So far, very few of the millions of words written about last week’s Brexit have touched on the environment.
It is a sobering thought that many of the reasons why Cornwall’s green and pleasant land is green and pleasant stem directly from the European Union, and unless we now think of a new regulatory framework to protect the public good, our environment will be sacrificed on the altar of private greed and its lust for profit.
Don’t get me wrong – the EU has, historically, done plenty to mess up the countryside. For example, guaranteed Common Agricultural Policy prices for crops such as oil seed rape encouraged over-supply and turn the fields from green to bright yellow.
And as Europe’s butter mountains continue to melt, farmers quite rightly complain that they are now being turned into park-keepers. But at least they are heavily subsidised park-keepers. With huge uncertainty now surrounding their subsidies, why would Cornwall’s farmers not decide instead to become property developers?
It was partly to off-set some of the worst excesses of its own policies that the EU pursued the development of directives to protect the environment, such as the Nature Directives. These provide a framework of EU law which limit what landowners can do on sites which are home to some of our most threatened species and habitats.
Directives to protect habitats and birds formed the foundation of nature conservation across Europe. While some landowners howled about red tape and bureaucracy, many people saw wider, public social and economic benefit in ensuring the triumph of survival over extinction.
Protected sites in the UK were being lost at a rate of 15% a year before the directives, but this declined to just 1% a year after their introduction.
Defra minister and Camborne and Redruth MP George Eustice, a keen Brexiter, has described these protective measures as “spirit crushing.” I heard the Country Landowners Association on the radio on Monday rubbing their hands in eager anticipation at how they might now cash in.
Why was it that in the 1970s we had the highest acid rain-causing sulphur dioxide emissions in the EU and our seas weren’t much more than open sewers as we pumped sewage into them? It was because it was cheaper, and therefore more profitable, to ignore the consequences. It was the EU that drove improvements.
We didn’t hear much from groups like Friends of the Earth during the referendum campaign, but that’s because we in the media thought it much more fun to photograph Boris Johnson waving pasties from his bus. FoE was actually doing its best to warn that shared problems such as climate change, biodiversity loss and air pollution were better tackled on a continent-wide basis.
Fishing stocks, and polluted air and seas, are not by themselves respecters of off-shore limits measured in miles. FoE, and several other green groups, were trying to get us to recognise that it was the EU that cleaned up our drinking water, our beaches, and meant that the UK could no-longer be called “the dirty man of Europe.”
Remember the fuss when it looked like Cornwall’s beaches might not be able to fly blue flags? Maybe we should now invest in the manufacturers of brown flags instead.