This week, over 350 million citizens from across Europe will have the chance to go to the polls to elect the next European Parliament. Much to everyone's surprise, the UK will take part in this election.  This is because Theresa May secured an extension to the terms of Article 50.  That said, it is currently uncertain if, and for how long, newly elected UK MEPs will be present in the European Parliament.

Whatever you think about this, it is worth remembering that the election is taking place at a crucial moment for our planet, with nature declining globally and at rates unprecedented in human history.  The results across Europe could have long-lasting implications for nature.  Despite the Brexit uncertainty in the UK, here are three things to reflect on before casting your vote.

Colin Wilkinson's image showing the way forward? (rspb-images.com)

1. The European Parliament elections will have a big impact on the environment

The European Parliament, in tandem with the European Council of Ministers, legislates on issues such as nature protection, fisheries and agriculture and therefore has a huge influence on the quality of the natural environment across Europe. 

The outgoing European Parliament played a crucial role in preventing the weakening of the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives and has championed allocating more funding to the LIFE programme, which is the backbone of nature conservation work across Europe.  As co-legislators, the European Parliament also has a big influence over the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) but so far it has not been a force for good.  The incoming Parliament provides a new opportunity for MEPs to lead radical reform of the CAP and shape EU environmental ambition for the next decade. 

As things stand, much of our environmental legislation here in the UK is driven by our EU membership and will continue to apply while we are still an EU Member State. In addition, the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement commits the UK to following these EU rules (including any new ones) until at least the end of 2020, as well as and to maintaining the same levels of protection (or higher) thereafter.  As such, the UK MEPs that are elected in next week’s vote could have an important role to play in shaping EU environmental policies of continued direct relevance to the UK. Or, to put it another way, these elections are at least in part “about the rules that might govern us for some years to come”.

2. The EU helps set international standards and ambition beyond Europe

As well as shaping the environmental standards that apply to EU Member States, the European Parliament has a key part to play in influencing the EU’s role on the global stage. 

As noted by academics from the Brexit & Environment network, EU environmental policies “have significant external effects across the globe”, particularly when it comes to the EU’s trade agreements. The EU (including the UK) is currently a major importer of commodities associated with environmental damage overseas. At the same time, due to the size of its market, the EU is also in a strong position to promote higher standards and more sustainable production in its partner countries - but there is much room for improvement.

Looking beyond trade, next year world leaders will gather in China to agree (we hope) a new post-2020 global deal for nature under the Convention on Biological Diversity. The European Parliament will have a crucial role to play in driving the EU’s ambition in the run up to the summit.

Those academics also said that the EU currently acts as “a major diplomatic actor in international environmental negotiations, on a par with large states such as the US and China” and has traditionally been “a driving force” in relation to negotiations such as these.

3. Supporting EU-UK environmental cooperation and standards as Brexit unfolds

The makeup of the next European Parliament could have a significant bearing on the Brexit process and the environmental elements of the future EU-UK relationship, including when it comes to the Parliament’s role in ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement (due to take place if/when it is ratified by the UK Parliament) and in influencing the European Commission’s negotiating mandate for the next phase of EU-UK negotiations. 

As noted by Professor Charlotte Burns, the European Parliament “has a proud history of holding the other EU institutions to account and in advancing the environment agenda”. The current Parliament has been very clear in its position that robust commitments to high environmental standards must form a key part of the future EU-UK relationship. But will the next Parliament maintain their strong green line?

Recent research commissioned by RSPB and others clearly demonstrates that a close and cooperative future relationship with the EU would be the safest option for nature. Species and habitats do not respect borders – for example, around half of the bird species in the UK are migratory – meaning that conservation outcomes in the UK remain inextricably linked to the laws adopted by our nearest neighbours.

Where can I get more information

The UK Government has decided to offer this democratic moment, so it is now up to you whether to take part.  If you could like to know more about about the UK candidates and party manifestos, then go to the BBC website here. Equally, if you would like to know more about what is needed, the following coalitions of which RSPB is a member have produced manifestos as follows:

And finally, the Institute for European Environmental Policy has undertaken an assessment of the European parties’ manifestos.

I hope you find what you are looking for.

Anonymous