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EU membership: new report shows key risks and opportunities for the environment

Posted on 11 April 2016

A major new report, involving academics from the University of York, reveals that EU membership has transformed the UK’s environmental protection policies since 1973.

The UK Referendum and the Environment - An Expert Review, concludes that Brexit would generate many significant and uncertain risks to current levels of environmental protection enjoyed by UK citizens, although it would also create some opportunities.

The environmental effects of being in the EU are very well-documented, but this international report finds that the implications of a Brexit are much less understood.

The report states that, on balance, the net environmental benefits of EU membership have been positive. These include:

  • Action taken to fulfil EU obligations is a major factor underpinning the marked improvement in environmental quality in the UK since the 1980s.
  • The EU’s effect is most evident in areas such as water quality, waste recycling and the protection of natural habitats.
  • EU policies have stimulated significant infrastructure investments in offshore wind power and water treatment (e.g. the Thames tideway tunnel) which will generate environmental benefits for decades to come.

However, the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies (CAP) have been far less successful in environmental terms, as this has generated pollution and accelerated the decline of some bird populations. For much of its history, the Common Fisheries Policy has failed to ensure economically and ecologically sustainable fishing across EU waters.

Dr Charlotte Burns, Senior Lecturer in the University of York’s Environment Department and one of the review’s authors, said: “The leaflet that the Government is sending to every UK home briefly mentions climate change but not the environment, fisheries or agriculture. Our report provides a timely and important contribution to the evidence base about the likely risks and opportunities for the UK’s environment following the vote on 23 June. On balance it finds that the EU has been positive for the UK’s environment.”

Professor Andy Jordan, Professor of Environmental Policy at the Tyndall Centre, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia and one of the review’s lead authors, said: “Thus far, the environmental implications of leaving the EU have mostly been ignored in the referendum debate. This review seeks to inform voters by exploring the environmental risks and opportunities of voting to Remain or Leave the EU. It does not recommend them to vote one way or the other.”

The review concludes that on the basis of current expert knowledge, the level of uncertainty associated with remaining in a “reformed” EU is relatively low, as compared to the “Norwegian” and, in particular, the “free trade” alternatives.

The report outlines the options below:

If the UK votes to Remain

This option essentially represents a continuation of the status quo. EU rules would continue to provide a common minimum standard across Europe. Inside the EU, the UK would retain the opportunity to push for more competiveness reforms to existing rules which, the review notes, have not been significantly weakened thus far.

If the UK votes to Leave

A vote to Leave would push the UK into unchartered waters because UK and EU policy are now very deeply intertwined and no state has left the EU before.

The “Norwegian” Option

The UK would have the opportunity to weaken current EU rules on bathing water, habitats and wild birds. Research on this scenario suggests the UK would still have to comply with the vast majority of other EU rules to secure access to the single market, but with less ability to shape them. UK politicians would be free to negotiate international agreements directly with the UN, but research suggests that they would probably align themselves with EU positions.

The “Free Trade” Option

Fully disentangling the UK from existing EU commitments would be a significant logistical task for central and devolved governments, lasting many years. UK politicians would have the opportunity to strengthen national standards in this scenario, although they can already do this within the EU (but generally choose not to). As environment is a devolved matter, policies across the countries of the UK are more likely to diverge in this scenario. Politicians could fast track controversial technologies such as GM food and fracking, less restrained by EU rules.

Further information:

  • ‘The UK Referendum and the Environment - An expert review: How has membership affected the UK and what might change in the event of a vote to Remain or Leave?’ is by: Charlotte Burns, Andrew Jordan, Viviane Gravey, Nathalie Berny, Simon Bulmer, Neil Carter, Richard Cowell, Joe Dutton, Brendan Moore, Sebastian Oberthür, Susan Owens, Timothy Rayner, Joanne Scott and Bryce Stewart.
  • The review is an impartial analysis, funded by The UK in a Changing Europe, of the extensive academic literature on EU and UK environmental policy and practice. It summarises 700 publications. For more information, and the full report, please visit: and follow on Twitter @BrexitEnv

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