As a Conservative MEP, Julie Girling has been swamped by debates with her colleagues in the European Parliament recently about the UK’s referendum on EU membership.
Back in England, a lot of her time has been taken up by giving speeches on the country’s potential exit, with two talks planned later on the day of her interview with MRW.
“Brexit is talked about a lot in Parliament at the moment,” she said. “It’s stressful and beginning to get me down a bit, to be perfectly honest.”
Since joining the European Parliament in 2009, Girling said she had enjoyed its move from being largely an advisory body to one with the authority to make “big changes” to EU legislation after the Lisbon Treaty came into effect in 2010. Now a member of the Parliament’s environment, public health and food safety committee, Girling is firmly in favour of the UK’s continued EU membership, with environmental issues forming a part of her decision.
“I can give you loads of examples where European legislation has gone beyond where a UK Government was going to go. Some people may not like that idea but, if you’re thinking just about the environment, then it is certainly the case. For example, I’m currently rapporteuring on air quality, and the UK is pushing for a level below that of Europe.”
Previously Gloucestershire County Council’s cabinet member for the environment, Girling rejected the suggestion from some in the industry that an EU exit would be a threat to UK environmental policy, but said that membership “performs a useful function of upping ambitions”.
Many in the waste sector have expressed concern that the UK Government has not done enough to show environmental legislative leadership of its own, and they fear the country could be left in a “policy vacuum” without theEU’s influence. Girling agreed: “Parliament would have to step up to the plate and do a bit more than they do now.”
Some industry figures have been less complimentary about the EU’s influence on UK policy, such as waste boss Neil Grundon, who suggested that it had slowed environmental progress and failed to offer any business opportunities to UK companies.
Girling said she had seen Grundon’s comments and agreed that the British market was economically more liberal than most in Europe, across all sectors. But she added that strict EU legislation should protect UK firms from being blocked from continental contracts: “There is no legal reason why a UK company like Grundon couldn’t be making inroads in France in the same way that Suez and Veolia are making inroads across the UK.”
But Girling suggested the barrier to UK firms expanding into European markets was cultural rather than legislative, with continental firms being more comfortable doing business in the UK than vice versa.
“Although we have been a fully paid-up member of the EU for a long time, we have still semi-detached ourselves a lot of the time. Many people think of Europe as something that is ‘done to us’, something we have to suffer as opposed to an opportunity.
“If we gain nothing else from this referendum, if we vote to stay in, I hope people will take the view that they are going to make the most of the opportunity because maybe British companies have not been able to do that.”
Defra has come in for some criticism in recent months for an alleged lack of leadership on environmental policy. Girling said there was increasing uncertainty over all future European legislation as the vote referendum approaches, with the CE package not due to come into force for at least two years. But she but disagreed that Defra was sitting on its hands: “No – it seems pretty engaged to me.”
The UK needed to engage with the proposals regardless of the result, she said, because it would still be part of the European market if we voted to leave.
“Our Government has to start thinking about how recyclers in the UK are going to interface with it because what happens with the circular economy (CE) package in France, Germany, Italy and the rest is going to affect us [even if the UK leaves the EU].”
Unlike colleagues at Westminster, Girling does not face party whips about which way to vote on all issues, including those in the package.
“Defra will set out exactly what the UK’s position is on these issues. I may not necessarily agree and I may not necessarily vote that way, so we’re not whipped in that sense. But I always have a clear view of what the UK Government position is so that I can make sure that, if I disagree, I know why.” The initial CE proposals were published by the European Commission in December. Now Simona Bonafe, the Italian MEP appointed the package’s rapporteur, is expected to present an amended report soon to the committee Girling sits on. This will then be discussed and voted on by the committee, after which it will become the position of the European Parliament.
Girling agreed with the general aims of the package, but raised a specific issue of concern to the waste industry. Market incentives for secondary raw materials have been sought by domestic associations such as the ESA and CIWM as well as European group FEAD before and after the Commission published its proposals.
According to Girling, measures to support recycling businesses are essential for the CE package to work but these are currently lacking. She alluded to a drop in the price of oil in recent years making it “impossible” for some plastics recyclers to stay in business, and said the proposals must address the economic value of recyclates.
“If we are serious about wanting to increase recycling, we have to create the conditions by insisting on perhaps percentages [of recycled material] in new products or providing some other kind of financial support in the recycling market when these commodity fluctuations take place,” she said. “It is relatively easy to make the regulation that says certain amounts of products have to be recycled. But metal is different to paper, which is different to plastic and, even within those there are subcategories, so the regulation would have to be quite sophisticated.
“It would also have to be flexiblebecause you could perhaps see an unintended consequence being a shortage of recyclables. If that were to happen, it would make life very difficult for manufacturers, so we have to find some kind of mechanism that would even out those things.”
She emphasises the importance of common measures being introduced across the EU to ensure it is a proper single market for waste. One of the headline policies from the CE proposals is a mandatory 65% recycling target for municipal waste by 2030, with a 75% goal for packaging. For the eight member states with the lowest current recycling rates, a five-year extension is allowed for them to reach the targets.
Girling accepted that it was more difficult for those countries to reach the target because they lack the infrastructure that better performing countries such as the UK and Germany have. But she thinks an extension is unfair, saying instead that such countries should be tracked through the period to 2030 to ensure they are offered support to reach the same level as others.
The UK’s initial sharp progress on recycling during the past 20 years shows it was possible for low-performing countries to catch up, she said.
“With the imposition, for example, of landfill tax, we turned things round veryquickly. A lot of public effort went into it. The public mostly have embraced recycling, but if they see that other member states are not having to make the same effort, I think that might de-motivate British consumers from recycling.”
Resource minister Rory Stewart has been working with WRAP to develop a standardised approach to household collections in an effort to improve this, but it would be understandable if he were to have concerns about the 65% target for 2030.
Discussing the package in Brussels recently, Stewart called for more cost-benefit analysis within the CE package. Girling said such analysis would be useful but warned against expecting any computer-generated predictions to be perfectly accurate: “One thing you can be sure of with a computer model is that won’t happen. Who would have predicted that the price of oil could crumble [in the way it has]?”
Girling is keen to encourage people working in the recycling industry to contact her, not just those from her designated South West and Gibraltar patch: “People don’t need to hire expensive consultants or lobby firms – they just need to call and we’ll make as much effort as we can to meet them.”
House Of Commons Briefing Paper
- The key piece of European waste legislation is the Waste Framework Directive (WFD) 2008 which includes key definitions, sets a hierarchy for how waste should be managed, introduces the ‘polluter pays principle’, ‘extended producer responsibility’ and includes targets for recycling.
- There is a suite of EU legislation which supplements the WFD, including Directives on packaging and packaging waste; landfill; end-of-life vehicles; waste batteries; and waste electrical and electronic equipment. This area has also been the subject of a great deal of case law, in European and domestic courts.
- The European Commission adopted a circular economy (CE) package in December 2015 to stimulate and harmonise the transition towards a CE across European member states. The Commission said the measures could bring net savings of e600bn or 8% of annual turnover for businesses in the EU, and would reduce total annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2-4%. It includes a number of legislative waste proposals, an action plan and funding support at European and national levels. These proposals need to be agreed at EU level and implemented at a UK level before they have an effect.
This is taken from a House of Commons library briefing paper: Exiting the EU: impacts in key UK policy areas