UK membership of the EU: what it means for wildlife and what might happen if we leave

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

UK membership of the EU: what it means for wildlife and what might happen if we leave

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Yesterday, I spoke at an event in Manchester on the UK in the EU.  It was an opportunity to inject an environmental dimension (see here) into the EU Referendum debate in the city where the result will be announced  on 24 June.

My starting point was to say that the RSPB had always believed in international action: if we wanted to save just one species from extinction - say turtle dove (which we to address its 78% decline in Europe since 1980 and 91% decline in the UK since 1985 - see here) - then we must be prepared to intervene across its flyway.  That means we must do what we can on its breeding grounds at home (where it is struggling to find enough food to rear it's chicks), during its migration (where it is vulnerable to unsustainable levels of hunting) and on its wintering grounds in West Africa (which is also experiencing changing land use).  

This is why we invest in our Birdlife International partnership and support international agreements with enforceable governance arrangements.

Today, the theme continues with the publication of a report (see here) written by the Institute for European Environmental Policy jointly commissioned last year by the RSPB, WWF and the Wildlife Trusts.  We are keen to cut through the emotion of the debate and try to present the evidence about the environmental impact of our membership and potential consequences of the UK leaving the EU.

IEEP is very well placed to comment, given that it has 40 years of experience of navigating EU policy on the environment, agriculture and fisheries.  The report will be discussed by both sides at an event today in London and I encourage you to read what it says.

David Tipling's fabulous image of two turtle doves

The context for those that care about nature, is that our shared wildlife is in trouble, that the pressures are growing and that we need a response that is commensurate with the scale of the challenge.  The fact that there are 421 million fewer birds in Europe than there were 30 years ago (see here) clearly suggests that not everything is working perfectly for nature although we do know that European legislation designed to restore nature is working for some species (see here).

So, we are keen to know whether we are better placed to tackle these problems from within the EU or outside.

The findings of the report are as follows...

"...Membership of the EU has had, and continues to have, a significant positive impact on environmental outcomes in the UK as well as other parts of Europe, with cleaner air, water and oceans than otherwise could be expected although significant concerns remain around some sectoral policies (especially for agriculture and fisheries) and environmentally harmful subsidies.

...This is because of a range of legislative, funding and other measures with the potential to work in combination. EU environmental legislation is backed up by a hard legal implementation requirement of a kind that is rarely present in international agreements on the environment; and which is more convincingly long-lasting, and less subject to policy risk, than national legislation.

...Complete departure from the EU (Brexit Scenario 2) would create identifiable and substantial risks to future UK environmental ambition and outcomes. It would exclude the UK from decision making on EU law and there would be a risk that environmental standards could be lowered to seek competitive advantage outside the EU trading bloc.

...Departure from the EU whilst retaining membership of the EEA (Brexit Scenario 1) would lessen these risks, as most EU environmental law would continue to apply. However, there would be significant concerns related to nature conservation and bathing water, as well as to agriculture and fisheries policy. In addition, the UK would lose most of its influence on EU environment and climate policies.

...Under both exit scenarios, significant tensions would be created in relation to areas of policymaking where responsibility is devolved to the governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but where a broadly similar approach has been required as a result of EU membership, including environmental protection, agriculture, and fisheries.

...The uncertainty and period of prolonged negotiation on many fronts caused by a UK decision to leave would, itself, create significant risks both for environmental standards and for the green investment needed to improve the UK's long-term environmental performance."

The uncertainty about UK withdrawal from the EU is neatly summarised by table on page 8 of the report (and shown below).  Uncertainty breeds anxiety which is why we think it is important that voters in the Referendum are told what those advocating either position would do to improve the prospects for wildlife.  We shall think about the best way of eliciting this information but for now, I encourage you to read the report and let me know what you think.

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Thanks Martin. Hopefully you can see what I am getting at both regarding feeling uneasy about RSPB getting too drawn into the politics and re finances. It is often brought up in debates...."they would say that, wouldn't they?". Well worth RSPB being prepared in advance for anyone throwing that negative comment around. 20% funding coming from that area (not just EU, noted) is significant and therefore open to, "they would say that" type comments from the BREXIT camp. Likewise, Big Business being Pro-EU. For RSPB to maintain influence on those floaters like me, it is essential that it comes across as neutral and ‘hard facts’ without interpretation/opinion provided imo, and that facts are given to win over people if that is what RSPB wants to do (and I have no issue with that if it is something RSPB believes will help in their work).

    Nightjar has provided a well crafted set of views, and I certainly have plenty of sympathy for many of those opinions. E.g. Owen Paterson talked some complete claptrap during the Somerset floods and again during the Hunting with Hounds debate more recently. Just an opinion though.

    IEEP has provided food for thought, but it too has included opinions. I have noted that it’s ‘not for profit’, but haven’t yet found out how it is funded, or whether it would become obsolete, or degraded if UK voted to leave EU.

    I place environmental policy amongst the top priorities when voting, alongside my daughter’s present and future. That includes things like education, housing, transport, health. These are all affected by EU policy, and many specifics are inter-linked with the environment. Clearly, blogs can’t cover all that, and neither can TV interviews, but imo, In or Out isn’t as straight forward as those who’ve decided appear to often make out.

    As someone who needs to make up their own mind though, other people’s opinions aren’t going to help. Facts are. It is essential, imo, for organisations like RSPB, to tread carefully when brushing with politics as it is a subject that can draw people in deeper than initially intended or wished.

  • Martin, this is the sort of clear, objective commentary so lacking from the Brexit debate. The critical which undermines so much of the wild speculation flying around is that if we want to continue tarrif free trade with the EU we will still have to abide by the rules designed to ensure fair competition - and that applies to conditions of employment as well as the environment. The idea that leaving the EU will suddenly release England from all sorts of burdensome and unnecessary constraints is quite simply rubbish.

    It is equally sloppy to load all the problems (assuming you see them as problems !) onto the EU. Recent work I've been involved in on sometimes contentious 'European protected Species' suggests that much of the difficulties relate to former UK domestic legislation, the translation of EU law into domestic law and the Berne convention, which is fully international, and would still apply. The EU Directives actually come out as the most sensible of the three main elements.

    Similarly, it is wrong to suggest 'conflict of interest' for RSPB over LIFE funding. RSPB is not a business and LIFE funds are spent for public good. Surely it is more relevant to ask whether, were England's contribution to LIFE repatriated, would that money still be spent for nature conservation ? That is the question we should be asking Brexit advocates, because if they are not prepared to commit to continuing to spend on conservation, then nature will suffer. With advocates like Gove and  'Green Crap' Paterson in the lead, leading advocates of the idea that the environment is, like the EU, in conflict with our economy, I think we will be waiting a long time for any such commitment.

  • Hi Robbo,  I'll try and give you a breakdown soon, but for now, you can read our accounts here (if you scroll to the bottom of the annual report) www.rspb.org.uk/.../index.html. Life funding we receive will be a subset of the total grants we receive from a variety of sources (including from HLF, charitable trusts etc).  

    Best wishes,

    Martin

  • I read it this morning and thought it best to have a think on and off during the day before giving my thoughts.

    First of all, I haven't made up my mind yet, not least because the information/facts/opinions coming out of politicians and others interviewed on TV are if anything, encouraging me to vote against the 'In' and 'Out' cases!

    Secondly, and more importantly imo, is that I was uncomfortable when it was mentioned previously about RSPB giving their comments and having read this blog I still am.

    I think if RSPB does want to play an active role in providing evidence and thoughts on the case for staying in the EU (which is I am sure what RSPB as a while prefer, it needs to be clearly explained what role EU Life has in terms of funding for RSPB work, so any conflict of interest is addressed. I don't have any facts, but clearly if a significant amount of RSPB work, or their partner's work, is funded as a consequence of being in the EU,, this needs to be stated.

  • A useful table that. It's a pity that it hasn't been done by other sectors, straight facts are sorely lacking in the discussion at the moment. I too would really like to see proper policy discussions from both sides, at the moment all we have is two sides shouting propaganda past each other.

  • A very good summary Martin. I agree with all that is said. Personally I have to say I think it would be sheer madness for this country to leave the EU and I think it is highly irresponsible for the Prime Minister to put the future of this country and all the vital European Legislation at risk purely to try to overcome internal party disputes/disputes.  UKIP provide a perfectly good democratic alternative for which to vote..

    Should this country vote leave the EU on 23rd Jne the one thing that is for sure, the RSPB through BIrdlife International will and must continue to have a full and comprehensive involvement in European Environmental legislation and wildlife protection.