EU grass greener and cleaner

June 27, 2003

Andrew Jordan says the green lobby should push the environmental virtues of the EU

Of all the main political groupings in Britain today, the environmental movement has one of the strongest reasons to sell the European Union to the British public. Since 1973, the country's drinking and bathing water has been cleaner, important natural habitats have been more strongly protected and rates of waste recycling improved - all because of the EU's continuing involvement.

Yet British environmentalists have failed to make the case for Britain in Europe or, in the case of the Green Party, have been broadly against further political or economic integration. This, I believe, is a great mistake.

According to a study of the development of the EU's environmental policy, the recent benefits for Britain's environment came in spite of Whitehall's actions, not because of them.

The Department of the Environment (now the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) tried to check Brussels' influence in the early critical phases of European integration. Parochial in its outlook and more economic than environmental in its values, the DoE failed to engage positively with the EU by blocking the adoption of new policies and subverting directives.

Good things were done to the UK against its will. One irony is that British environmental policy would be less progressive had the department succeeded in blocking the EU's influence. Another is that Defra would not enjoy nearly as much bargaining power in Whitehall today had it successfully blocked Europeanisation.

Defra now makes a determined effort to work proactively inside the Brussels system. Nevertheless, many of the practical benefits of EU membership go unreported in the media, robbing the British public of an opportunity to engage in the debate about future European integration. The two most obvious focal points are the EU constitution and the euro.

As regards the constitution, some British environmental pressure groups have used their contacts in Brussels to push for higher levels of environmental protection. But few have used their experience to explain the real environmental benefits of operating at the political and economic heart of Europe to a predominantly Eurosceptic British public.

As for the euro, there has been even less open discussion. So far, the Green Party has opposed membership on the grounds that it will concentrate power in the hands of unelected officials and spur greater globalisation.

The position of the mainstream environmental movement on the euro is more welcoming, for two reasons. The first is pragmatic: we should join the euro to maximise Britain's ability to steer those EU processes that have a strong environmental dimension, principally enlargement and sustainability.

It is true that in some areas - particularly agriculture, fisheries and road transport - the EU stand has been very environmentally damaging. But the most obvious way to get Brussels to see the error of its ways is to work inside the heart of the EU, rather than on the sidelines.

The second, and more principled, reason is that if the world wants to develop a progressive coalition to hold every environmentalist's bogeyman, the US, in check, the only effective game in town is the EU. However, there is little evidence that the environmental movement has debated this most momentous of issues within its own ranks or with the rest of Britain.

The EU may have begun as an economic alliance of sovereign states but it now has a comprehensive and ambitious array of environmental policies.

Indeed, it has already acquired the formal attributes of a federal state in the environmental sphere. Politicians may avoid the f-word in public, but it appropriately describes how most environmental decisions are made in the UK today.

If ever there was a time for the British environmental movement to make an environmental case for Europe, it is now.

Andrew Jordan is a manager of the Economic and Social Research Council's Programme on Environmental Decision Making at the University of East Anglia. His most recent book, The Europeanisation of British Environmental Policy , is published by Palgrave.

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