THE BLOG

Air Pollution and the Paradox of Brexit

14/07/2016 13:00

After a protracted, two-year long campaign and months of negotiations with Member States in the Council of the EU, MEPs have finally voted through new measures to tackle air pollution.

The new rules agreed this week will cut the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution in half by 2030, forcing EU governments to limit harmful emissions across all responsible sectors, including agriculture, first the first time.

The deal fell short of what I wanted, but with time running out and up against the intransigence of EU governments, this was the best deal we could get before the whole thing was kicked into the long grass.

There is a time for principled opposition; but when 50,000 British lives are lost prematurely every year because of air pollution the stakes were simply too high for this report to fail.

But the culmination of this report leaves a bitter taste, because the British government played the villain-in-chief, using its considerable weight in the Council to lead a coalition of the unwilling, successfully lobbying other Member States to significantly watering down the overall ambition level of air pollution targets.

In the wake of the referendum result just three weeks ago, the irony of this state of affairs should be lost on no-one.

For decades the British public have been told our sovereignty has been ceded to the European Union; that a undemocratic Brussels based bureaucracy makes the rules; that we have no say, that we've lost control.

Sitting across the negotiating table over the last couple of months I can categorically tell you this is utter nonsense.

Here's the reality: As the second biggest country in the European Union - and soon to be the largest - we don't give our sovereignty away to Europe, we extend it, exert it, and strengthen it. We use our clout, for good or for bad, to influence our neighbours and advance our own national interests. And we're bloody good at it.

But if we opt back into the single market, a course of action that must be taken to avoid the very worst economic excesses of Brexit, we could find ourselves in the awkward position of being subject to the current rules, but fail to have any real say over how these or new ones will look.

This is the paradox of last month's referendum result. We haven't regained control, we've given it away.

Outside the EU we won't make the rules, we'll take them. With no seat on the Council, no MEPs in the Parliament, and no Commissioner in the Commission, who will stand up for Britain when we want something done?

Of course, we could lobby our European neighbours into coming round to our point of view, but it seems naive at best to assume a German Chancellor, French MEPs, or a Dutch Commissioner would stand up for British interests to the detriment of their own.

Why would they fight tooth and nail to protect London's financial sector when they could take some of the business for themselves? Why would they back British fishermen when new rules could benefit their own coastal communities?

And why, when Britain decides it wants to water down ambition levels on air pollution - or who knows, even raise it -should anyone listen?

This week's vote leaves a bitter taste because the British government has successfully undermined air pollution laws that could have saved thousands of extra lives, only to forfeit its right to ever change them again by voting to leave.

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