The UK’s membership of the EU has been a crucial factor in the shaping of its environmental policy since it joined the Union in the 1970s. The overwhelming view of our witnesses was that EU membership has been positive for the UK environment. None of the witnesses to our inquiry, even those who made criticisms, made an environmental case for leaving the European Union.
The influence of the UK in EU policy-making has been a central theme of this inquiry. The process of EU environmental policy development has been a two-way street. On the one hand, the EU has led the UK to improve environmental standards in areas such as air and water pollution and biodiversity. It has also given the UK a platform to pursue its environmental objectives internationally and has provided access to a useful pool of knowledge. On the other hand, the UK has been a major player in the EU, influencing the strategic and long term direction of EU environmental policy and the design of specific laws and policies. The UK’s membership of the EU has ensured environmental action was taken on a faster timetable and more thoroughly than would otherwise have been the case. There has been frustration that EU policy can be difficult to change once introduced, but this also has benefits, allowing longer-term planning and greater certainty for businesses looking to make green investment decisions.
Despite the UK’s relatively good performance, environmental standards could be improved if the UK Government took a more ambitious approach to implementation. Many of the concerns raised with us around EU policy related to implementation. Some would like to see EU law applied more rigorously to protect the environment. Others saw reducing the costs to business as key. Tighter drafting of directives and better use of evidence in developing directives and implementing them at a member state level would address some of these issues. The direction of travel at a European level is towards more revision of policy in order to reduce the regulatory costs placed on businesses. As a Committee we welcome more efficient regulation if and where it is needed, but it should not compromise key environmental protections.
The UK Government is broadly satisfied with EU environmental policy. It was not included in the recent renegotiation. Contingency planning in the case of the UK voting to leave the EU appears to have been limited. The Government’s view was it would result in a “long and tortuous” negotiation. We heard concerns from businesses and NGOs that a UK outside the EU would still have to follow rules over which our influence would be significantly diminished. Businesses felt that this could remove long term certainty. There are 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.
The EU has a long history of developing environmental policy to promote the Single Market and to protect the environment. Legal authority to legislate in this area was eventually given to the EU by the member states in the recognition that there were significant benefits to solving some environmental problems multilaterally. The overwhelming majority of witnesses who gave evidence to our inquiry, and to the previous Government’s Balance of Competencies Review, stated that these benefits remain. There are differences of opinion about precisely where the boundaries between national and EU level action should be drawn. 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.
15 April 2016