At the end of giving evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on the value of EU environment policy (you can watch it here), I was asked about the RSPB’s position on the referendum regarding the UK’s membership of the European Union.

This is clearly an issue that will dominate the political and public debate this year and is something to which we have given a lot of thought.  The outcome of the referendum on EU membership could have significant implications for the RSPB's ability to fulfil its charitable objects ie acting for nature for public benefit.

Given that nature knows no boundaries and our primary interest has been birds (many of which migrate), the RSPB has always believed we need to act internationally especially as the threats (such as pollution) are often diffuse.  Comprehensive international agreements for nature conservation and the environment – together with a robust and enforceable governance framework – are therefore essential.  The RSPB will always promote the generic principle of effective international agreements, which ensure common environmental standards and protect our shared wildlife.   

Chris Gomersall picture of Danish trawler fishing for sandeels with gannets and kittiwakes (

As has been explored through the Committee’s inquiry, UK environment policy has over the past 40 years evolved in parallel with European Union policy.  Evidence suggests that the EU has had a positive impact through some of its environment policies, most notably through the Birds and Habitats Directives (which after a statement today - here - seem safe in the hands of Environment Minister, Rory Stewart) but also in setting water quality, climate change, air quality and renewable energy targets. However, significant concerns remain about some sectoral policies (such as for agriculture and fisheries) and environmentally harmful subsidies.

Continuing uncertainty about future membership of the EU presents unquantifiable risks for the RSPB’s ability to deliver on its charitable objectives.  We do not yet know the results of the Prime Minister’s reform negotiations and those championing the UK leaving the EU have not outlined in detail how they would address environmental issues.

Very few issues are entirely clear-cut, so any decision about the UK’s future in the EU will require everyone, the RSPB included, to weigh up the evidence on both sides.

This is why, in the run-up to the Referendum, as both sides seek to clarify and present their respective visions for the future, the RSPB will challenge both the ‘in’ and ‘out’ campaigns to explain how their stance will help protect and enhance the environment.  Through this ‘referendum challenge’ process, we hope to help RSPB supporters and the wider public to gain greater clarity about the environmental implications of the UK remaining in or leaving the EU and to ensure that nature features in the public debate.

Therefore, while the RSPB will, at no stage, tell anyone how to vote and will not join any official campaign, we will nonetheless play a very active role in the debate.  This is why we shall in a few weeks launch, with WWF and The Wildlife Trusts, a report outlining the environmental consequences of both our membership of the EU and the implications of UK leaving.

We want an informed debate and whichever way the public votes, we want the UK to be in a better position to restore nature in nature in a generation.