Caroline Spelman is a former Environment Secretary, and is MP for Meriden.
The World WildLife Fund and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds are calling on all lovers of the environment to vote to remain in the EU on 23 June. These trusted organisations will be writing to their 1.5 million members explaining why they believe that our nature and environment are better off if Britain remains in.
From the Shetland Islands to Cornwall and from the Amazon to the Himalayas, these huge membership organisations care for our natural environment and wildlife across the UK and overseas. And they want us to remain because of the vital protections that the EU gives for our environment, and the role that the UK plays at the heart of efforts across the continent to combat climate change and to protect our wildlife.
But the WWF and the RSPB are not the only major groups saying we’d be better off staying in the EU. Crucially, the National Farmers’ Union, who represent the custodians of our countryside and much of our natural environment, have said that “British farmers’ interests are best served by remaining in the European Union”. The NFU knows that being a member of the single market allows our farmers to trade, tariff-free, with a single market of 500 million people, and to receive over £20 billion in current support through the Common Agricultural Policy.
I know, from my time as Environment Secretary, that these major groups, which represent the best interests of the countryside, are right. As Conservatives, we believe in the preservation of our heritage. So on this issue I believe that these organisations – which strive to do just that – should be listened to by everyone who wants to see our environment and countryside protected.
The UK has a strong voice around the table when pan-EU regulations are set, and because these cover the whole of the EU they are more robust and give us collective clout when dealing with those who would seek to break the rules. Whether it is protections to improve river quality – where, thanks to co-operation with the EU, our rivers are in their healthiest state for 25 years and we now see otters and salmon returning for the first time in generations – or efforts, led by the UK, to ban the wasteful discarding of fish, we make a difference to our natural environment through strong international cooperation .
While we have been inside the EU, and a part of the international efforts that it leads to improve our environment, our beaches have become cleaner, our water clearer, and signal British species such as red kites and bitterns are being brought back from the brink of being wiped out in our country. Indeed, red kites, which have been one of our greatest environmental success stories of recent years, were brought back using breeding pairs which came from Spain and Sweden.
So the evidence is clear: EU Nature and Water Directives have had a positive impact on UK biodiversity, with species protected by directives faring better than those which are not. But as well as support for species at home, I am also proud of the work that I did in government to use UK and, importantly, EU influence to improve the protection of species across the world. Whether we are working to end the poaching of elephants and rhinos, or dismantling networks that trade in endangered species, we are stronger when we work together.
Because it is absolutely clear that, while we so often ponder regional and national boundaries, they are meaningless when it comes to the environment and our wildlife, and the threats that they face. This is also true for water and air quality: EU regulations have set targets for improvements across the continent, while leaving it to member states themselves to determine precisely how we meet these important standards.
However, the EU is possibly most important in the worldwide fight against climate change. The UK has been at the heart of EU efforts to introduce climate change targets. This has meant that we have been able to set tough targets that keep our environment safe, and which work for us at home.
So there is simply no way that we could adequately protect our global natural inheritance and preserve it for our children and grandchildren by ourselves. Our rivers, streams and coastline depend on pollution controls across the EU; and our wildlife, particularly migratory birds and fish, rely on the action of many countries for their survival.
I have seen it at first-hand – and have sat round the table at dozens of EU council meetings where we worked together, through well-developed networks, to protect our environment. Of course, as with the CAP, reform of the way the EU works needs to continue. But those who want us to leave the EU cannot say how we would continue to work as effectively together as we do now. In my view, that is because there is no alternative that is as credible or effective.
A vote to remain in the EU is a vote to ensure our economy is stronger, safer and better off. But, as we have now heard from every major voice who cares for our environment and countryside, it will also ensure that the vital cooperation that currently protects our wildlife and environment remains in place.