UK Environment Protected by EU Membership

Yesterday the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) published this report on the EU referendum and the UK,  covering policy areas regarding environment – a whopping 14 chapters, by as many experts from across the UK and further afield. The report looks at the impact of 3 scenarios – a vote to remain, a vote to leave and become a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) like Norway, or a vote to leave and negotiate individual free trade deals with the EU. So what did they find?

Environmental protection is a field in which EU cooperation is a defining strength, and with such legislation we as a united continent have taken the lead globally. The experts found that the EU has helped modernise our national policies to become focussed on preventing degradation, with clear standards and deadlines and a commitment to sustainability. They also found, far from Brexiteers claims that we have no influence, that the UK has played a role in moulding EU policy – namely preventing common policy on fracking and soil protection! The report also summarises that “there has been no significant long term convergence towards an environmental superstate in Brussels.”

On Climate Change it paints a better picture of us, with the UK playing a part in advocating ambitious emission reduction targets at the EU level, and shaping the internal energy market. It also shows that the EU has been a driver of our booming renewables sector despite the UK maintaining the right to determine its own energy mix, as demonstrated by the Chancellor recently pulling the rug out from under the sector’s feet. In signing up to the EU 2020 targets for greenhouse gas reductions and increasing the share of renewable energy, the UK was pressured into adopting an overhaul that saw attractive subsidies and industrial incentives alongside a new planning regime.

On Agriculture, it is critical of the impact of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) on the environment, but highlights that in the global context, any likely national agricultural policy pursued from outside the EU would have been along similar lines with similar effects. In the European Parliament, Greens have been leading the drive for a revolutionised CAP that puts environmental stewardship high on the agenda across the bloc, including capping payments to the largest industrial farms and promoting crop rotation.

Aside from the facts about what the EU has provided, an alarming prediction of the report in the event of us leaving is that, in the ‘Norwegian’ scenario, EU environmental rules covering bathing water, habitats and birds, and some aspects of climate legislation would cease to apply. There was recent public outcry over a proposal to water down the EU habitats directives, but a vote to leave could see us losing them altogether. The report also concludes that the CAP and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) would cease to apply, which is obviously a very important consideration, given the size of our rural economy in the South West.

The report is extensive including fisheries, planning, international policy and more, and overall reaffirms the stance that many environmental NGOs have been taking since the announcement for the 23rd June referendum – that the EU sets the bar high for protecting and enhancing our environment and, in the face of a government hell bent on deregulation, there could be grim consequences in a future outside of it.


The Economic and Social Research Council is a leading Research Council in the UK, focussing on economic and social concerns. You can find an easy to read executive summary of the report here.