What does the EU do for Britain and for Wildlife?

So a date has been set for the EU Referendum – Thursday 23rd June 2016 – and I feel nervous, very nervous.

As a student, I learnt about the laws that govern Britain’s environmental management, many of which are driven by Europe and our subsequent membership. Yet, my relative inexperience in applying these laws means I have no real understanding of the impact a ‘Brexit’ from Europe could have on the environment and the industry built to protect it. So I did a little research…

When we joined the European Union back in the 1970’s we were shamed as the ‘dirty man of Europe’ for having sewage ridden waterways and the highest sulphur dioxide emissions of all member states. We were forced to clean up our act.

As a result, we enjoy cleaner drinking water, cleaner beaches to swim in and cleaner air to breathe. You just need to look at the news of The River Thames to see how far we’ve come as a result of EU pressure on UK environmental policy. Fifty years ago The River Thames was so polluted that it was declared biologically dead. Now, it is one of the cleanest rivers in the world that flows through a major city. So not only has the EU led to significant improvements to our environment and health, it has also brought about economic gain through tourism and has protected some of the most important habitats and species across the country – land and sea.

Jessica Lee - River Thames - London Eye

The environmental laws that look after the natural world are far tougher than any such legislation our government would have passed themselves. So an exit could mean this legislation plunders into a big bucket of cement. In January, environmentalists wrote a letter to the Prime Minister stating their grave concerns over the country’s possible exit from the EU.

Britain’s membership of the European Union has had a hugely positive effect on the quality of Britain’s beaches, our water and rivers, our air and many of our rarest birds, plants and animals and their habitats.”

As most of our environmental laws are passed at a European level, it is believed that the efficiency of the UK’s national legislation would be undermined if it were to leave the EU.

Our wildlife does not live within national borders, nor does the air we breathe or the seas we fish in. Conservation needs to be approached from a united front otherwise we might lose the legal protection many of our most special sites have, leaving them at risk of poor management, or worse, development.

The key European legislation exists within two closely related directives, namely the Birds Directive (1979) and the Habitats Directive (1992), both of which have been integrated into British law through the Habitats Regulations. These enable a site that has particular environmental interest to be protected and designated a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the Birds Directive, or a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the Habitats Directive.

Such a high level of protection has prevented immeasurable damage by proposed developments. However, such blockades have angered developers and in 2011 the Chancellor, George Osborne, showed his own impatience with the Habitats Regulations, complaining that they placed “ridiculous costs” on British business (McCarthy, 2014). As a result, he imposed a review of the directives on Defra, but no matter which way you look at it, our environment provides us with vital services that underpin our economy. So, luckily for us, the review was favourable, indicating the regulations are fit for purpose and are not, in fact, a burden on business.

More recently we have seen a REFIT consultation by the EU in an attempt to reduce regulatory costs and make EU laws simpler. Whilst they are still under consultation, the UK Government has confirmed in Brussels and in Westminster that ‘the UK does not want to renegotiate the Directives’. This is hugely positive and builds confidence that should we exit the EU, wildlife may still have a place within UK policy and regulation.

Yet, the painful truth is that the UK has a very poor track-record of supporting progressive environmental policy. Especially when we consider the reintroduction of controversial ‘neonic’ pesticides despite strong scientific research against them and the ditching of solar subsidies amidst a global commitment to climate change. And do you remember the moment Cameron self-proclaimed his Conservative Party as the “greenest government ever”? A long lost memory I am sure.


At the moment, we are fortunate that the rest of Europe are forcing our hand towards a greener way of life, but without them, who knows what would happen left to our own devices. I’d probably lose my job.

So if you value the air you breathe, the water you drink, the trips to the beach, the walks through the woods – be warned.

Vote to stay in the EU. #StrongerIn

If you have alternative views on the EU and its impact on UK wildlife, or you have further compelling arguments to stay in (with regard to the environment), I’d be keen to hear from you.

Cover image by Jay Ghumania

Update 21Feb16: I’ve just read Michael Gove’s statement for turning to the ‘Leave’ campaign. It’s quite compelling. But never does a politician discuss the environmental impacts/benefits, in the 2015 election or now. It has made me relook at both arguments, but I need reassurance on the government’s ability to support the future of our environment… from flooding to food, wildlife crime to nature reserve protection, green roofs to green spaces, natural prescriptions to outdoor education, climate change to recycling… http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/02/michael-gove-why-im-backing-leave/

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