So the die has been cast. Now, regardless of Scotland’s position on the matter, the UK will stage a conscious uncoupling from the European Union after a relationship spanning more than four decades.
As in most partnerships there have been ups and downs and many changes over time. Back in the 1980s Britain was considered the dirty man of Europe as far as its environmental track record was concerned. So in this way things have changed for the better.
Scotland may be small but its wildlife and natural assets have global importance. Our shores are home to a third of all Europe’s breeding seabirds, currently around five million. Our seas are some of the planet’s most productive, supporting an estimated 40,000 species. We also have two thirds of the UK’s peatlands, which rank in the worldwide top ten for acreage and are a major sink for climate-warming carbon dioxide.
Though they remained neutral throughout the EU referendum campaign, the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and WWF-UK commissioned an independent study of the pros and cons to help inform voters before they headed to the polls. The resulting report, from the Institute for European Environmental Policy, concluded that EU membership has had a “significant positive impact” on the environment and Brexit would leave the country “in a more vulnerable and uncertain position”.
It found that being part of the EU had led to a substantial reduction in most industrial sources of water and air pollution, a sizeable lowering in emissions of greenhouse gases and huge growth in renewable power. European laws were also found to have driven significant improvements in recycling rates and seen a system set up to assess the safety of chemicals.
By parting company, the UK and Scottish governments will have the power to tinker with the rules that brought these improvements. We will lose the option of turning to the European courts if our governments are failing in their duty to protect the environment, and the birds and habitats directives, which have set standards for conservation, will no longer apply. Neither will regulations for water and air quality.
The outcome of the vote may have come as a shock to most of us north of the border. But democracy’s like that. Now we need clarity and direction as the divorce is negotiated.
Though it hasn’t always come good on the promises, the Scottish Government has a reputation for high ambition when it comes to green credentials. The UK government – not so much. Friends of the Earth Scotland have said Brexit poses “a huge challenge to decades of progress on improving the environment and tackling climate change”.
Meanwhile, Scottish Environment Link, a forum of voluntary organisations, has stressed the importance of continuing to “respect the EU laws to which we remain bound”. They have warned that failure to do so could result in court action and damage EU relationships.
We can’t change what happened last week, but the First Minister has pledged to do everything she can to ensure Scotland remains part of the EU - even if that means splitting from the rest of the UK. It’s too early to know how this is going to play out, but we should not sit here waiting to see what we get in the settlement.
If there is to be any chance of staying in, or rejoining as an independent country, the best way forward is to get our house in order and meet current rules – some of which we are in dire breach of. Hey, we could even aim higher.