Britain risks becoming the “dirty man of Europe” again with filthy beaches, foul air and weak conservation laws if it leaves the European Union, a group of leading environmentalists warned on Wednesday (3 February).
The steering committee of the new E4E (Environmentalists for Europe) group includes former ministers, a former EU commissioner and a former head of the Environment Agency. It will work with green groups to persuade people that leaving the EU could set back the UK’s nature protection and prevention of pollution many years. The UK’s referendum on EU membership may come as soon as June.
“The EU has a strong track record of tangible environmental improvement,” said Green party MP Caroline Lucas, a former MEP and a member of the group that launched on Wednesday. “It was the EU’s political decision in 1990 to cap emissions of greenhouse gases by 2000 that formed the cornerstone of the 1992 UN climate convention.
“Britons have the EU to thank for [many of the] protections we have in place. It’s EU standards on air pollution that are forcing the government to clean up its act and key EU rules on healthy rivers, clean beaches and wildlife conservation have had a very positive effect,” she said.
E4E co-chair Baroness Young, a former chair of English Nature and chief executive of the Environment Agency, said: “The environment doesn’t stop at country borders and UK air and water quality depends on agreement with our European neighbours on high standards. Europe’s environmental policy has grown to become the core framework in most areas of environmental policy.”
The green vote, which stretches across political parties and collectively represents up to 7 million people, has traditionally wanted strong European pollution and conservation rules. But, says E4E, in its mission statement, “far too often environmental issues have been brushed aside by national parliaments”.
Craig Bennett, director of Friends of the Earth and also part of E4E, said: “As a boy, trips to the coast were often spoiled by filthy beaches and sewage-filled seas. The prevalence of acid rain won us the title of ‘dirty man of Europe’. Thanks to EU action, this now a thing of the past. The UK cannot win the battles of the future – against climate change, air pollution and the destruction of the natural world – on its own.”
Britain was dubbed “the dirty man of Europe” after it joined the EU in 1973 because it was the only country in western Europe that failed to control pollution from cars, power stations and farming, tried to undermine European pesticide controls, and evaded nitrate regulations and bathing water directives. Legal pressure and the threat of unlimited fines forced it to clean up its act, but it still breaches laws on air pollution and water quality.
“A Britain outside the EU could in theory follow Norway and set high environmental standards,” said Stephen Tindale, a former head of Greenpeace who is not part of the group. “But most UK politicians regard them as ‘green frippery’. In practice, a UK outside the EU would be much more likely to return to being ‘the dirty man of Europe’.”
Former EU environment commissioner Stanley Johnson, a co-chair of the E4E group, said: “By being in [the EU], Britain benefits from environmental legislation and funding not only for the fight against climate change and pollution and in its efforts to preserve nature and wildlife, but also through the creation of jobs and financing for research and development here at home.”
“I personally believe that our country’s greatest resource – its nature – will be better protected and better preserved for future generations if we remain an active, full, partner within Europe,” he said.
“It is European directives which have forced the sewage out of Britain’s bathing waters and the acid rain out of Britain’s atmosphere; which are getting rid of the most dangerous chemicals in our environment and the carbon pollution of our motor vehicles; which are pushing the clean-up of our rivers and the switch to renewable energy; and which, of course, are watching over our wildlife, and that of the rest of Europe,” said nature author and journalist Michaelke McCarthy, also part of E4E.
Other members of the E4E steering committee include Lord Deben, chair of the UK Climate Change Committee which advises the government, former environment minister Richard Benyon MP, Matthew Spencer, director of the Green Alliance and conservationist and comedian Bill Oddie.