The British House of Commons is holding an inquiry into European environmental policy tomorrow (2 December 2015). The aim is to assess the extent to which EU environmental objectives and policies have succeeded in tackling environmental issues in the UK. This is to inform the debate ahead of the referendum on EU membership that the government has committed to holding by the end of 2017, following a renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership.
IASS Senior Fellow R. Andreas Kraemer – founder and long-term managing director of the Ecologic Institute – has submitted written evidence to this inquiry. In our interview, he gives us some background information on the inquiry and explains the advice he gives to the British politicians.
The UK House of Commons is holding an inquiry into European environmental policy. What is it about?
The British have not really settled their doubts about being members of the European Union; EU membership remains contentious. Part of the problem is that, like in other EU Member States, populist politicians and parts of the press tend to blame everything bad on ‘Brussels’. UK politicians, like their colleagues in other countries, also like to take the credit for achievements, even if the solution was really decided and action coordinated at European level. In that context, the House of Commons wants to take an objective look at the evidence of whether EU policy is good for the UK or not.
The inquiry is being held by the Environmental Audit Committee. What is that?
It is unusual. Normally, parliaments have committees to oversee the work of a ministry or department: one minister, one ministry, one parliamentary oversight committee. The Environmental Audit Committee is different in that its oversight role cuts across the whole government; the committee can investigate anything that is relevant to the protection of the environment or the use of natural resources. The committee has the capacity to conduct in-depth investigations because it can draw on the UK’s National Audit Office.
What is the focus of this inquiry into EU environmental policy?
Two questions, really: one is to understand the objectives, the purposes of European policy, and if they reflect what the people in Britain care about, the other is to understand the impact of EU policy and law on British environmental policy and the practice of administration and business. As is usual in such inquiries, the committee asks specific questions, and the experts interpret and answer them as they like. Because I cannot attend the hearings in the House of Commons, I submitted my answers in written form, and they have been published on the committee’s website.
What are your key points?
I frame my answers to the specific questions with two points before and one after. I start by reminding the UK parliamentarians that the UK enjoys a strong influence over EU environmental policymaking. That is a fact, but it is often ignored or even denied in the UK debate. The other starting point is that many UK citizens and voters travel, spend their holidays, do business or even live on the European continent. The benefits of European environmental policy to these people should be taken into account by the inquiry, and not only the effect for people and businesses in Britain. I conclude my statement by recalling that European integration is an important project for securing peace and prosperity; it was started after the Second World War to ensure that European nations would not fight another war against one another. It is worth remembering this at a time when Russia has invaded and forcibly annexed part of another European country only last year. This is not a good time to only count beans over Europe.
The specific questions in the inquiry are about the costs and the benefits of EU environmental policy, and the inquiry is being held as Britain prepares a referendum over continued EU membership. What exactly is the link between the inquiry and the referendum?
The increasingly polarised debate about a ‘Brexit’, as the possible exit of Britain from the EU is called, provides the topical context for the inquiry. The inquiry could help calm things down by providing facts where false arguments abound, and fears are created by an important part of the British press that is openly hostile to the EU. British business is generally in favour of the EU, because it provides opportunities as well as a generally more stable business environment than the UK could on its own. I say this explicitly in my statement: EU environmental policy has forced Britain to upgrade its environmental infrastructure, such as water and sanitation in cities or waste management, which created opportunities for British businesses to grow and then become exporters of products and services. British consultants dominate parts of the market in Brussels, and this gives British regulatory philosophy strong influence over Europe. Britain would lose its influence and the business opportunities if there were a Brexit.
With the United Nations Climate Summit in Paris starting today, what is your take on Britain’s role in the EU and the UN climate negotiations?
In general, the UK has a natural advantage through the use of English in international negotiations. UK government delegations and UK experts have shaped EU positions more than any other country. This has helped the UK to gain much more influence than it would otherwise have had, and it has allowed the EU to be more effective in international negotiations than it would have been without the UK. The climate negotiations are just one example. The UK showed leadership in establishing climate diplomacy as a distinct discipline. This has firstly increased UK influence in the EU and international negotiations, and secondly helped the EU and other Member States improve their ability to bring evidence-based positions, cohesion, and a negotiating strategy to the climate negotiations. If the climate negotiations in Paris are a success, then part of the credit should go to the coordination within the EU, and the example the EU has given to the world in the way it provides a workable framework for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, improving energy efficiency, and expanding the supply of renewable energies. Building and strengthening European networks for gas and electricity, and the innovations in smart grid technologies also help. The EU may not be perfect – it is far from it – but it is better than each Member State going it alone.
Header image: istock/dem10