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Craig Bennett / Friends of the Earth

When the UK joined the EU in 1973, it was dubbed the ‘dirty man of Europe’ thanks to its out of control pollution, writes Craig Bennett. Since then EU laws have forced us to clean up our act. But if we leave, all that may go into the reverse, with terrible impacts on our air, water, health, and wildlife.

Our job is to fight within Europe to significantly reform it, and use its global clout to improve environmental prospects worldwide. And given the current UK government’s policies, the alternative to being in the EU threatens to be far worse.

It’s no fun wading knee-deep through sewage when paddling at the beach. Neither is seeing forests across Europe dying as a result of the acid-rain pollution belching from the UK’s coal-fired power stations.

This was the reality before the EU stepped in and made successive UK governments clean-up our act.

The debate on Europe is heating up. Just last week, Chris Grayling MP described the EU as disastrous for Britain.

But if the UK were to leave the EU all the indications from the early actions of the new Conservative Government are yet again that it is our environment that would take a battering.

A threat to our air and wildlife

We could probably kiss goodbye to laws that protect our most precious wildlife sites. George Osborne is on record saying, wrongly, that he thinks EU nature laws place a ridiculous burden on business.

It’s only legally binding EU renewable energy targets that give us any hope that clean energy has much of a future in the UK, especially within the context of the UK government slashing subsidies for solar power and acting as cheer-leader in chief for the fracking industry.

Even the air we breathe is safer in EU hands. After failing to achieve legally-binding limits for the reduction of nitrogen dioxide by 2010, the UK’s Supreme Court has told the government they must draw-up plans to meet EU standards.

While some would argue that UK politicians would have prioritised an increase in environmental protections irrespective of EU membership, the evidence suggests otherwise.

For much of the 20th century most of our sewage was left to flow untreated into the sea. It was only following the EU’s 1976 Bathing Water Directive and successful legal action by the European Commission that the UK has cleaned up its act. And it wasn’t easy going.

Despite such action being clearly in the public interest, the UK fought tooth and nail to maintain the right to continue polluting. Successive UK governments exploited whatever loophole they could find, and continued to pump untreated sewage into our ocean until 1998, longer than any other European country.

With much of the Brexit camp promising victory parties lit by bonfires of so called ‘red tape’, it leaves me fearful that leaving the EU risks the UK becoming the ‘dirty man of Europe’ once more.

It’s not perfect – far from it!

I am not so naive as to think the EU is perfect. It needs significant reform, both in terms of democracy and its most disastrous policies, such as the Common Agriculture Policy and its corporate friendly approach to trade.

It also needs to be more robust in its enforcement of environmental laws when broken by countries, and companies like in the recent VW scandal. And with global challenges ahead, the EU needs now more than ever to rediscover its purpose.

As a large market its product policies can influence standards across the globe. Its chemical legislation is slowly eradicating the most dangerous chemicals from the products we buy, and overseas manufacturers are adjusting their products in order to comply with tougher EU standards.

EU targets for carbon pollution from cars is driving investment in electric cars by the global car giants, despite the VW shenanigans. The UK alone has no hope of influencing global markets in this way.

Yes, it is difficult to be in love with the EU at the moment. Events in Greece, Eurozone austerity, and the sustained attacks on nature laws are driving people towards the ‘no to Europe’ camp. I fully understand why some environmentalists are contemplating voting to leave, including some of Friends of the Earth’s supporters.

We need to come together, not pull apart

However, our environment is a shared wonder, and one not beholden to national boundaries. Now is not the time to burn bridges with our neighbours.

The time and political energy required to disentangle us from the EU, and rebuild many of our international relationships from scratch, would be better spent addressing the more pertinent global issues, such as rapid action on climate change, air pollution and the rampant destruction of nature.

My view is our job as environmentalists is to fight within Europe to significantly reform it, and in turn use its global clout to improve environmental prospects worldwide.

And frankly, given the current UK government’s approach to the environment and nature protection, the alternative to being in the EU threatens to be far worse.

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Craig Bennett is Chief Executive Officer of Friends of the Earth and has been described as “one of the country’s top environmental campaigners”. He is a Policy Fellow at the University of Cambridge, and lectures at several other universities and business schools.

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