Will our new UK Members of the EU Parliament look after bugs?

Friday 30th May 2014

The EU makes important decisions that affect bugs across Europe and beyond, will the new, rather different, crop of UK MEPs be good at promoting the interests of bugs?

This week, for the first time since 1929 a new party came first in a national election.  The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won 24 of the seats representing the UK in the European Parliament, more than Labour with 20 and the Conservatives with 19.  The fourth party was the Greens with three seats, an increase of one, the Scottish Nationalist Party maintained two seats and then five parties came away with one seat each Liberal Democrats (down from 11), Sinn Féin, Plaid Cymru, Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party.  The British Nationalist Party lost both their seats.

What might this shift in power mean for UK wildlife?

In the last two decades most of the important environmental initiatives that have helped wildlife have been forged in Europe, including the Habitats Directive, Water Framework Directive, Air Quality Directive, Common Fisheries Policy, Agri-environment payments and Invasive Species Regulation.

There was a distinctly anti Europe trend in the election, and the winning party want the UK to leave the European Union.  If this happened the progress towards a healthy environment would be jeopardised and we could be back to a 1980s level of environmental protection.  In practice simply having UKIP MEPs in itself won’t result in the UK leaving Europe; that decision rests with the UK Government, or with the people if a referendum is offered with an out option.  UKIP MEPs will, like all MEPs, have to bring their influence to bear through their representation on Parliamentary Committees and voting power in the Parliament.

What can we deduce from the past work of UKIP’s 13 MEPs in the last parliament?

First thing to note is that UKIP MEPs tend not to vote, indeed the five UK MEPs with the worst record for participation in votes were all UKIP MEPs, with between 55% and 23% voting records, compared with an average of 85% voting attendance for UK MEPs .  Not all UKIP MEPs are feeble voters however, Stuart Agnew was well above the average with a score of 92%.

So if the attendance of the new batch of UKIP MEPs reflect the last crop then the UK is likely to have less influence over new EU legislation.

As well as voting in the Parliament MEPs also get to sit on powerful committees that oversee important sectors and issues and interact with the European Commission on the implementation of legislation and policy.  For bugs the three most significant of these committees are Agriculture, Environment and Public Health, and Fisheries.

UKIP has been represented on both the Agriculture and the Environment and Public Health Committees by 2 MEPs Stuart Agnew and John Bufton, and on the Fisheries Committee by Nigel Farage and Stuart Agnew.

While Nigel Farage has been criticised for not attending many Fisheries Committee meetings (just one of 42 between February 2010 and January 2013), he points out that when not attending UKIP always sent a substitute and indeed fisheries is one of the few areas relevant to wildlife where UKIP appear to have a detailed set of policies.

UKIP Fisheries Policy

UKIPs fisheries policies focus in the first place on extracting the UK from the Common Fisheries Policy and establishing our rights over fish in a 200 mile exclusive zone around the UK.  It is always difficult to predict the effect of such an action, while in theory it may enable the UK to put in place stronger protection measures for fish conservation, many fish roam far and wide in the North Sea and hence ensuring that shared populations are conserved will no doubt be much harder.

However, there are three UKIP fisheries policies that could help wildlife.

  • Firstly to “forbid discards”, this is an issue very relevant to Scampi a lobster like crustacean that is often caught but thrown back into the sea, an experience that around 50% do not survive, the EU has made progress on this issue in the last year and from 2015 the new ‘landing obligation’ will dramatically cut the number of animals thrown back into the sea.
  • Secondly to “establish a system of moveable ‘No Take Zones’ allowing fish to spawn and assisting recovery in overfished areas” this is certainly a good idea, but making them moveable will increase the disruption to fisheries and fail to maximise their benefit to restoring marine ecosystems.
  • Thirdly, to “ban all forms of industrial fishing and pair trawling for bass. Industrial trawlers have helped cause a catastrophic decline in key fish species” – which sounds like a policy that would greatly benefit Bass at least.

UKIP Energy and Climate Change Policy

UKIP have produced an Energy and Climate Change policy document .   In a nutshell they are climate sceptics, stopping short of denying the existence of man-made climate change but including statements such as “More and more scientists are challenging the conventional wisdom on Global Warming” and “We do not however regard CO2 as a pollutant.”  As a result UKIP are strongly opposed to renewable energy (especially wind power) and strongly in favour of fracking and coal.

Clearly UKIP’s energy policy deserves a big thumbs down from the bugs, many of which are struggling to deal with current flooding and temperature changes and would fail to cope in our fragmented landscapes if the several degrees centigrade increases predicted by scientists on our current trajectory of CO2 production are realised.

UKIP Agriculture Policy

There is also a UKIP agriculture policy .  This states that there would be a single farm payment – one assumes from the UK coffers rather than EU funds – that would have no modulation or cross-compliance requirements, but that require that all land is “farmed to ELS standard to qualify”.  ELS or Entry Level Scheme is the basic level of wildlife management on farms, its record of producing real benefit is ambiguous and hence it is due to be scrapped in the UK from 2015.

UKIP would also stop the “requirement for re-registration of pesticides” – once approved a pesticide could not be withdrawn.  Given the long history of pesticides being found to be damaging the environment and then withdrawn this is definitely not a bug friendly policy.

Other UKIP Environmental Policies

Outside fisheries, agriculture and energy it is harder to pin down actual UKIP policies that would impact on bugs.

They have a major policy heading of “Protect Our Borders” but unfortunately this does not appear to relate to excluding pot plants from the UK.

The 2010 UKIP manifesto stated that “UKIP believes all animals that share our planet deserve to be treated compassionately by humans and should be spared unnecessary suffering.” But confusingly the same document also commits to local referenda that could reverse the fox-hunting ban.

The UKIP 2014 local elections manifesto contains a number of interesting statements about green spaces:-

“Green spaces should be protected”

“The government is now riding rough-shod over local people’s wishes with mass house building that has become a “Developers’ Charter”

They promise to “Protect our green spaces by directing new housing and business developments to brown-field sites.”   Thereby turning what might have been a promising stance into the classic “greenfield = good” and “brownfield=bad” misconception.  As readers of this blog will no doubt be aware many quarries, spoil heaps and other brownfield sites can be of top quality for wildlife conservation.

UKIP also promise to “Scrap HS2” – which would be a relief for most wildlife charities as it is currently a ‘join the wildlife reserve dots’ scheme that is likely to significantly damage wildlife.

Added to the UKIP scrap heap will go “all green taxes” – which would one assumes include the Landfill Community Fund that currently funds masses of biodiversity projects across Britain.

Environmental Hustings Event

On Tuesday 29 April, The Wildlife Trusts, WWF and RSPB jointly organised a UK hustings event for the 2014 European Elections chaired by Camilla Cavendish, Associate Editor of The Sunday Times.

The audience were able to quiz the following panel of MEPs:

• Stuart Agnew MEP, UKIP

• Chris Davies MEP, Liberal Democrat

• Julia Girling MEP, Conservative

• Linda McAvan MEP, Labour

• Keith Taylor MEP, Green

Each candidate was given a few minutes to set out their stall.  Four candidates were sensible and strategically focussed but it was very noticeable, and commented on by several questioners, that they were overly focussed on climate change and power generation issues.  In fact the only candidate who addressed the range of issues the audience was concerned about was the UKIP MEP Stuart Agnew.  Stuart talked about pollinator declines, invasive species and farmland bird declines – none of the other candidates even mentioned these issues in their own summaries.  Even when prompted their answers were somewhat superficial and anodyne – whereas Stuart was passionate and full of ‘common sense’ solutions – farmland bird declines caused by birds of prey – not farmers as claimed by RSPB; GM crops offer a sensible solution to a wide range of problems; grey squirrels need to be eradicated; climate change not convincing, CO2 keeps the land green and wind farms take energy or are paid to stop producing energy, kill birds, and smother the land; neonicotinoids not a problem, need to farm small bits of land specifically for bees.  None of Stuart’s solutions stand up to detailed analysis – neonics don’t need to kill bees to cause their extinction, Asian bees do not have ‘special legs’ to remove varroa mites, climate change is not a natural cycle caused by the sun warming the ocean and hence more CO2 leaving the sea and entering the atmosphere –  BUT if you don’t know the facts and are sceptical about politicians and scientists he talked about the issues the audience cared about and put forward detailed and passionate arguments and solutions that sounded plausible.

What future for UK Representation on Environmental Issues on the EU Parliament?

As with any set of party policies there is good and bad in UKIP’s manifestos and in many cases the lack of detail makes an accurate prediction of impact on wildlife fraught.  Generally the UKIP policies seem to have a very poor base in evidence – policies people want to believe in, rather than policies that will actually solve problems.

It would be wrong simply to focus on UKIP, of the three traditional big parties the Liberal Democrats have probably been the most environmentally friendly in their EU activities.  So the loss of so many Liberal Democrat MEPs is not a positive for bugs, Chris Davies will be particularly missed having been a leading figure on the Environment Committee and a friend of pollinators .

If there is a silver lining it is that the UK is now sending six MEPs to the Parliament who will be part of the Greens/European Free Alliance.  The Green Party had a particularly good election and gained an MEP, while the single Plaid Cymru and two Scottish National Party MEPs may not be ‘Green Parties’ as such, there is hope that as part of the Green Coalition they will be able to exert some balancing influence that will enable the EU to continue to take a positive role in improving the environment for bugs and people.