EU MEMBERSHIP is a hot political topic with the general election looming but what has Europe done for our food industry?
With the general election looming large on th apolitical horizon battle lines are already being drawn over the key issues. One of the main areas of contention is certain to be the UK’s relationship with Europe – an issue that continues to polarise opinion.
Last month the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, and his Liberal Democrat counterpart, Nick Clegg, faced off in a series of live interviews in which they put forward forceful cases for, respectively, severing links with and staying part of the European Union.
While the two main political parties are likely to occupy a safer middle ground for fear of alienating a section of the electorate, the issue of whether EU membership is really in the UK’s interests is certain to remain a contested area of policy both here and across Europe in the months and years ahead.
So what has membership of the EU ever done for us? In the area of the environment and climate change, the answer appears to be: well, quite a lot actually. In 2012, the UK government launched a wide-reaching review of the EU’s competences – essentially an audit of what the EU does and how it affects the UK.
Each government department was tasked with consulting Parliament and its committees, business, the devolved administrations and civil society to consider how the EU’s competences work in practice and to report on its findings.
The review of environment and climate change was published in February and concluded that, taken as a whole, the EU competence has increased environmental standards in the UK and across the EU and this has led to improved performance in addressing key environmental issues.
Inevitably, there were specific issues on which contributors’ opinions were divided. The interests of industry and individuals often diverge and the report notes the inherent tension between laws designed to protect the environment and the cost to business of implementing those laws.
In particular, EU targets on waste and climate change were seen by some as burdensome and prescriptive while for others they provided greater certainty for investors and a level playing field across the single market.
Where food is concerned the undoubted benefits to exporters of common standards and free trade has to be reconciled with long-standing criticisms of EU food policy. Unsurprisingly, the Common Agricultural Policy came in for plenty of stick with many UK stakeholders considering it a cause of significant environmental damage, especially on account of the EU’s failure to allocate sufficient CAP funding to agri-environment schemes.
GM was another area that provoked contrary opinions. Some respondents, including the Scottish government, believed legislation on GMOs should allow for regional flexibility. Others, including several Green MEPs, believed they should be banned altogether.
The Agricultural Biotechnology Council, meanwhile, noted that the implementation of the current approvals system for GMOs, which it described as unequal and incomplete, is disadvantaging UK agriculture against countries such as Brazil and China where approval systems function more effectively.
With the current UK government showing signs of warming towards GM, this is an issue that is set to remain high on the environmental agenda for the foreseeable future.
Disagreements will always exist around the fringes where Europe is concerned and on some major issues it is clear that many organisations and individuals would favour a greater degree of subsidiarity for the UK, particularly on politically sensitive issues such as planning and flooding.
However the bottom line, according to the review, is that EU competence has increased environmental standards. Given that the UK has been a positive force in shaping European climate policy over the past 20 years, we should take pride as a nation that we are facing up to these truly global issues.
What the review of competences ultimately shows is that while UK stakeholders continue to be divided on the detail of our relationship with Europe, a broad consensus is that we’re better off together.