ENDS Europe, 2013-01-24
The UK will renegotiate the EU’s powers to dictate areas of environmental policy if the country’s Conservative Party wins the next election in 2015, prime minister David Cameron said on Wednesday.
“We’ve been very clear about what we want to see changed,” he told the lower house of parliament. “There are series of areas – social legislation, employment legislation, environmental legislation – where Europe has gone far too far.”
The prime minister made the comment hours after he gave a major speech on the UK’s relationship with the EU. This included the announcement that the Conservative Party would try to renegotiate the relationship after the 2015 election and then hold a referendum on membership in 2017.
The speech did not provide any other detail on what areas of environmental legislation the party feels need to be weakened. In fact, Mr Cameron was only specific on areas that need to be expanded. For example, he said the development of the single market, including in energy, is “incomplete” and “completing it needs to be our driving mission”. This would require the development of an EU supergrid.
However, some political insiders feel that there are several main areas the Conservative Party would ask to be changed:
Renewables: the Conservatives are happy for the EU to set a target to reduce carbon emissions to 2030, but they are opposed to a separate renewables target being set.
Habitats: Chancellor George Osborne has long complained about the “ridiculous cost” the Habitats and Birds Directives place on UK businesses, despite a review for the environment department (DEFRA) showing it is not the case.
Air quality: The UK has continually failed to meet pollution standards set under the Air Quality Directive. DEFRA wants to limit risks of infraction proceedings in future.
Other areas where it could push for reform include fisheries policy and the Common Agricultural Policy. It has even discussed complete withdrawal from the latter.
Furthermore, it could ask for changes to the Water Framework Directive, which places a high reporting burden on regulators to ascertain the quality of water bodies and requires improvements to rivers that some believe are not worth the money.
Guy Newey of thinktank Policy Exchange, which is very influential in the Conservative Party, said: “There is some excellent EU environmental policy, but the prime minister is right to look at what is working and what is not. The renewables target is an example of a clumsy measure that risks undermining an environmental goal by making it more expensive to cut carbon than it needs to be.”
Many regulations on protecting the environment do not need reform but simply need more consistent application across Europe, he added.
However, there is widespread confusion about whether the UK government will be able to renegotiate environmental legislation.
A senior official in a UK regulator who did not want to be named told ENDS that he could not see how the UK could negotiate a relaxation of the Habitats Directive. “If you said the UK will have weaker requirements than everyone else, the whole single market falls apart. Other countries wouldn’t be happy with that.”
David Baldock of the Institute for European Environmental Policy, agreed. “All the experience of the EU shows it is extremely reluctant to do a bilateral negotiation to change rules, especially if the only reason a country wants a rule changed is they don’t like it. Poland doesn’t like most EU environmental policy, but it has to apply it.”
Mr Baldock said it is also unlikely the UK would be able to negotiate an opt-out from certain directives, as the EU would then be forced to offer it to all member states.
Alistair Harper, senior policy adviser at thinktank the Green Alliance, said it seemed more likely that the UK would try to get guarantees that future legislation would not be introduced, such as a 2030 renewable energy target.
“You could imagine a negotiation to constrain future legislation, or even push back compliance dates in current legislation such as under the Water Framework Directive,” agreed Mr Baldock. “That would be in the world of political feasibility and there would be other countries who may support such changes.”
The government is undertaking a review of the EU’s competences and how they are shared with and affect the UK. A consultation on environmental and climate competences will be launched in May. Similar consultations on energy, agriculture and fishery competences should launch in October.