Does the European Union work for the environment?


It’s broadly acknowledged that for a body wielding so much power, we do not know or care enough about the European Union.  Our press is criticised for under-reporting and our public reprimanded for a lack of understanding.

To do our bit towards bringing the issue to the forefront, we’ve pulled together some pros and cons to consider when it comes to the EU and the environment. The EU offers a lot of environmental positives, yet there’s a big looming BUT that could be a game changer. We’ll start with some of the positives.


A small voice made big

The UK is not huge.  We are 0.89% of the global population.   That’s equivalent to just 4% of the Chinese population and 5% of that of India.

Compare our environmental approach to those two countries alone.  And there are another 19 countries between us and the top spot.  The impact and voice we have on an international scale is not weighty.

The environment is a global interest with global impact.  If we want to have influence in addressing the challenges it faces, we won’t be an effective lone voice.

The EU has 28 member states and over 7% of the world’s population.  It’s home to many leading scientific research bodies and experts and collectively ploughs phenomenal amounts of investment in to environmental scrutiny and development.  There is no equivalent organisation for the UK with a comparable environmental focus or international respect.

If we want to be heard on the environment, the EU is our best option.


Knowledge is power

The complexities of the environment are notoriously difficult to understand.  A myriad of aspects interweave to form a web of fluctuation and uncertain impact.  Our greatest hope for improving our understanding of that web is to have as much information at our fingertips as possible.

The more data we have the more we understand. The more we understand the more we can do to change our behaviour and promote the longevity and security of the natural world.

The same goes for interpreting the impact of regulation. The more shared the regulation and the more shared the assessment of its impact, the better position we are in to move forward.

Whilst EU regulations automatically come into law across the board, the Union also writes directives that are then integrated into national regulation by each member state.  That integration isn’t always uniform, which can make it hard to measure the overall impact.  You could argue that the UK acting alone is in a better position to understand its own impact and be more agile in response.

And that might be the case but any response is only as effective as the scale of movement behind it.  Our small size inhibits our ability to make a difference.  The albeit slower response of the EU as a whole is inevitably greater. Being a member of the EU gives more environmentally motivated states the opportunity to bring their less motivated counterparts up to a higher standard of legislature and response.  The EU is greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to environmental regulation.


Regulatory integration

As our understanding of the environment improves, it’s becoming clear that the most effective approach to regulation comes in the form of integration.  If we can implement policies that are integral to sector and market specific activities, they will be more readily adopted and more effective than a separate suite of environmental regulations.

Recent UK governments have retained a position of addressing the environment as a separate entity to the industries and activities that affect it.  Whether their motivation has come from a focus on commercial and economic growth or from a deficit in understanding, the risk is clear – segregate the protection of the natural world from industry, commerce and culture and it will suffer.

The EU tackles environmental regulation differently.  It trends towards full integration into broader legislation.  The EU seems to be more progressive in its approach to ensuring the environment is considered in every aspect of its governance rather than introducing separate environmental legislation.


Squabble arbitration

Environmental differences of opinion across national boundaries put at risk the benefit of associated regulations in those countries.  The environment is a global issue and for effective action, needs addressing on a global scale.

The broad reach of  EU directives mean that we are a step closer to doing that.  It minimises squabble between neighbouring countries and provides a platform for ensuring that implementation is across the board.  Which brings us on to…


Legal clout

The European Commission can take governments that under-perform in the implementation of legislation and targets to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).   Examples include the Commission’s 2007 condemnation of the UK for not putting the Directive governing waste electrical and electronic equipment (the WEE Directive) quickly enough into UK law and later that year, for not providing adequate sewage collection and treatment facilities in some regions.

The UK is not alone in facing the ECJ for environmental infringements.  Its remit is the whole of the Union and the power they wield is used to ensure there’s a sensible level of uniformity in regulatory implementation. The Court can now levy a daily fine for persistent failure to comply.

Without the ECJ there would be no equivalent power governing the implementation of environmental law.  Indeed, without the EU, many of the national regulations would never come about in the first place.


Buffering the vested interest

The simple fact that there are 28 EU member states means that there is a built-in buffer to any individual government with a vested interest in the passing (or not) of any piece of legislation.

The EU’s diversity and size makes its policy less prone to being levered as a partisan vote winner and fund generator, and is therefore less short-termist.  The EU is more likely to implement effective, unbiased, long term solutions for the environment.

An example of this is the 2013 ruling to ban for two years the use of neonicotinoid pesticides – a decision that was far from unanimous but has offered a window for better data collection and assessment.


The big BUT

So the European Union does a lot when it comes to environmental protection.  But there’s an issue looming that could have a significant impact on our ability to retain control over the regulation of how our activities affect the environment.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a proposed free trade agreement between the US and the EU, designed to further reduce economic and technical barriers to trade between the two areas.

Where environmental legislation within the EU is more stringent that in the US, regulation itself could be construed to be a barrier to trade. Where that’s the case, the governments that implement those regulations could be subject to legal recourse.

For example, a large American company that is prevented from selling a service to the UK because it includes elements that are banned here could sue our government for damaging their expected profits. The consequence of that legal recourse may be financial but could also see the rolling back of environmental regulation within Europe to meet lower US standards.

Key areas under threat include the regulation of agricultural production and processing, the petrochemical industry, emissions and healthcare.

Specific barriers that have already been identified include energy efficiency labelling, fuel efficiency standards for cars, sustainable public procurement policies, regulation of unconventional fossil fuel extraction (including shale gas and tar sands), sustainability standards for bio-energy and the banning of f-gases in appliances.  These could all be subject to an effective de-regulation.

If the TTIP goes ahead unchanged, we could be in a position where we are buying goods and services that have been raised or processed in a way previously outlawed in the EU.   We could see our governments sued for excluding US companies with dubious sustainability credentials from successfully tendering for contracts.

To momentarily divert from the environmental, there is also a risk that a future UK government deciding to take a broader range of healthcare services into the NHS could also be sued on the same basis.

There is a rising swell of concern for the implications of the TTIP on our ability to continue to regulate European goods and services. Germany, who were initially great supporters of the agreement are now more vocally concerned and groups in France have voiced anxiety from the very early days.

But there is a lot riding on the TTIP, a strong economic case for it to go ahead and still fairly limited public understanding of what it could mean.

Negotiations are still underway and the agreement is not expected to be finalised until 2015.


The European Union offers the environment a level of attention, regulation and reach it would otherwise be without.  If we voted in any future referendum to exit the EU, or voted in a government with a strong anti-EU bias, there is the possibility that we could lose environmental influence and governance on a grand scale.  The Union offers us an unparalleled opportunity to be an influential part of what has, to date, been a significant force for environmental good.

But at the same time it’s threatening to limit those very same powers if the TTIP remains in it’s current state post-implementation. If you have a keen interest in the longevity and efficacy of environmental legislation at home and on the continent, the TTIP is definitely a space worth more than just watching.



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