Let us remember just what our seas were like before the UK joined what was then called the Common Market. There was dumping of sewage and toxic chemicals at sea, bathing water was polluted and the nations of Europe could not bring themselves to agree on a sustainable catch. As the UK chooses to leave the EU, our waters are cleaner, the majority of fish stocks are recovering, the Common Fisheries Policy is being assessed for an eco-certification and the future for the British fishing industry looked bright.
Whatever the failings of the EU, it is important to recognise what the EU with Britain in it has achieved. Those environmental improvements must be defended as Brexit gathers pace. The environment and fisheries were barely debated in the campaign – it can be argued they were never debated properly. So it we would all be poorer if the achievements of the past 43 years on pollution control, nature protection and fisheries management were thrown out in a great bonfire of the directives, as there is a real danger that they might be.
Let us be very clear that in some things we can never act alone. We shall continue to need a way of managing our common sea – and the quality of our air – and it is by no means clear that by getting out of the EU will mean we can manage these things better. It is highly questionable that we will be entitled, in the annual negotiations on shared stocks that must now take place, to any larger share of the catch, as some have argued. If Britain’s role model is Norway, then it will have to vastly strengthen its enforcement fleet and beef up the calibre of its institutions – particularly the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – if it is to achieve sustainable fishing, or farming, outside the EU. That is before the apparently inevitable complication of Scotland choosing to remain.
There is only the slimmest of silver linings, from an environmental or a marine perspective. Already the biggest environmental commitment of this government – to create “Blue Belts” around the 14 UK Overseas Territories – exists outside the EU and is effectively a cross-party commitment. One of the opportunities that will present itself now is for Britain and its overseas territories to have a bigger influence in running the waters they control, particularly in the Atlantic, where British territories have had to hide behind the representation of the EU. This could enable Britain and its offshore islands to take a far more independent and enlightened perspective in international treaty discussions about the high seas, about Antarctica and on the UN law of the sea. It will also be able, if it chooses, to take a dim view of unsustainable fishing operations in its own waters, for example by the French deep water fleet off the west of Scotland. But the historic rights of other nations to fish in our waters – unless they do harm – remains guaranteed by international, not just EU law.
The positives are few and the questions are many. But we owe it to the majority who voted for this historic separation from the EU to work it through. As a charity, the Blue Marine Foundation stands ready to make an independent Britain a success. But no one should be in any doubt that this will mean many British institutions need to raise their game and new sources of funding will have to be found for environmental protection, which right now is by no means guaranteed. Let us be clear: we are not persuaded that a gain in sovereignty means we should compromise our standards, our nature protection, the sustainability of our fisheries or our farming, or ultimately our quality of life.