“The dirty man of Europe” – so Britain was dubbed on joining the EU in 1973. Our beaches were blighted with sewage, our rivers were dying from the chemical waste freely discharged into them, and our air was filthy from uncontrolled industrial pollution. It’s quite possible that we would still be living like this without European obligations forcing us to raise our standards; the political will to tackle national or global environmental problems has not been a notable feature of any successive administrations, after all.
If you’re sick of fact-free scaremongering, hyperbole and supposition about Britain’s future membership of the EU, I don’t blame you. Economic forecasts, national sovereignty, cultural identity, impacts on business and industry – you’ve heard it all already. However there is one over-riding consideration that transcends all these relatively ephemeral issues for me, and that is the future of our environment, a matter that surpasses all short-term considerations of impacts on trade, jobs, and political power battles at home. The environmental turmoil we need to face now know no national boundaries, and global warming is reaching the point of no return. These are the issues that need to be at the forefront of discussion of Britain’s long term future.
Britain’s membership of the EU has vastly improved the quality of our beaches, rivers, and air as well as protecting much of our biodiversity, rare birds, plants and animals and their habitats. We have accepted the need to limit greenhouse gas emissions, control industrial pollution, recycle, and mitigate the environmental impact of major new developments. Does anyone really want to turn the clock back and abandon these measures which have done so much to improve the quality of life that we now take for granted in Britain?
EU funds support huge amounts of regeneration and infrastructure projects around the UK, from local and regional environmental improvements, upgrading transport networks and supporting renewable energy research and development, to supporting leisure, cultural, and heritage projects, town centres, employment programmes and apprenticeships. The funding mechanisms consider real need and measurable long term benefit, rather than pandering to local powers and populist instant wins, and specifically target areas of greatest deprivation. We know that any post-Brexit scenario will involve yet more local government funding cuts, as investment dries up, trade shrinks and the economy dips. The loss of EU finding for regeneration will be a double blow for Britain’s poorest areas and communities – who are also those most vulnerable to the effects of environmental crisis.
Leaving the EU will give Britain the freedom to regress to the polluted, blighted, isolated little island it was before 1973. We are yet to see a government in this country with the political will to bring in the radical measures that are needed to address climate change seriously, and we are even less likely to do so without the EU driving us. We already fall short of European targets for clean air and water – how much dirtier will our air and water become if those targets are no longer in place? Climate change is without a doubt the single biggest issue facing us at the moment: a global issue, eclipsing all other national economic and political considerations. Do we really want to bury our heads in the sand and become the “dirty man of Europe” again?
A version of this article appeared in the June 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.