MPs argue for and against Brexit in terms of impact it would have on environment, at LI discussion

Polar bears or bees? The EU environment debate

The impact on the environment has been too little discussed in all the debate about the EU referendum, LI deputy chief CEO Paul Lincoln told delegates when introducing a meeting on Wednesday morning, hosted by Arup at their Fitzrovia offices. The LI arranged the event to discuss the pros and cons of remaining in the EU in terms of the impact that this would have on the environment. By the end of the session the subject had received a thorough airing, with two MPs putting forward cogent arguments for both staying and leaving.

While the LI as a charity has to stay neutral on such political matters, it also has an obligation to ensure that the membership can make an informed decision and this it did really well. The Guardian’s environment editor John Vidal chaired the event, and introduced it by saying: “It is my own opinion that this is a dividing line in which way we go forward – the devil we know or the one we don’t.”

Pros and cons of leaving the EU on the enviroment

Merrick Denton-Thompson, President elect  of the LI, put forward the pluses and minuses of EU membership as he saw them. On the positive side he put forward the “very strong environmental directives transposed into UK laws”. It is, he said, “vital that we have a regulatory framework”.

The downside for him is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which he described as “profoundly dysfunctional”. Farming, he said, is “on its knees”, with 51 per cent of profit coming from grants and a policy that disadvantages the environment.

So Merrick was not only even-handed but probably one of the few undecided voters in the room, waiting to hear what the two MPs had to say.

Why we should leave the EU

First up was George Eustice, Conservative MP, Minister for State in DEFRA, and a “Brexiter”. He talked about wildlife internationally and about domestic wildlife issues. Both, he argued, would fare better if we were out of the EU.

The UK, he said, has a great history of dealing with global conservation issues, but is now hamstrung by having to vote on matters as part of an EU block, following majority decisions. “All EU member states have a single vote,” he said. “It would be better if we could take our own stance.”

On the domestic scene, he said, the trouble with EU directives is that they are “very bureaucratic”. The UK is already signed up to the ‘Berne Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats’ and would remain so. Sweeping away European directives would not, he argued, throw away all protection. Instead, he said, “we could spend the money that we now spend on legal battles on genuine projects for the environment.”

Why we should stay

Kerry McCarthy, a Labour MP and shadow Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, took the opposite view. Very often, she said, the EU has pushed a reluctant UK to take firmer action – on emissions, and bathing water quality for example. And, she added, “too often the Brexit conversation is all about numbers. But particularly younger people don’t want all the discussion to be financial. They want it to be about the future that they want to see.”

And yet, she argued, the benefits of tougher environmental legislation can be quantified, with significant financial benefits accruing from cleaner air (less disease), better beaches (more tourism) and cleaner water. In addition, organisations such as agricultural university Harper Adams and the Met Office benefit from grants to take part in European research.

In terms of agriculture, she argued, there were benefits as well as disadvantages from the CAP, and the uneconomic state of mainstream British farming was due more to the state of the market than to European legislation. “The EU is as good as the governments that make it up,” she concluded. “Sometimes we set the agenda and sometimes we lag behind. Rather than have our environment subject to the vagaries of the national agenda, we are locked in to obligations.”

Put the environment at the top of the EU agenda

The last speaker was Noel Farrer, LI president. The most important thing, he argued, was that we should put the environment at the top of our agenda. “Economy and immigration are relatively unimportant,” he said. Only when we have made that change can we decide if the environment will be best served by staying in or leaving the EU. “The EU is a poor beast, trying to hold 28 countries together,” he said. “It is complex and bureaucratic, but the fundamental underlying principle is right.”

In questions from the floor, LI Chief Executive Phil Mulligan asked why the BREXIT camp wasn’t happy to influence the EU from within as we do the UN? To which George Eustice replied: “I would like it to be more like the UN, where Britain is free to argue its position.”

He was more floored by another question, when a speaker asked him: “Why do you care more about polar bears than bees?”, a reference to the fact that he had talked far more about international wildlife than about the government’s policy on issues such as the use of neonicotinoids.

In a show of hands at the end, none of the delegates admitted to having changed their minds on which way they would vote, but all went away with plenty of food for thought, having had the unusual experience where the EU debate is concerned of hearing cogent arguments rather than ranting and point scoring.

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