Richard North, 09/06/2016  

Listening to the "remain" camp on the subject of the environment, one might almost come away with the idea that the EU had invented green policy. So said Owen Paterson yesterday in London, making what amounts to the definitive statement on the EU and the environment.

Britain, he says, has traditionally been a leader in environmental protection, and has passed green laws since before two-thirds of EU members existed as countries. Much of our early legislation even pre-dating the creation of Germany and Italy as nation-states, starting with the 1848 Public Health Act, introducing formal statutory controls on pollution. Further Acts were passed in 1866 and 1875, 1936 and 1961.

In between came the National Trust, created by a 1907 Act of Parliament. And a year before the Schuman Declaration of 1950, proposing the European Coal and Steel Community, Westminster passed the 111-page National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. These were all examples of Parliament co-operating with civil society to protect the environment.

To suggest that UK environment policy would be inadequate outside the EU is bizarre bordering on the insulting.

Despite what the EU would tell you, environmental policy was organised not just at continental but at a global level - long before the EU blundered into the area. In 1972, the year before we joined the EEC, 152 leading experts from 58 countries attended the first UN meeting on the environment in Stockholm, which led to the establishment by the UN General Assembly in December that year of the United Nations Environment Programme.

That conference marked the beginnings of global co-operation in the field of the environment, from which date it has been regarded as a legitimate and important area of international law.

Then in 1976 Switzerland published a study recommending joint European action, which led to the 1979 Berne Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, hosted by the Council of Europe, another non-EU organisation. We were founder signatories of the Berne Convention; we were also signatories before any other EEC country to the 1975 Ramsar Convention protecting wetlands. Today Britain has more Ramsar sites than any other nation.

Likewise with the 1973 Washington Treaty establishing the Convention on International Trades in Endangered Species – CITES - which protects wildlife. Switzerland, Sweden, Cyprus were the first members from Europe, and of the early signatories, Germany was the only EEC nation to join before Britain.

There was also the pan-European initiative MAR Project, a programme started by the IUCN – itself established in 1948 - because of concerns about a decline in the numbers of waterbirds. MAR was not created by the Common Market, but was the result of three organisations, British, French and Dutch, getting together for the common benefit of birds across Europe.

The Berne Convention had nothing to do with the European Union, but the EU made a power grab to take ownership of international treaties interpreting them across the whole continent. This led eventually to the creation of the Birds and Habitats Directives that now form the cornerstone of the EU's nature conservation policy.

However it was not until 1987 that Environment became an official EEC competence , and its first intervention into green matters was linked to the single market and the idea of levelling the playing field. The EEC sought to harmonise environmental controls between member states, to avoid any one member gaining a trading advantage through adopting less onerous standards.

This sounded reasonable in theory, as with much of European policy, but in practice was wildly unsuitable, as it is absurd to apply "one size fits all" rules across vastly different terrains and environments. But there is a different agenda here. The EEC was and the EU now is using common regulation as a means of achieving economic and through that political integration.

The politically driven obsession with common rules is partly responsible for many of the absurdities that emerge from Brussels, for instance the "three-crop rule" which requires farmers across the continent to grow three different crops on their land. Not only was this wholly unsuitable for the UK, it was impossible in Andalucía, where only olive trees will grow in July when it's 45 ºC; likewise in northern Sweden, where only one spruce will grow in January when it is 45 ºC below.

When the UK fails to enforce these mad regulations, significant fines are imposed - in Eurospeak called "disallowance". Over the past ten years we've had to pay £642 million - real money which could have been spent on our own agriculture and environment.

By their very nature global rules must be interpreted at national level to suit the local environment. We strongly support the Berne Convention, and this gives individual countries the freedom to help their own "at risk" species. In contrast, because of its desire for uniformity, Brussels applies a common European standard on endangered species that would be comical if it were not so disastrous.

Take newts, for instance. Each year over 1,000 licences are issued to keep great crested newts out of development sites, stopping housing being built and costing businesses dearly. One developer in Buckinghamshire was forced to spend £1 million catching 150 of the amphibians – a species that in the UK is not even threatened.

Yet, they are much scarcer on the continent so, because of this, desperately needed homes in Britain can't be built. And, when Paterson attempted to secure amendments to the Habitats Directive to relieve British businesses of this burden, then Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik refused to open "Pandora box".

Says Paterson, lawmaking in a sane system should not be a Pandora's Box. A huge advantage of leaving the EU is that should we find that our legislation interpreting international conventions did not work well in practice, we could amend or repeal - or if necessary strengthen it - in response to changes in our own species and habitats.

Another change, of enormous significance, was the requirement from 1999 that environment policy was to be based on the "Precautionary Principle". This marked a fundamental break with Britain's historic "reactive" policy, based on the idea that something was legal until the state said otherwise – and would have a huge impact on British farming and innovation.

The application of the Precautionary Principle led to the disastrous response to the so-called "bee-pocalypse" when, against the advice of British scientists with the support of allies such as the Hungarians, the Commission banned neonicotinoids pesticides, forcing farmers to use older, less effective pesticides such as pyrethroids, which damage the aquatic environment and are worse for bees.

Because of this Precautionary Principle the EU is becoming the Museum of World Farming. We are sitting on some of the most fertile land on the planet and yet EU net imports of food require 35 million hectares of someone else's farmland.

The same attitude forms the EU's approach to genetically modified food, which have effectively been banned in Europe, despite repeated studies showing it to be safe and the American Academy of Science and the Royal Society calling for the ban to be reassessed.

Not only does the ban harm Europe, it also harms Africa, which has been put under pressure to toe Europe's deluded line on the subject. This "technological intolerance" in the words of Harvard's Kenyan economist Calestous Juma, is based on "emotions, not evidence". By actively discouraging Africans from using the latest technology to defeat pests, their ability to feed themselves is being hampered.

Freed from Brussels's chokehold, we would seek to replace the Precautionary Principle with the Innovation Principle. We led the Agricultural Revolution and we could do so again, as well as improving our landscape and countryside using all the latest innovations.

In contrast the EU environment will continue to decline as companies will not risk spending hundreds of millions of euros developing a new product if it simply means it will be banned for no scientific reason.

This centralised system also means that the EU prioritises the wrong things, a prime example being the recent Volkswagen emissions scandal. Because of the way Brussels favours large corporate lobbying, diesel carmakers were successfully able to convince the Commission to favour diesel cars.

Since these vehicles produce lower CO2 emissions, and the system had decided that CO2 emissions were the only target that mattered. The result was that far more dangerous particulate and NOx emissions were higher than they would have been, causing thousands of premature deaths that could have been prevented.

This is the peril of the inflexible EU system where groupthink can become entrenched when decision-makers are not held accountable. Policy making simply does not keep up with what is happening on the ground.

A prime example of this is the issue of invasive species, which is by some distance the biggest cause of extinction in the modern world, but despite the urgency of the problem, action taken under the EU regime is wholly inadequate and low priority.

In this country, the red squirrel and the white-clawed crayfish are facing local and possibly national extinction, because of disease spread by invasive alien grey squirrels and signal crayfish. As part of the Habitats Directive and the Water Framework Directive, studies have been completed but effective action has been woefully slow and the threat continues to grow.

This same mentality drives the CFP, a biological, environmental, economic and social disaster. This contrasts with the sustainable and productive fisheries of the Faeroes, Iceland and Norway, which are all managed at local level, using up to the minute data to ensure healthy stocks. This is the very opposite to the central planning at continental level which has caused such damage to the fishing communities and marine environment in the UK.

The centralised nature of the EU incentivises lobbying by large companies and groups, and Brussels in turn funds NGOs and charities, which in turn lobby it. The recent environment statement by the Stronger In team, signed by Liz Truss, included quotes from leading members of both Friends of the Earth and WWF who argued that the EU had delivered benefits to our environment.

They were joined by David Cameron, who declared that the EU "underpins many crucial environmental protections in the UK". Lauding "charities like the RSPB and WWF" who played "an important role in the debate on Europe", he welcomed their intervention.

He even went so far as to say that a vote for the EU was a vote for nature. It is nothing of the sort. A vote for the EU is a vote for the continuation of the remote, insensitive bureaucracy that insists on deciding matters at continental level, ignoring local environmental conditions and imposing clumsy regulation on matters that should be decided at the level of the nation state or below.

But what David Cameron didn't tell us was that his champions were being funded by the EU, the RSPB to the tune of £15 million and the WWF by £58 million. He is endorsing the use of taxpayer's money for propaganda purposes; this vastly outstrips the £9.2m he spent on his own propaganda leaflets.

To add insult to injury most other environmental groups are also in receipt of EU largesse. Over the period 2007-2012 for instance, Friends of the Earth was lead recipient for grants worth £10.6 million. Together, in just five years, nine major green groups received over £100m from the European Commission. No wonder they all believe we are Stronger In.

These organisations are active players in the EU's legislative and policy making process, working with it to promote its "environmental leadership in the global political arena", effectively acting as advocates not only for environmental issues but for the European Union itself.

As Secretary of State, Paterson participated in an Environment Council called by Lithuania as the incoming Presidency, to discuss European policy on fracking. So serious was the meeting that only elected Ministers were allowed in with all civil servants excluded.

Yet, to his surprise, Council members found a senior representative from the European Environment Bureau, representing 140 green organisations, speaking on equal terms with us. Towards the end of the meeting he gave them an emotive lecture about the dangers of shale gas exploitation.

Some of Paterson's colleagues from Eastern Europe, for whom energy security is an existential question and who had just come out of decades of undemocratic rule, were absolutely infuriated.

So political are these green groups that countries such as New Zealand declined to give charity status to Greenpeace. India's government considers that NGO opposition to development projects makes them a "threat to national economic security".

It is notable that whereas such political lobbying is integral to the system in Brussels, these two Parliamentary democracies demand that NGOs are held to account by politicians who in turn are answerable to their electors. The Brussels system, on the other hand, is circular. It funds NGOs - which form, with civil servants and journalists, which Paterson called the Green Blob – to lobby the Commission to produce the laws which it already wanted, therefore bypassing the democratic process.

Another area in which the democratic process is bypassed is immigration. According to the Government, with free movement, if we stay in the EU it is forecast that the UK population will increase to 71 million by 2030. A new house will have to be built every six minutes for the next 25 years.

An extra 400,000 hectares of land – almost nearly twice the size of Oxfordshire – will be needed for housing alone in the next 15 years. Add in the necessary infrastructure and this is going to have a massive impact on our environment.

So what happens if we leave? Outside the EU, we would still be signatories to the Berne Convention on protected species, under which we could direct our efforts to wildlife actually under threat in the UK, as opposed to working to a notional European list affecting animals hundreds of miles away. If the Great Crested Newts ever found themselves in real trouble in the UK, we would be the first to invoke the Berne Convention to help them.

We have a good idea of what a post-brexit British environment policy would look like from studying South Georgia, a British Crown Colony, where the Government has successfully rid the island of rats, reindeer, various plants and other invasive species.

It has overseen a spectacular explosion in the numbers of fur seals, elephant seals, king penguins, whales and many other species, while halting the killing of albatrosses by long-line fisheries within the island’s economic zone. It is a fine example of practical, pro-active nature conservation by Britons outside the EU.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of leaving the EU is that we will get our borders back, not just in the case of people but of plants. Increasing globalization means more products traded around the world, which means a greater risk of plant disease.

Yet the EU's insistence on free movement has accelerated the spread of ash dieback, putting at risk 80 million ash trees in the UK. The causal agent, Hymenoscyphus fraxineus is not a "regulated" plant disease organism in European Union plant health law, which means that ash plants moved between Member States were not subject to inspection.

On top of this we could also tackle the insidious and dangerous trade in bush meat into this country, a practice that is linked to increased risks of Ebola and the bubonic plague.

As Secretary of State for Defra, Paterson visited Australia and New Zealand. He was really struck by the rigorous biosecurity at their borders. They offer many practical lessons, which would be of long-lasting benefit to our animal and plant health.

In the EU, there is little we can do about this. But an independent UK could strengthen biosecurity to reduce risks at the UK border, develop procedures to predict and control the spread of pests and diseases, and build a modern system to provide quick and intelligent access to data about tree health. We have a huge natural advantage in being an island - with 21st Century technology and techniques available, we could maximise the benefits.

Outside the EU, we would not just regain our right to vote on bodies such as the IPPC for plant health and the OIE for animal health, but vitally our right to initiate new standards or propose amendments to existing ones. After 23 June, we can give global leadership, working with likeminded allies to ensure more rapid policy reaction to a constantly moving kaleidoscope of diseases.

Perhaps the most ludicrous claim made by the Remain side has been that wildlife crime would increase if we left. This is rubbish. As an independent actor, Britain would continue to be most effective in tackling this problem. Paterson visited Kenya in 2013 and then with the full support of other sovereign states and conservation charities the UK organized the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade.

The 46 countries attending, including China and Russia, were determined to tackle the horrific situation where an elephant is shot dead every 15 minutes and a rhino every 8 hours. By working together, we helped to reduce poaching in northern Kenya by 35 percent, a success that had absolutely nothing to do with the EU.

Historically democracies have a far better record of preserving the environment than unelected governments of whatever shape. Only last year the UK created the world’s largest contiguous ocean reserve around the Pitcairn Islands, three times the size of the UK. It would be foolish to suggest that a country which has achieved this and which has pioneered environmental measures for centuries would walk away from its commitment to the environment just because it left the political arrangements of the EU.

I have often in the past been critical of the Green Blob as it operates within Whitehall and Brussels, but I have always praised local environmentalists for doing a vital job; their enthusiasm, combined with local knowledge and experience is invaluable. We should empower them, reviving the long-standing British tradition of local volunteer organisations working to improve the environment for posterity. Our elected representatives would have real power to react effectively to the changing demands of our environment.

Environmentalism works best at local level. People care for their surroundings most when it belongs to them, when they have a stake in the future and when they are free to conserve it for posterity. Central planning is the past; after 23rd June we can return to the fundamental principal of environmentalism - thinking globally, acting locally.

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