Connecting the Environment and the EU – Brussels, May 2016

On Monday 234rd May Tony Long, ALT Trustee and Senior Expert at Global Governance Institute, participated in a Policy Forum about the environment and climate change in relation to the EU referendum and Brexit. The Policy Forum provided an opportunity to debate a new expert review of the academic evidence on these topics (available at and what might change in the UK and at EU level in the event of a British vote to Remain in or Leave the European Union on 23 June.See

Tony Long (end, right) at the IES Policy Forum

Tony Long (end, right) at the IES Policy Forum

The event was hosted by the Institute for European Studies in Brussels and Tony spoke about the importance of collaboration and shared interests for the environment across Europe. Please see below for content of Tony Long’s speech: –

The EU Referendum and the UK Environment

Remarks by Tony Long, Global Governance Institute, Free University of Brussels  (formerly WWF European Policy Office director)

23 May 2016

  1. It is not as easy today for environmentalists like me to make the “Remain” case as it would have been five or ten years ago.  There is a shadow hanging over environment policy now that wasn’t there before.  This much was clear in the summer of 2014 when President Juncker set out his priorities for the new European Commission, as well as the individual Commissioner mandates. Conspicuously, the environment was not among them.  In the confirmation hearings that same autumn, European Parliamentarians launched something of a fight back and managed to salvage a small victory with a commitment to sustainable development being included in Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans’ portfolio. But it was slim pickings.
  1. The environmental fall from favour had been brewing for some time. Aside from some warm words at the Rio 2012 Earth Summit, I think we can safely say that President Barroso was no keen fan.  Efforts around climate change he understood; they counted as mainstream policy objectives. Resource efficiency made it into the EU 2020 strategy with the status of a flagship initiative. But everything else environmental was blurred at best. Janez Potocnik didn’t have the easiest time as Environment Commissioner in the second Barroso Commission and the fact that he achieved as much as he did was down to his tenacity and his undoubted commitment to the issues.
  1. But this cooling on environmental policy, this chill, at EU level goes back still further. It can be seen in the resurgence of the international competitiveness debates and the call for a loosening of so-called regulatory burdens that gathered pace after the economic full-stop brought on by the financial crisis in 2008. European experiences were not unique – the chill was happening elsewhere too. They became a full-scale blizzard in the United States. In Europe, however, there may have been some particular and unique mechanisms at work. I don’t think one should rule out the chilling effect that has been brought on by the very threat – and then reality – of the looming UK referendum itself.   The gradual seeping away of enthusiasm and commitment becomes self-fulfilling after a while.
  1. If this chilling effect is real, then I believe that finding converts to the EU cause for “green” reasons is not going to be easy and may not be won at all if relying on appeals to the “head” alone. By which I mean rational arguments and well documented evidence – the so-called evidence-based case – that shows just how far a strong and vibrant EU environment policy is in the best interests of UK citizens. All the reasons we can read about for continued EU membership in the excellent report that we are discussing today under the auspices of the UK in a Changing Europe Initiative, and in the similar report prepared by IEEP for three UK nature conservation organisations (Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and WWF), are a hard sell at a time when the EU itself is having second thoughts about the place of environment in its overall scheme of things.
  1. So let’s remind ourselves what that optimism felt like and sounded like in the years preceding the cooling. I went back to the last time the UK held the Presidency of the European Council, the second half of 2005. Though not that long ago, the website setting out the UK priorities for its Presidency ( reads as though it comes from a different planet. This is the environmental policy agenda extract.

“During its Presidency of the EU, the UK will be seeking to:

  • Keep action to tackle climate change high on the international agenda, and work with our EU partners to show progress on existing climate change targets.
  • Invest major efforts in securing the first stage of agreement between the Member States on a new Regulation concerning the testing and approval of chemicals, known as REACH.
  • Progress discussions on a review of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy.
  • Make progress on providing support for the development and use of environmental technologies.
  • Ensure that discussions take place on some of the Thematic Strategies (in the 6th EAP), frameworks that will set the direction of environment policy in seven key areas until 2012 (air; waste; marine; soil; pesticides; natural resources; urban environment).
  • Demonstrate practical examples of environmental integration in other policy areas during our Presidency (incidentally, a priority of the previous UK Presidency in 1998).
  • Work to increase EU commitment to action on Sustainable Production and Consumption
  • Lead the EU at important international negotiations, including meetings on sustainable development and biodiversity
  • Continue work already in progress under the Luxembourg Presidency.”
  1. That was Her Majesty Government’s agenda for the environment. It could just as well have been WWF’s, at least in part. And we actually brought a lot of it about – not all but a significant amount. The language is telling – “invest major efforts”; “lead the EU”; “work to increase EU commitments” etc.
  1. My point in recounting this is my belief that what was before could be again. It is a long stretch I know. These are different times you say. They are. But are they really so different? Is any one of those issues so much less important now than it was then? In fact for most of them, as we well know, their relevance and urgency have not gone away – they have only increased in the intervening 11 years. And are any of them really that much less important to UK citizens or to the UK civil servants who drafted them or to the Government itself? If they were seen as relevant for action at EU level by the UK Government in 2005, and where HMG was willing to take on “EU leadership” responsibilities for their achievement, has so much changed in the objective conditions that these issues are now seen as being more relevant for action at national level now? It is a different political party in power now, I grant you, but even so many of those issues transcend political party boundaries, or should do.
  1. Which brings me to my concluding remarks. Perhaps it is an appeal to the “heart” as much as to the “head” that will be needed to turn this debate around, at least on the environmental side, in this the last 30 days. What could that appeal look like?
  2. First, international cooperation on climate change is going to become more important as the science and observed facts are telling us almost daily that the problems are become more urgent. The EU doesn’t have a perfect record in this regard it is true. But it is not at all that bad either – far from it. When the history of the Paris Agreement last December comes to be written, it may be that the EU’s role, alongside others, in piecing together a High Ambition Coalition of developed and developing countries alike will be one of the high points of climate diplomacy in recent years. I don’t know how the future looks for a UK voice in international climate change negotiations outside the EU, but I think the Expert Review[1] paper summary is close to the mark when it says the UK influence will “probably decline”. Just when it is most needed.
  1. A similar appeal can be made around the Sustainable Development Goals. Readers of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – “Transforming our World” – from last September might recall one of those rare occasions in United Nations ‘bureaucratic-speak’ where the words suddenly stop you short in your tracks. This sentence did just that for me. “We can be the first generation to succeed in ending poverty; just as we may be the last to have a chance of saving the planet.”
  1. I know that the UK outside the EU will be able to contribute important pledges to meeting some of the 17 goals. But I also know that there will be regional level contributions that can uniquely help Europe deliver big global commitments. EU development policy is one. Sustainable production and consumption is another. Progressive maritime policy and oceans governance is a third.  Sustainable trade policy could well be a fourth.  Biodiversity is another. The list goes on. In what could be the most pressing global agenda of our time, I fear that once again the Expert Review paper summary might be correct when it says that if the UK leaves the EU, its influence will “probably decline”.
  1. Third, the rebuilding of Central and Eastern Europe is still work in progress. This is where successive British governments have generally concluded that the net UK financial contribution to the EU budget is best spent.  Nation building through creating common regulatory frameworks across Europe is a huge achievement in the 50-plus years of the EU. What Margaret Thatcher called the “widening not deepening” of Europe. That agenda has not gone away and it is one that the EU is uniquely able to shape. For traditional trade, investment and political influence reasons – and now in a very pressing way for peace and security reasons – the EU provides the mechanisms to be influential on Europe’s eastern and southern borders. Including being influential in building an environmental policy reflex where there may not have been one before. Once again, I fear that if the UK leaves the EU its influence over the newly joined Member States, as well as potential accession countries, will “probably decline”.
  1. International cooperation, international solidarity, international common purpose starting with international action in Europe among the 28 EU member states to meet the most pressing environmental and developmental and security challenges on the planet. That is the rallying cry I yearn for in the last thirty days of the UK referendum debate and which has been so notably – and for me, painfully – absent in the campaigns to date.

Thank you.

[1] The EU Referendum and the UK Environment : An Expert Review 2016

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