During the 2014 European Elections, I tried to persuade voters in the South East that elections to the European Parliament were important because the Parliament played a major role in framing legislation that impacted every aspect of our lives: from the safety of the food that we eat to the quality of water that we drink, from the medicines that we take to the number of hours we may work.
The Water Framework Directive (Directive 2000/60/EC) and the Floods Directive (Directive 2007/60/EC) set out the framework for the management of our rivers and our preparedness for flooding. If Brussels claims competence and legislates in an area such as environmental management and flooding, it must expect to be held to account for the consequences of its policies.
The Water Framework Directive in particular has been criticised for prioritising the ‘ecological status’ of our rivers over water management, in particular over dredging. In a recent article, Philip Walling pinned the blame for flooding on the Environment Agency’s failure to dredge waterways as a result of the Water Framework Directive.
On the other hand, George Mombiot, in a Guardian article a couple of years ago, claimed that dredging would, if anything, make flooding worse.
I don’t know which is right, but all this does say something to me about the way that we are governed.
The case of Britain is anomalous: as an island, the costs and benefits of policy in this area accrue to no one but ourselves. Whether or not the Derwant is dredged is of no concern to the people of, for example, Malta or Finland.
In mainland Europe the quality of water as a river flows through one county is clearly of concern to the citizens of a country downstream. The Elbe and its tributaries run through The Czech Republic, Germany, Poland and Austria. The Rhine rises in Switzerland and flows through France, Germany and the Netherlands before reaching the North Sea. . Is this not exactly the sort of trans-national issue that the EU should be dealing with? Of course environmental policy cannot stop at national borders.
But the EU goes beyond this, setting a uniform policy for its 28 member states. The directives that govern the management of the Elbe are the same as those governing the Ebro or the Po, the Seine or the Thames.
The EU’s treaties commit it to the principle of subsidiarity. Decisions should be taken as closely as possible to those affected by them. Policy for the management of the Elbe requires coordination by just four states, not 28; management of the Derwent, by just the UK. Those who bear the costs of these policies should reap the benefits, and their national and local politicians should be held responsible.