of Old Scone, former Chairman of English Nature and former Chief Executive of the Environmental Agency. Lady Young is one Co-Chairman of E4E. I have the honour to be the other Co-Chairman.
I must declare an interest here. I have spent virtually the whole of my professional life on EU or environmental issues.
Does that mean I am biased? Of course it does. But I like to think that even if I didn’t have ‘skin in the game’ I would still be arguing that it is high time ‘environmentalists’ as a group spoke up for Europe.
Back in the 1960s and early 1970s Britain’s environmental performance left much to be desired. Our neighbours on the Continent called us the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’. We had short, fast fast-flowing rivers, so we were quite happy to see pollution swept out to sea. ‘Dilute and disperse’ were our watch-words, even when some of the pollutants we were discarding were known to be toxic or persistent or both. Our industry pumped its effluent into the air. Tall stacks and prevailing winds ensured that on the whole other countries bore the brunt.
After we joined the EEC all that began to change. Nigel Haigh, a former director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy, commented in his recent evidence to the House of Common Environmental Audit Committee: “The EU has shaken UK environmental policy out of its insularity and has helped to modernise it.”
Europe’s environmental policy has since the 1970s grown to cover air and water pollution, major aspects of climate change mitigation, waste and recycling, biodiversity conservation, the regulation of chemicals, noise, energy conservation, environmental liability and justice, marine protection and several other issues. It is now probably the most developed and influential body of environmental law and policy on the global stage as well as within Europe.
In yesterday’s Independent, Michael McCarthy, doyen of environmental correspondents, commented:
“It is just starting to dawn on many people that, for all the disadvantages of the EU (such as its crazy Common Agricultural Policy, its cosying up to big business, its democratic deficit and – to some – its free movement of peoples), over the past 40 years, since Britain became a member state in 1973, it has put together a wonderfully enlightened corpus of environmental law. It is European directives which have forced the sewage out of Britain’s bathing waters and the acid rain out of Britain’s atmosphere; which are getting rid of the most dangerous chemicals in our environment and the carbon pollution of our motor vehicles; which are pushing the clean-up of our rivers and the switch to renewable energy; and which, of course, are watching over our wildlife, and that of the rest of Europe.”
To expand on McCarthy’s last point: the EU has one of the most advanced legislative frameworks to protect nature. The EU’s Natura 2000 network is today the largest coherent network of protected areas in the world, aimed at conserving natural habitats and wild fauna and flora, both terrestrial and marine. In the UK, over 600 terrestrial sites, covering eight million hectares, benefit from the strong protection provided by the Natura 2000 programme. The emphasis now is on completing the network of marine sites and on ensuring better implementation where existing protected areas are concerned.
Towards the end of last year, I was the surprised and much-gratified recipient not only of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Medal for Services to Conservation, but also of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Award to Leaders of the Living Planet. In both cases, the citations commended the part I had played in inspiring and drafting the EU Habitats Directive which, after its adoption in 1992, has formed the basis of the largest network of protected areas on the planet.
I am sure that those awards, thrilling as they were to me, were made for political as much as for personal reasons.
The reality is that large membership organisations like the RSPB and WWF are increasingly conscious that that the EU’s achievements in the environmental field really do stand out and need to be recognised. There are a lot of people out there who care about nature and the environment and the coherent legal framework at the EU has introduced and they don’t want it to be trashed unnecessarily.
Joining us today in launching E4E are Bill Oddie, our Patron, Caroline Lucas MP, Lord Deben, Chairman of the UK Climate Change Committee, as well as Richard Benyon, former Environment Minister, and Laura Sandys, Chairman of the European Movement UK.
In the run-up to the referendum, E4E aims to work with a broad spectrum of organisations and individuals, in the hope and expectation that the contribution EU environmental policy has made to the achievement of the UK’s national goals and objectives, will be fully recognised.
By being ‘in’, Britain benefits from environmental legislation and funding not only for the fight against climate change and pollution and in its efforts to preserve nature and wildlife, but also through the creation of jobs and financing for research and development here at home.
And, as part of the EU, the UK can be a driver for meaningful international agreements, such as those reached at the recent Paris Climate Change Conference. We may not always get all we want (we didn’t in Paris); but, without the EU, we would probably have got far less.
Of course, the environment is not the only issue which will influence voters as they try to make up their mind in the historic referendum which confronts us. Nor should it be. But I personally believe that our country’s greatest resource – its nature – will be better protected and better preserved for future generations if we remain an active, full, partner within Europe.