The Shadow Secretary of State for Environment on why she's a firm "Remainer"by Kerry McCarthy / March 8, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: Should we build on the floodplain?
If we have learnt one lesson over the past century, it should be that we achieve much more by working together internationally than we do by trying to go it alone. There is much to be proud of in what Britain has achieved through our membership of multilateral organisations: we have shown true global leadership and inspired others to emulate us.
Yet the UK has become more introspective in recent years. We have been too timid a voice in the Commonwealth; too afraid to use our seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council as a force for good; too reluctant to work with our European partners and maximise the potential benefits of our European Union membership.
Some of this is driven by an ideological aversion to “red tape,” state intervention, and collective decision-making: to put it crudely, being against anyone telling us what to do, and not caring what anyone else does. We see this at a national level, but we see it writ large in the debate over Europe.
There are few areas where the Labour mantra—“by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”—is truer than the environment. A parochial United Kingdom cannot reduce the threat posed by climate change on its own, clean up the seas and oceans, nor protect precious wildlife.
The climate change conference in Paris last December demonstrated how the international community can work together to meet global challenges. The EU, as 28 nations united for progress, was instrumental in reaching the landmark agreement, but it is notable how many high-profile climate-change deniers are also Eurosceptics.
The Labour government used the UK’s presidencies of the EU to ensure that we built on the Kyoto Protocol, the agreement extending the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and binding its parties to emission reduction targets, and had an EU position for future climate negotiations. We showed how the UK can achieve global action through our leadership in Europe. And now we need to do this once more, to turn the fine words agreed in Paris into action.
We hope that the UK will play a major role in this, but if not, then our EU neighbours are there to coax us into action. Time and time again, when the British government has failed to put the interests of the British people first, the EU has stepped in to protect us, our environment and our health.
Thanks to the EU, with protections like the Bathing Water Directive, we can enjoy Britain’s beaches free from untreated sewage. In 1990, just 27% of UK bathing waters met minimum standards for water quality. By 2014, more than 99% complied, boosting a seaside economy that is now worth £3.6bn a year. The 2008 Marine Strategy Framework Directive, meanwhile, will help to tackle the scourge of marine litter.
Nitrogen Dioxide is responsible for 23,500 premature deaths each year in the UK, yet the Environment Secretary barely seems aware it is part of her brief. It is the EU that has prioritised improvement in air quality. It is the EU’s 2008 Ambient Air Quality Directive that has enabled British campaigners to take the government to the UK courts for its failure to protect the public. It is the EU that has promoted technical innovation to reduce vehicle emissions and banned leaded petrol.
The 1979 Birds Directive is the oldest piece of EU legislation on the environment. Together with Habitats Directive, they have reversed our biodiversity loss and protected our rare and threatened species. This shows that the EU’s environmental initiatives have benefits far beyond their £200-300bn contribution to the European economy each year.
The Lisbon Treaty, signed in 2007, recognised animals as sentient beings and reforms have been introduced across Europe to improve animal welfare. The EU’s trading network means other countries have followed our example. Yes, there are areas where the EU could go further to promote animal welfare, but we have achieved minimum standards and a level playing field across Europe.
It is thanks to the EU challenging us that the UK is no longer “the dirty man of Europe”; that we no longer worry about acid rain; that we recognise we cannot continue to waste limited, global resources and must improve our recycling rates, with the EU target to recycle 50% of household waste by 2020. The EU’s rules protect our consumers, our workers and our environment. Leaving would put all this risk and diminish Britain’s influence in the world.
And the EU is pushing other countries to raise their game. Britain could be spearheading these efforts—guaranteeing the highest environmental standards domestically, pushing the EU to set these as a minimum across its 28 countries, and challenging the EU’s diplomatic and trading partners to match us.
That is my ambition, for a British government that doesn’t sit on the side lines. If we are serious about improving the environment for future generations, tackling climate change, air pollution and marine litter, protecting precious species, and safeguarding our food supply, we have to be ambitious for Europe and for the leading role Britain can play in it. That is why Labour will continue to campaign for Britain in Europe.