By Mike Clarke, RSPB Chief Executive
We have always believed that, because nature transcends national boundaries, it needs cross-border co-operation to protect it and a common set of international standards that enable it to thrive. This concept stretches back throughout the RSPB’s history, ever since the organisation joined international efforts to curb oil pollution in the 1920s. And this concept was our starting point when we began to weigh up the environmental impacts of the UK’s potential withdrawal from the EU.
Back in March we joined forces with the Wildlife Trusts and WWF to commission an independent report into the likely environmental impacts of leaving the EU. The report illustrated how EU measures have safeguarded birds such as the bittern, nightjar and Dartford warbler, protected habitats that are essential for butterflies and bees, and have delivered cleaner air, rivers and beaches.
Our report was soon followed by others echoing its conclusions, most notably from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee and another from leading academics. The evidence was beginning to stack up: the EU has provided many benefits for wildlife that would be hard to replicate if we left. The Nature Directives in particular provide a robust international framework that ensures that roads, ports, airports and housing are not developed at the expense of our most valuable wildlife sites. 93.8% of UK citizens live within 20km of one of these protected places, which provide homes for species like otters, stag beetles, bitterns and butterflies. Some of our most spectacular landscapes – from the Moray Firth and the North Antrim Coast, to Ramsey Island and The New Forest – are protected by EU regulations.
People across Europe have also benefitted from water quality, climate change, air quality and renewable energy targets set at EU level, with the direct involvement of successive UK governments.
These benefits have been hard won. Our supporters have been at the forefront of many campaigns over the past 40 years that have helped to make our wildlife and fragile habitats safer and more secure.
But, these reports also point out that the EU isn’t perfect and there is room for improvement, particularly in areas such as agriculture and fisheries policies. So in April, with the referendum campaign officially underway, we asked the two campaigns – Britain Stronger in Europe and Vote Leave – to set out for our members and supporters how their proposition will deliver for nature.
We are delighted that both campaigns responded positively to our challenge, and provided video and written statements clearly setting out their stall. You can find out what they said on our website.
However, no-one from the “Leave” campaign has yet been able to reassure us that we wouldn’t need to start again from scratch were we to leave the EU. What will happen to nature in the meantime? Recent calls from supporters of “leave” to scrap the Nature Directives – which have been proven to work so effectively where properly implemented – are of great concern.
That is why we are pleased that the Prime Minister has today recognised that the outcome of the EU Referendum could have significant implications for the future of our wonderful, world-renowned wildlife and it is great to see the environment featuring in the discussion. He has also recognised the role that civil society, including organisations like the RSPB, can play in democratic debate and we both welcome and endorse this remark.
The RSPB is a nature conservation charity with 1.1 million members. Yet we recognise that most people will consider a range of different issues when deciding how to cast their votes on 23 June and we won’t be telling anyone what to do. As a charity we are not aligned to any particular organised campaign on either side of the argument. The RSPB can only comment on the implications for nature and the environment, based on an objective assessment of the available evidence.
We want a secure future for our most precious wildlife and the places they call home. In weighing up the current evidence, the uncertainties and the balance of risks, we have concluded that the safer option for nature is for the UK to remain a part of the European Union.
The single biggest threat to wildlife in the UK is habitat loss. The single biggest threat to habitat is human population growth. For an example, Oxfordshire is supposed to increase its population by about 250,000 people within the next 15 years, according to the Government-backed Strategic Housing Market Assessment, and the Local Enterprise Partnership.
Yet it has taken 10,000 years for the population of Oxfordshire to reach around 640,000. The increase proposed by the SHMA is 38% in just 15 years. Where are these additional 250,000 people going to come from? What is such a drastic increase of people going to do to traffic congestion, access to medical facilities, access to education, industrial activity, mineral extraction, greenhouse gas emissions etc? And what is it going to do to our open spaces and wildlife? How can we continue to water and feed more-and-more people with less-and-less land to do it with?
There is a lot of money to made from building on farm land, so powerful vested interests are at work, but it is wildlife which ultimately pays the price. In Oxfordshire, we are about to lose part of the Green Belt to this influx. Nature Reserves are under threat. Flood risks increase...
And this is happening all across the south... 220 new homes in Theale threaten to destroy the last stronghold for the Nightingale in Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.
Unfortunately, membership of the EU prevents us from addressing this problem because its prime reason for existing, since Maastricht, has become the free movement of goods, capital and people.
I couldn't agree more with Robert G and LindaH., Having faith in the EU or our government to consider the environment whilst they pursue economic growth by population growth is tantamount to believing in fairies.
Latest news is that the conference to discuss the Nature Directives has been cancelled. If it's such a foregone conclusion that the EU will take notice of the half a million people who defended the directives, then why didn't they make the decision months ago. What's the hold up?
EU nature conference cancelled
The Dutch presidency has cancelled a high profile nature conference due to delays from the European Commission on the Nature Directives 'fitness check'.
The European Commission was supposed to present the results of its 'fitness check of the Birds and Habitats Directives (aka Nature Directives) at the Dutch Presidency conference 'Future-proof Nature Policy' on 28-30 June. The document was supposed to serve as the basis for discussions – about the implementation of the Nature Directives in the Member States – at the conference, which many governments and NGOs were planning to attend. However the European Commission, 20 days ahead of the conference, has still not published the results of its 'fitness check' of these vital laws.
In October 2013, the European Commission announced that it would be carrying out a 'fitness check' of the Birds and Habitats Directives, in order to assess whether these important laws were still 'fit for purpose'. In 2015, in response to concerns that this might result in a weakening of the legislation, stakeholders from across the EU submitted evidence that the laws were indeed up to scratch. Additionally, over 520,000 EU citizens 120 environmental NGOs responded to the Commission’s public consultation regarding the same issues.
This was echoed by EU environment ministers meeting in council in December 2015, and by a European Parliament vote in February this year. Both bodies identified full implementation of the Nature Directives as key to achieving the targets of the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020.
Despite calls from NGOs, SMEs and citizens as well as from the European Parliament and EU Member States to fully implement the Nature Directives as soon as possible, the Commission is still dragging its feet and creating uncertainty for the future of nature conservation in Europe.
Ariel Brunner, Senior Head of Policy at BirdLife Europe stated: “This is shocking news and frankly an embarrassment for the European Commission. The conclusions of the fitness check should be crystal clear and it is incomprehensible that the Commission refuses to publish them and move on to much needed action for biodiversity in Europe.”
We should be confident, not complacent, that the Directives will remain in place. It would be outrageous if the Commission went against the wishes of half a million people who used their voices to defend the directives, the democratically elected European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
I would vote to stay in the EU if I thought that the Birds and Habitat Directives would remain as is. But the EU is thinking of weakening these laws, aren't they, so what use will they be if we do remain in the EU? Why is nobody mentioning this? The EU was meant to give their decision on their rethink in April, but have postponed giving their decision until June. Coincidence? What do others think about this?
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