16 May 2016

Where to find information on environmental questions in the EU referendum?

Andy Jordan & Viviane Gravey (University of East Anglia) lead authors of the expert review.

As the referendum approaches and both sides work harder to capture the support of undecided voters, issues such as the environment are likely to become more prominent. But what has EU membership affected the UK environment? And what are the implications likely to be of voting for Remain or Leave on 23 June?


Presently there are several reports which try to address these questions. One has been produced by MPs – who we know are trusted by some but not all voters. Another was commissioned by an all-party group, again made up of MPs. A third was commissioned by the environmental groups. A fourth has been published by researchers at the Institute for European Studies from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Those wishing to understand the environmental case for voting for either side on 23 June suddenly have a surfeit of quite detailed technical information to work through.

So, who to believe? All four reports demonstrate how difficult it is to answer the two questions above clearly and impartially. For a start, the EU is a very complex system of multi-level governance. It is truly unique in world politics. It has been highly active in developing environmental policy since 1973.

There are literally hundreds of environmental policies to work through and assess. And the UK environment has also been affected by numerous EU policies in related sectors such as energy, fisheries and transport. To complicate things yet further, the UK has been far from passive in absorbing these European policies into its domestic system of governance. Countless small but important decisions made by UK politicians over the years have affected the timing, extent and scope of their impacts.

Over time, departments such as DEFRA have also become better at ‘uploading’ UK policy ideas to the EU. EU-UK relations have become a two way street, researching common solutions to what is often felt to be common environmental problems.

This blog presents the finding of a fifth report, written by a group of 14 international experts. It seeks to confront these complexities by offering voters an impartial grounding in what is at stake on 23 June. 

The expert review, which has been funded by the ESRC’s UK in a Changing Europe Initiative, outlines how the EU has affected UK environmental policy and how, in turn, the UK has worked through the EU to shape wider international thinking. 

An executive summary seeks to offer a relatively simple guide to the key risks and opportunities. Comparing to the other report, it possesses a greater breadth and contains 14 chapters ranging from environmental quality, to international policy, agricultural policy and changes to domestic UK law. 

Overall, we conclude that a vote to leave the EU could open up some new opportunities, but that it would also generate many significant and uncertain risks with respect to the levels of environmental protection currently enjoyed by voters.

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