EU: the case to remain

Dr Jane Beasley, Director of consultancy Beasley Associates, argues that the waste and resources industry would fare better in the long run if we remain in the EU.

EU: the case to remainWould the UK waste management sector look any different in six months, a year or even three years’ time if we came out of the EU?

On some levels I would argue that there would be no obvious or immediate difference. Policy and legislation (which implemented EU directives) would not be deconstructed over night; the environment doesn’t feature strongly within most mainstream arguments being made for Brexit, so it’s unlikely it would be a centre stage issue within the short to medium term.

However, what we do potentially face is the slow decaying of any progressive resource-focused policies in the absence of strong leadership and vision to drive it forward and the undermining of current policy that may be seen by some in central government to be placing an ‘economic burden’ on our private sector.

In addition, the pressure to meet some of the more challenging EU targets would be removed, as would the route to challenge our actions outside of our borders.

I suspect that over time we would see a cherry picking and diluting of environmental legislation and policy, with a silo focus on ‘our’ immediate needs rather than broader environmental considerations. To ensure this didn’t happen we would urgently need a strong evidence-based waste and resource strategy for the UK, something that has been sorely absent for some time (and which the devolved administrations have made efforts to address, leaving Westminster far behind). Without this strategic approach and in the absence of the driving force of progressive policy from Europe, this could potentially mean that we miss out on opportunities arising from the development of new markets and new economic models associated with the circular economy.

To consider the impact of a ‘Brexit’, we need to go back in time a little and consider how effective the UK was at setting environmental policy before we joined the union. It’s fair to say that whilst we had made steps in implementing environmental legislation, particularly focused on controlling rather than preventing pollution, significant issues remained with air and water quality and a huge over reliance on landfills. Over time we have implemented a raft of EU directives that have in the main been very successful in cleaning up our environment, managing our resources better and allowing us to move away from our unattractive label as the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’.

I strongly believe that our existing waste policy has been driven by EU legislation and has enabled our sector to evolve into a multi-million pound industry and a significant employer. We have been part of the discussions that have developed and shaped directives and regulations and together we have tackled issues that do not recognise geographical boundaries. We have worked together towards the harmonisation of standards, and ensured comprehensive controls are in place to protect human life and the environment. We have done this as part of the EU.

Staying in the EU provides the opportunity to continue to be part of the forward thinking discussions in the drive towards achieving a more circular economy and the economic benefits that can be realised through infrastructure development and job creation linked to higher recycling targets and the reuse sector. Whilst it could be argued that we could still achieve these acting alone, there is no evidence either historically or in the present day that the government has the drive or the interest to do this and we risk being left behind.

One of the oft quoted arguments in the case for Brexit is that the UK could become like Norway, being part of the European Economic Area, adhering to relevant policies as required, but essentially having the freedom to develop our own environmental legislation to meet our needs. However, one fundamental difference is that Norway has long established green credentials; the environment is a key consideration within all political strategies, regardless of the party. The same cannot be said here and the limited focus being placed on environmental issues by the mainstream parties is testament to this.

Finally, one of the statements that our sector has used in response to poor or inadequate policymaking is that we do not operate well under uncertainty. Exiting the EU brings uncertainty in bucket loads, and I have no confidence that the drive and challenge that comes from the EU would be replaced anytime soon within the UK or under any other partnership arrangement.

An alternative view from Neil Grundon, Deputy Chairman of Grundon Waste Management, arguing that the environment is a global, not a European issue, can be found here