Saturday, 16 April 2016
In or out of Europe – time for some honesty
I wonder how many people are already utterly fed up with the slanging match that is developing between the 'In' and 'Out' campaigns in the EU referendum?
I have already reached the point of despair; partly because I have heard far too much from the 'outers' about how much the 'inners' are spreading scare stories – 'Project Fear'. Equally, I was amazed by the Government's leaflet – how wishy-washy – hardly a compelling case for staying in!
Where is the substance? I fear that the British People are being blindly lulled into a false sense that we can just duck out of Europe and keep all the benefits of being in Europe whilst taking none of the responsibilities. The reality is that we do have responsibilities and that some of them stem from our own poor track record.
Perhaps we can deal with some of the issues in a sensible and constructive way? Over the next few weeks I will try to disentangle some of the misconceptions, starting with a general point about the need for environmental legislation. Outers have been very critical of the imposition of EU rules on the UK, but maybe they overlook the fact that without the EU, the UK might just have developed its own rules with as many teeth and as many drawbacks for its commercial relationship with the rest of the World. We started off as the worst environmental offender in the 18th Century and gradually dug ourselves out of the mess we had made for ourselves in the following 200 years.
Let us start with water quality.
Most of our water quality legislation now revolves around the Water Framework Directive. BUT, we had water quality legislation in place well before this. One might even go back as far as the measures to resolve the 'Great Stink' in London and the much lauded efforts of Joseph Bazalgette to deal with the problem of London's sewage. We went from open sewers to enclosed sewers with major rivers acting as open sewers. These efforts proved to be only a partial solution because they simply passed the problem on to somebody else.
Then measures were taken to screen out solid waste (which was dumped out at sea: out of sight, out of mind). Of course, industry was still pumping out all sorts of toxins and the rivers and streams were still dying. Within my lifetime I can recall the publicity that the River Thames was effectively devoid of life. The legislation was tightened, industry was no longer able to use our water courses as cheap disposal for their waste products. Slowly, life returned to the rivers and people forgot about the past. But, that is the problem - when a problem has been resolved, it leaves the political agenda and subsequent generations see the legislation as an unnecessary burden on their ability to do what they want to do!
I wonder how many of the Out campaign would have naturally opposed measures to clean up the rivers? Would they have have been saying 'this is an intolerable burden on industry'? Overall political pressure at the time was such that initial measures were taken, and over time they have been tightened up as we better understand the impact of effluents of all sorts on HUMAN health. The most tangible proof of the improvements is that we have comparatively few (if any on a permanent basis) 'dead' water courses; and the Thames now boasts an impressive list of fish species. The really big gain, however was for people.
We need clean drinking water and it is not terribly nice to be suffocated if one ends up in waters so polluted that the atmosphere around it is devoid of oxygen (which was the case in the Thames in the 19th Century). There are also economic benefits to having life in rivers – maybe the Thames salmon fishery will never be a money-spinner, but it does support salmon and this is a point of pride. If I recall correctly the Tyne is now England’s premier salmon river but was once horrendously polluted!
If we turn to Europe, we must remember that parts of Europe were miles behind the UK in terms of water quality legislation. German and Dutch ports have frightful problems with the aftermath of the Soviet Bloc - vast quantities of heavy metals and other toxins still wash downstream even though the source has been stopped. Look at those problems and we are streets ahead (part by luck and part by early action). Vast sums are being spent on rectifying the problems and the costs to German and Dutch ports are horrendous. Fly over Rotterdam and you will see the Shlufter – a huge lagoon built to accommodate the most heavily contaminated sediments coming down the Rhine and depositing in the port. This is not a cheap option but it is the only practical one and preceded the Water Framework Directive. Others are just starting to tackle their problems.
So, the de-regulation camp cites our lack of competitiveness with China! The Chinese do not have the smothering effect of EU water quality legislation! True, they don't, but I would avoid eating rice from China as there are frightening reports of heavy metal contamination of rice. The Chinese may be out-competing us but they do so at a frightful human cost. Do we want to be the same? Are members of the Out campaign really serious about getting rid of the yoke of Europe if it means we end up lowering the bar on what is acceptable behaviour to make industry more competitive?
This is the first of many questions that the Out campaign must answer. I think we know what they will say: 'of course not, we will keep the same high standards'. So, if the EU legislation is to be revoked we will have to do something else. Is it time to re-invent the wheel? Well maybe! And at what cost?