Paul's latest Journal column

08 June 2016

By Jove it was perishing!  Five swims in one day at Bamburgh, Whitley Bay, Sunderland, Seaton Carew and Saltburn.

The North Sea had not warmed up much by May but it was all in a good cause as my cold swims were to draw attention to the improved quality of UK bathing water since we joined the EU.  Back in 1995, when water quality was the responsibility of the UK government, 60% of our bathing beaches failed the clean water test.  Now, as a result of having to comply with EU directives, only 3% of our bathing beaches fail the test.

Much of the referendum debate has ranged over economic territory so it was good to see the Prime Minister visiting Rainham Marshes, an RSPB sanctuary, to draw attention to some of the environmental issues at stake. 

As David Cameron put it, “EU membership underpins many crucial environmental protections in the UK, while amplifying our voice in the world on vital issues like cutting global emissions.  I will use our seat at the table to ensure the natural environment, biodiversity and a living, working countryside are at the heart of agricultural policy through continued reform of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), and that the birds and habitats directives are maintained and better implemented, both in the UK and across Europe, to ensure the diversity of our countryside and wildlife.”

It will be interesting to see how the RSPB’s 600,000 members respond to their charity calling for a remain vote.  The case is compelling as Mike Clark, Chief Executive of the RSPB, pointed out, “The UK’s membership of the EU has benefited nature and the environment in ways that would be hard to replicate if we left.  We want a secure future for our most precious wildlife and the places they call home.  In weighing up the current evidence, the uncertainties and the balance of risks, we have concluded that the safer option for nature is for the UK to remain a part of the European Union.”

The RSPB were backed in their stance by WWF whose Director, David Nussbaum, I know from my time with Christian Aid when we worked together on climate change. 

Climate change is of course the biggest threat we all face in the long run and it was while attending the climate change talks in Paris at the end of last year, as part of the EU Parliament’s delegation, that I saw first hand how by working as a 28 nation team the EU was able to help deliver a more ambitious deal.  Without the UK the EU position would have been noticeably weaker, and on our own the UK would have been a bit player.

I’m not starry-eyed about the EU.  The practice of going once a month to Strasbourg is financially wasteful and environmentally damaging but it is enshrined in one of the treaties and until the French government relinquish their insistence we are legally bound to traipse all the way there, as we have done this week.  But we have unacceptable aspects to our democracy, such as the 800+ unelected, unaccountable members of the House of Lords.  No one suggests we should therefore abolish Parliament, anymore than we should leave the EU because we have to travel to Strasbourg once a month.

I was also pleased to see the PM refer to the CAP when talking about the environment last week.  As member of the Agriculture Committee of the EU Parliament I’m aware we are heading towards a mid-term review of the Policy that still consumes the single largest chunk of the EU budget. 

Farming practices are one of the biggest causes of climate change - eg fertiliser manufacture uses a lot of heat, therefore it creates a lot of emissions - but agriculture has huge potential to help tackle climate change - eg soils hold carbon and healthier soils, rich in matter, hold much more carbon.

So as we cast our referendum votes we should bear in mind that the economy is an entirely owned subsidiary of the environment and that the EU’s potential to deliver a cleaner, safer environment is one of the top reasons for voting to Remain.

Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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