EU and UK Environmental Policy Contents


The development of EU environmental policy

1.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. We noted that many witnesses implied that if the UK were free to set its own environmental standards, it would set them at a less stringent level than has been imposed by the EU. (Paragraph 12)

The UK and the EU’s international policies

2.The EU is regarded as a leader in international environmental diplomacy, providing the UK with a platform to pursue its national environmental interests at an international level. The UK is widely regarded as one of the most influential member states in shaping the EU’s environmental international policies. The UK’s skills and expertise in international negotiations have been a major factor in developing its influence. The Government highlighted the UK’s role in shaping the EU’s international negotiations at Paris COP21 in December 2015 as an example of this influence. (Paragraph 18)

The design of EU and UK environmental policy

3.A large proportion of UK environmental policy is shaped at EU level. This is a two-way process in which the UK has significant influence through the Council of Ministers, its MEPs and stakeholders, such as NGOs and business representatives. Depending on how they have seen the national interest, the UK Government has led the way in developing key pieces of EU environmental legislation in some areas and have held back or amended measures in others. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister was clear that the UK Government’s current approach was to press the EU to deliver a more ambitious better regulation agenda. As such, the UK has a reputation for taking a pragmatic approach to environmental law making. Many pieces of environmental legislation allow significant flexibility for member states to implement them in ways that reflect national circumstances. (Paragraph 31)

4.Changing policy in a multi-national context is often more complex, time-consuming and difficult than within a single nation-state. Whilst this has sometimes been a source of frustration for Government Ministers, it has had benefits, particularly for businesses, resulting in policy stability, boosting investor confidence and enabling a degree of long-term planning. (Paragraph 32)


5.EU directives have provided a framework within which the UK’s devolved Governments have developed different approaches towards achieving the common environmental objectives set out in EU policy. We welcome the Government’s moves towards establish a more formal and more proactive mechanism for integrating devolved Administrations’ priorities into the UK’s national positions. The Committee noted that the UK has found considerable scope for devolving environmental policy to devolved administrations. However, some EU witnesses could not envisage a single EU competence which could be devolved to Member States. (Paragraph 37)

The implementation and evaluation of EU environmental policy

6.EU laws are addressed to member states. It is they who take the lead in negotiating them and, in general, it is they who are responsible for determining the means through which the objectives set out in them are to be achieved. The majority of concerns we heard about EU environmental policy were about their implementation by member states. NGOs gave examples where they felt member states including the UK were not implementing legislation sufficiently strongly to deliver environmental benefits. Businesses, on the other hand, were concerned about regulatory burdens arising from regulations that were being applied too stringently. The tension between these two interests is common to UK policy. However, we agree with the widespread view among witnesses that greater clarity in the drafting of directives and a better use of evidence at both European and UK levels would help address these issues. (Paragraph 52)

The future of EU and UK environmental relations

7.The Government was supportive of the role of the EU in environmental and climate change policy and its renegotiation of UK membership of the EU did not directly include the environment. Nonetheless, EU environmental policy has responded to the UK Government’s agenda of updating and revising existing regulations to make them less onerous. We support efforts by the Commission to revise and update EU regulations to ensure they are proportionate and effective. However, this process should not become a cover for weakening key environmental protections. (Paragraph 63)

8.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. (Paragraph 64)

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15 April 2016