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Uncharted waters? Steering a course between Leave or Remain for the UK’s rivers and lakes

June 9, 2016
Symbolique 2006

Reflecting on water in the EU. Image: Symbolique 2006

On 23rd June, British voters will decide on the future of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.  The EU is an economic and political partnership of 28 countries (or member states) which was formed after the Second World War.  The UK joined the then-European Community in 1973.  The EU provides a ‘single market’ for people, goods and capital to move easily between member states, and sets rules and standards across a wide range of areas including industry, commerce and environmental management.  By far the biggest EU expenditure is on agriculture, so the environment is, de facto, at the heart of the Union.

‘Brexit’ is the term given to the question of a British exit from the EU: a portmanteau of ‘British’ and ‘exit’.  There are two competing official campaigns on either the side of the issue, each made up of cross-political party collectives of politicians and campaigners: Leave and Remain.  Within, and alongside, these campaigns are numerous smaller campaign and advocacy groups (see, for example the wide range of groups on the ‘Scientists for the EU’ website)

Leave or Remain?

The Vote Leave campaign is predominantly focused on issues of immigration and open borders, and reducing perceived excessive EU bureaucracy, fees and trade rules.  Broadly, the Vote Leave campaign wants an independent United Kingdom with stronger sovereignty, control over borders and immigration, and better autonomy over law-making, economic and trade decisions.

The Britain Stronger in Europe (or ‘Remain’) campaign argues that Britain is better off keeping its strong position within the EU.  The Remain campaign cites the benefits to UK jobs, business and trade, workers rights and the NHS gained from EU membership.  Significantly, the Remain campaign argues that Brexit would cause damaging uncertainty and instability in the UK economy, a sentiment that has been broadly echoed by organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, The International Monetary Fund, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England.

Where is the environment in the debate?

Whilst neither side foregrounds the environment as a key political issue in campaign literature, both have discussed the environmental impacts of EU policy in recent weeks.  The RSPB asked politicians from both sides of the debate to argue their case in terms of environmental impacts, and their interviews with MPs Caroline Lucas from Remain, and George Eustice from Leave, can be watched here.

For the Leave campaign, the EU Common Agricultural Policy (or CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (or the CFP) – both policies regulating the productive and extractive use of nature – have caused environmental and economic problems.  The Leave campaign argues that both policies are wasteful and bureaucratic and have restricted the productivity of British farmers and fishermen.  CAP has had a particularly negative effect on UK environments, increasing agricultural pollution and run-off and accelerating the decline of some bird populations through the farming practices it encourages.  Attempts to address these impacts have been implemented through CAP Reforms over the last 20 years, which seek to encourage more environmentally-friendly methods of farming.

Focusing largely on fisheries policy, the Minister for Farming, Food and Marine Environment, George Eustice recently argued that the UK was ‘losing its voice’ in European environmental policy-making.  Writing in the Evening Standard, Eustice argued that, “EU supporters make glib claims about having a seat at the table but when it comes to wildlife conventions we are losing our voice. Since the Lisbon Treaty it is now, extraordinarily, unlawful for the UK to speak and vote without first getting permission from the European Commission.” Eustice has also has made environmental deregulation a key part of the ‘Leave’ argument.

What the EU does for nature

On the other hand, it can be argued that EU membership has helped significantly modernise and improve UK environmental policy since the 1970s. Billions of euros have been spent on EU environmental research and policy (for example, through Framework Seven and LIFE projects) promoting conservation and restoration.  EU directives have played a significant role in improving the quality of drinking and bathing water, the reduction of landfill waste, the reduction of emissions from power stations and the protection of habitats.

A recent House of Commons expert audit of EU environmental policy in the UK found that “the overwhelming majority of our witnesses also believed that the UK’s membership of the EU has improved the UK’s approach to environmental protection and ensured that the UK environment has been better protected.”

Ecosystems and species rarely conform to political boundaries, and the stresses and problems they face similarly tend to cross borders (take pollution along a huge river basin like the Danube, for example).  Emerging environmental issues such as climate change and the spread of invasive species are inherently dynamic across large geographical areas. Cross-boundary EU environmental policies such as the Water Framework Directive and the Birds and Habitats Directives (or ‘Nature Directives’) have encouraged co-operation in the management of large-scale environmental issues across European countries.

At more local scales, the Natura 2000 initiative provides a network of protected areas across Europe for the continents most valuable and threatened species and habitats. Covering over 18 % of the EU’s land area and almost 6 % of its marine territory, Natura 2000 provides the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world. UK Prime Minister David Cameron – a figurehead for the Remain Campaign – recently said that “EU membership underpins many crucial environmental protections in the UK, while amplifying our voice in the world on vital issues like cutting global emissions.”

And writing on the Brighter Green website, Green MP Caroline Lucas of the Remain Campaign said, “For all the advantages of EU membership, none stand out quite so clearly as the European Union’s role in protecting our environment. In many ways, it’s easy to see why working with our European neighbours makes sense. The threats our environment faces – from cross-border pollution, to overfishing in our seas and climate change – don’t respect national borders, meaning that solutions must span the divide between nation states too. Indeed, when it comes to protecting our environment, it seems to me that if the EU didn’t already exist – we’d have to invent it.”

EU freshwater policy: a broad success story

The protection and restoration of freshwater habitats, water quality and species populations is one of the big success stories of EU environmental policy. Speaking at the recent EU LIFE conference in Manchester, UK Environment Minister Rory Stewart said, “Through the EU we have improved more than 9,000 miles of rivers since 2010 and our water environment is in the healthiest state for 25 years. We are able to protect and enhance the environment far more effectively if EU countries continue to work together.”

Over recent decades, industrial pollutants reaching rivers and lakes have been significantly reduced, both in the UK and across Europe.  Similarly, air pollution in the UK resulting from harmful emissions such as sulphur and nitrogen oxides has been significantly reduced in recent decades as a result of EU policy such as the Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution.  This has caused a reduction in acid rain and reversal of the acidification of freshwater ecosystems.

Three reports on the environmental consequences of the referendum

In recent months, a number of reports which assess the possible environmental consequences of a Leave vote for UK environments have been published.  In March, a report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), commissioned by WWF UK, the RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts suggested that, “It is likely that a potential UK departure from the EU would leave the British environment in a more vulnerable and uncertain position than if it were to remain as a member of the EU.”

In April, an Environmental Audit Committee was appointed by the House of Commons to evaluate UK and EU environmental policy, and the potential consequences of Brexit.  The published Audit synthesised statements given by experts from academia, UK and EU policy making, environmental stakeholder and NGO groups such as the RSPB and National Farmers Union.

The Audit concluded that,

“Despite the key role that the EU has played in UK environmental policy, relatively little appears to have been done by way of planning in the case of the UK leaving. None of the witnesses to our inquiry made an environmental case for leaving the EU. The UK Government’s view is that this would trigger a “long and tortuous” negotiation. There are, therefore, significant unanswered questions about what relationship a UK outside the EU would have with it and with the rest of the world, just as there are unanswered questions as to how our relationship with the EU might develop.

Nonetheless, two points were made to us repeatedly. Firstly, the UK would still need to meet international environmental commitments made in the UN and elsewhere, many of which are reflected in EU law. Secondly, a UK outside the EU would still have to comply with some aspects of EU environmental legislation, particularly if it wishes to secure preferential access to the Single Market, but with significantly less ability to influence the process of its development.”

Finally, a report by a group of UK academics commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council outlines the three likely possibilities of the Referendum vote: Remain; Leave (‘Norwegian’ Option); and Leave ‘Free Trade’ Option.

three scenarios

Three scenarios following the referendum.  Image: report

The ‘Norwegian’ Option describes how, following a Leave vote, the UK could apply for membership of the European Free Trade Area (alongside Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein) to participate in the European Economic Area trading bloc.  Under this option, many existing EU rules would still apply, yet the UK would have little say in how these are shaped or enforced.  Most existing EU environmental rules would continue to apply apart from those covering bathing water, habitats and birds, and some aspects of climate legislation and the Water Framework Directive. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) would no longer apply. The ‘Free Trade’ option describes how, following a Leave vote, the UK would remain independent from the EU and need to negotiate new trade and political relationships with other European countries.

Uncharted waters?  How the referendum could affect UK rivers and lakes

What do these reports have to say about the possible implications of Brexit for UK freshwaters?  The overarching theme is one of uncertainty: chiefly in how UK environmental policy and management can be significantly rearranged following a Leave vote, whilst environmental protections and regulations are maintained.  Under a ‘full’ exit, it is conceivable that environmental standards and planning regulations may be relaxed, potentially to give UK business and industry competitive advantages in new trading agreements.  However, the environmental costs could be substantial.

Prof Steve Ormerod is well placed to comment on the environmental implications of Brexit – as Chairman of Europe’s largest wildlife charity, the RSPB, and a leading freshwater ecologist, he says,

“The major environmental NGOs are clear and unanimous in their perspective:  while none is telling its members how to vote in the referendum, the Wildlife Trusts, Buglife and the heavyweight international players WWF and RSPB have made clear that the UK’s environment would be safer if the UK remained part of the European Union.

Three key arguments for them are i) the international needs of nature conservation and climate change mitigation; ii) clear evidence that the major EU Directives deliver for nature with more teeth than flimsier conventions such as Ramsar or the Bern Conventions and iii) the deregulatory agenda of the ‘Leave’ campaign, which could see effective nature protection stripped away (see this recent RSPB blog for more information).

In freshwaters, too, the evidence is that EU regulation has been effective.  Our own evidence shows how controls on air pollution from the Large Combustion Plants Directive (88/609/EEC) helped to accelerate recovery from the effects of acid rain over large areas while Britain’s urban rivers have improved substantially since implementation of the EU Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive in 1991 (91/271/EEC) (Vaughan & Ormerod 2012).  The Water Framework Directive is very likely to spur similar improvements.

The UK’s government is held to account by these and other Directives in ways that our own regulators seem increasingly unable to attain.”

Freshwater management in Europe is significantly shaped by the Water Framework Directive, which requires member states to manage water quality to a ‘good’ standard within river basin areas. Adopted in 2000, the WFD is underpinned by ‘daughter directives’ on improving ground water, urban waste water; drinking water and bathing water; and strengthened by related nitrates and integrated pollution control directives.

The WFD would still (largely) apply under a ‘Norwegian’ exit, but not under a full exit.  UK freshwater managers and planners would need to work with new management strategies that replace the existing River Basin Management Plans, and the potential to mobilise funding, expertise and experience for water management with expert groups across the continent would be negatively affected.

One of the key advantages of the Water Framework Directive is that it allows for governments, water managers and other stakeholders to work in dialogue to systematically set long-term European goals for environmental management.  The WFD is not perfect (see Daniel Hering and colleagues writing on its success and failures in 2010), but it is one of the strongest and most effective pieces of European environmental policy, which is helping catalyse projects that improve water quality and freshwater ecosystem health, both in the UK and across Europe.

After a full exit, UK freshwater organisations would no longer be able to apply to pots of European money such as LIFE to fund their work, and would likely be reliant on government and private funding instead.  The LIFE initiative has co-funded 237 projects in the UK since 1992, to a total value of €528.4 million, allowing conservation groups such as the RSPB to develop conservation projects.

Calm or troubled waters?

The key theme running through this debate is the uncertainty of a Leave vote: chiefly, what would replace the networks of protected areas, environmental legislation, funding and European research projects that help provide strong protection and restoration for the UK’s freshwaters?

A Leave vote would not necessarily cause the collapse of freshwater conservation efforts in the UK; of course there are many aquatic scientists, campaigners and conservationists with vast experience and expertise who would doubtless advocate for new conservation and restoration efforts.  Such efforts would need to work within the priorities of an independent government administration, which given George Eustice’s recent comments, is likely to push through environmental deregulation.

The big issue highlighted in every report mentioned here is the time-lag in transitioning existing conservation efforts from working within comprehensive (and broadly successful) EU policies and standards to those decided by a newly independent government.  The danger here, of course, is that in this process, strict and strong EU environmental standards and protections may be relaxed, leading to a potentially uncertain future for UK freshwaters.

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