Brexit would return Britain to being the “dirty man of Europe”

Harbour pollution in Gardenstown, Aberdeenshire. Creative Commons: Martyn Gorman, 2005.

Harbour pollution in Gardenstown, Aberdeenshire. Creative Commons: Martyn Gorman, 2005.

A group of leading environmentalists have warned that the UK could become “the dirty man of Europe” again, with a return to poor air and water quality, filthy beaches and weak conservation laws, if it was to leave the European Union.

That’s the warning of the steering committee of E4E (Environmentalists for Europe); a group that includes former ministers, a former EU commissioner and a former head of the Environment Agency.

It collaborates with green groups to persuade voters that Britain leaving the EU – often referred to as “Brexit” – would set back the country’s conservation and air pollution laws back by many years.

The UK’s referendum on EU membership may come as soon as June.

Caroline Lucas, Green party MP for Brighton, a former MEP and a member of the group that launched on Wednesday, said:

The EU has a strong track record of tangible environmental improvement. It was the EU’s political decision in 1990 to cap emissions of greenhouse gases by 2000 that formed the cornerstone of the 1992 UN climate convention.

Britons have the EU to thank for [many of the] protections we have in place. It’s EU standards on air pollution that are forcing the government to clean up its act and key EU rules on healthy rivers, clean beaches and wildlife conservation have had a very positive effect.

Craig Bennett, director of Friends of the Earth and also part of E4E, said:

As a boy, trips to the coast were often spoiled by filthy beaches and sewage-filled seas. The prevalence of acid rain won us the title of ‘dirty man of Europe’. Thanks to EU action, this now a thing of the past. The UK cannot win the battles of the future – against climate change, air pollution and the destruction of the natural world – on its own.

Stephen Tindale, a former head of Greenpeace who is not part of the group, said that Britain could in theory follow Norway and set higher environmental standards, but, in practice, Britain was more likely to become “the dirty man of Europe” again – a title it received in 1973 when joining the EU.

At this time, Britain was the only western European country that failed to control pollution from cars, power stations and farming, tried to undermine European pesticide controls, and evaded nitrate regulations and bathing water directives.

Legal pressure and the threat of unlimited fines forced it to clean up its act, however, with current government plans, it will still breach laws on air pollution and water quality for the next five years.

The green vote, which stretches across political parties and collectively represents up to 7 million people, has traditionally demanded strong European pollution and conservation rules.

However, says E4E in its mission statement, “far too often environmental issues have been brushed aside by national parliaments”.

Former EU environment commissioner Stanley Johnson, a co-chair of the E4E group, said:

By being in [the EU], Britain benefits from environmental legislation and funding not only for the fight against climate change and pollution and in its efforts to preserve nature and wildlife, but also through the creation of jobs and financing for research and development here at home.

Nature author and journalist Michael McCarthy, also part of E4E, said:

It is European directives which have forced the sewage out of Britain’s bathing waters and the acid rain out of Britain’s atmosphere; which are getting rid of the most dangerous chemicals in our environment and the carbon pollution of our motor vehicles; which are pushing the clean-up of our rivers and the switch to renewable energy; and which, of course, are watching over our wildlife, and that of the rest of Europe.

Other members of the E4E steering committee include Lord Deben, chair of the UK Climate Change Committee which advises the government, former environment minister Richard Benyon MP, Matthew Spencer, director of the Green Alliance and conservationist, and comedian Bill Oddie.

All those interested are able to sign up on the E4E website in order to voice their support for the campaign and receive updates by e-mail.

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