The recent severe flooding in parts of the UK has caused serious distress to many people.
These floods occurred as a result of a period of record rainfall in the regions most severely affected.
EU environmental protection policies help prevent and deal with flooding. The EU also leads the world in tackling climate change, which most experts see as a factor in extreme weather events.
The Common Agricultural Policy encourages farmers to take “greening” measures that can contribute to mitigating flooding.
EU regional and research programmes invest substantially in flood prevention, protection and management.
Yet some media have seemed unwilling to recognise that exceptionally heavy rain – rather than “Brussels bureaucrats” – causes more water to flow into rivers than can be contained there.
In addition, it is always worth reiterating that EU legislation is decided by the Member States, including the UK, and by the directly-elected European Parliament, who can reject or amend proposals by the Commission. So EU laws are made IN Brussels, but not “BY” Brussels.
The EU’s Water Framework Directive has been the piece of EU legislation most criticised by certain media, on the basis that it “bans dredging”.
But that is incorrect – the Directive does not ban dredging.
Whether to dredge is a decision for Member States based on the local situation. The UK Environment Agency was widely reported as saying – in one case in the very same Daily Mail article alleging that the practice was “banned by Brussels” – that it had spent £21m on dredging over the last two years.
There have also been suggestions that the Waste Framework Directive forbids dredged sediment being spread elsewhere. Again, this is not true, unless the sediment is hazardous, for example if it contains heavy metals or other toxic substances. If so, it obviously needs to treated as what it is – hazardous waste. Otherwise, land and rivers would be poisoned, wildlife would die and human health could be endangered.
The expert consensus is that dredging is sometimes an effective measure. But sometimes it can make flooding and/or the damage it does worse. This depends on a whole series of circumstances, both natural and linked to the built environment.
Nature and wildlife protection
The EU Birds and Habitats Directives and other environmental and wildlife protection legislation allow various exceptions where there are threats to human life, public safety or property, so these do not hinder flood prevention either.
The Common Agricultural Policy
All Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments are conditional on land being kept in “Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition”. The precise definition of that is to a large extent decided at national or regional level – for example on minimum soil cover for maize production, which some suggest can be a factor in whether water is retained in fields.
The presence of trees and other vegetation may in some cases help water retention and reduce the speed of flows into rivers.
However, it is unlikely, in the areas recently most affected by floods, that vegetation or the lack of it was a salient issue. Professor Alan Jenkins, deputy director of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme: “there is no compelling scientific evidence that link can be made…..those kind of measures will help with smaller rainfall events but with these huge rainfall events one has to look more towards concrete infrastructure…..flood defences.”
In any case, under the “greening” measures within the reformed CAP, the creation and protection of features such as hedges or buffer strips are encouraged and supported. Trees and other vegetation can also count as eligible land on which CAP payments to farmers are calculated. So CAP rules do NOT discourage landowners from leaving or planting vegetation.
Moreover, agri-environmental funding schemes under the EU’s Rural Development Programmes actively encourage measures such as tree-planting, though the final shape of those schemes at national level is a matter for Member States.
Anti-flooding measures and funding
Not only does EU action not make flooding worse, it is an important element in preventing and managing floods. In this as in many other areas, the EU facilitates coherent policy across borders, the spreading of best practice and cooperation between the best scientists and experts.
Under the Floods Directive, Member States agreed to assess if all water courses and coast lines are at risk from flooding, to map risks to people and property in relevant areas and to take steps to reduce flood risk – including through cooperation between national authorities where rivers cross borders. The Directive also reinforces the public’s rights to information and consultation
Considerable EU regional funding is available for flood defence and prevention. UK regions are due to receive nearly EUR 2bn during the 2014-2020 financial period for “climate change adaptation and risk prevention“. One of the key risks is flooding, though the detailed allocation of this funding is a matter for the UK. A recent example of the use of EU funding for flood defence is the Alkborough Flats managed realignment scheme in Lincolnshire, which received over £2m in EU regional and environment funding
Mitigating the effects of climate change and extreme weather, including those caused by flooding, is also a key objective of the EU’s EUR 80bn Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, which brings together Europe’s best brains and most innovative companies. Here are some examples among many of flood-related projects where UK organisations are in the lead.
In cases where severe flooding does occur and the damage exceeds 0.6% of Gross National Income (which means about €3bn in the UK case) or 1.5% of regional GDP, Member States can apply for financial support to the EU Solidarity Fund.
Separately, the EU Rural Development Fund has been mobilised in December 2015 to help provide emergency support to the worst affected farmers. With a budget of around €2m (all from EU funds), this measure will provide support to around 100 farm businesses in Cumbria, Northumberland, Lancashire & Yorkshire.
A number of newspapers have tried to claim that “Brussels” is in some way responsible for the severity of the recent flooding in the UK.
For example, the Daily Mail claimed that Britain’s flooding crisis had been ‘made worse by the EU’
The Sun ran an op-ed claiming that those blaming climate change for the floods were “talking nonsense” and fulminated in an editorial that “the Government must take the European Water Framework Directive . . .and tell Brussels to shove it where the sun doesn’t shine.”
The Daily Express recycled all this.
The Mail on Sunday ran an op-ed which dismissed the idea that dredging could be a panacea but instead blamed the CAP.
There were several others……