Brexit and the environment

Malta’s future in the EU is a given but we would be burying our heads in the sand if we did not follow the ongoing debate in the UK

While those advocating Brexit seem to be fighting an uphill struggle to present a set of solid economic arguments to try and justify their stand, notwithstanding the fact that the environment and farming ministers in the UK have been at odds as to whether Brexit would benefit or harm their respective sectors, it is almost a given that Brexit would damage both the UK’s environment and climate policies.

Even when EU membership was a bone of contention locally, in spite of the fact that the environment at that time did not form part of my brief I had always argued when challenged that one particular sector that stood to gain from membership was undoubtedly that of the environment.

If not joining has an environmental cost, one can only wonder what the cost would be of actually quitting an institutional arrangement one already forms part of. The net result of leaving the UK as claimed by 14 leading conservationists is that it would diminish Britain and all that it has gained immensely from Brussels’s standards.

Not only would Britain’s departure from the EU be harmful to the natural environment but it would no doubt lead to uncertainty over future rules. Ultimately the quality of life would suffer and Britain would be less able to protect the quality of its own environment if it were to quit.

It comes as no surprise that a number of experts not only claimed that Britain’s membership of the EU has had a hugely positive effect on the quality of their beaches, their water and rivers, their air and many of their plants and habitats but also perhaps arguably even more importantly – that being part of the union has enabled them to coordinate action and agree policies that have improved their quality of life, including the air they breathe and the seas that they fish in.

To be fair it is not yet clear whether the UK, if it were to quit, would actually give up all of its existing commitments on environmental protection, most of which are codified under the EU, but this remains and continues to be seen as a key danger.

In actual fact what is urging many campaigners for a no vote is that they are actually against environmental regulations and targets. No wonder the same people who are advocating Brexit are often amongst the leading voices of climate scepticism as well as recourse to alternative energy. Regardless of the tactical position the UK might take it would surely lose out on reforming or crafting new commitments in these two sectors that are heavily EU policy-driven.

One particular argument that sticks in the mind is that Britain would no longer be able to shape EU policy and its influence on the environmental performance of other member states would decline very sharply once they are no longer at the negotiating table.

In this day and age it is of the essence for such issues as environmental quality, clean air and healthy oceans to be secured by collaboration across national boundaries and common EU standards that promote new technologies and businesses.

Halting such a process would be bad. Reversing it would be almost tragic.

A no vote and the subsequent renegotiations would no doubt take their toll on all those key stakeholders involved in environmental remediation, waste, recycling, energy and water. The same applies to prospective investors in these sectors.

At the back of this debate that can only became even more passionate and heated as the June deadline fast approaches, one cannot ignore the fact that in the 1970s and 1980s the UK had earned the title of The dirty man of Europe as a result of its poor environmental regulation. The threat of great lacunae in environmental law can only result in the loosening of environmental protection.

One reason why membership of the EU has had a profoundly positive effect on environmental policy in the UK is that in past decades some of its seas were considered to be some of the dirtiest in Europe, akin to open sewers, while it was reported that they also had the highest levels of sulphur dioxide emissions in the EU, which meant in practical terms that air pollution levels were dangerously high.

When policy making becomes reactionary rather than preventive the close relationships between policy makers and those they sought to regulate led to a high combination of low environmental targets.

While Malta’s future in the EU is a given and a non-issue, we would be burying our heads in the sand if we did not follow the ongoing debate in the UK on the need for more effective and efficient regulation without increasing bureaucratic burdens on our country and key stakeholders. 

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