If you take a quick look at the papers today, you’ll find the UK is on the proverbial naughty step. The European Commission has issued what it describes as a “final warning” for continued breaches of EU limits on air pollution.
The warning is also not an idle one. The Commission has threatened action over the breaches, which could include legal action and the imposition of fines. Sixteen areas of the UK are persistently breaching air pollution limits. Unsurprisingly, these are in the main major population centres including London, Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham.
Inevitably, however, as soon as you mention the EU Commission, the issue of Brexit raises its head. After all, any legal action taken by the Commission would take years – possibly longer than it takes the UK to leave the EU. But the Commission is quite right in stating that, until such time as the UK leaves the bloc, it’s required to meet obligations such as meeting air pollution limits.
It would be easy for this issue to be drawn into the Brexit debate, or the threat of Commission fines to be seized upon by Leave supporters as a demonstration of EU meddling and undermining UK sovereignty. Both would be dangerous.
It’s worth noting that the UK isn’t the only country to be given a tongue lashing by the Commission over its air quality. The others are Germany, France, Italy and Spain. So forget any idea this is some sort of punitive measure against Britain alone, or some sort of punishment for voting to leave.
The second and most important point is that the UK has well-documented air quality issues. Just last week, The Times praised London Mayor Sadiq Khan for campaigning on pollution levels in the capital. And when health experts have been publicly warning Londoners on the dangers of smog and pollutants when simply out and about, something’s clearly gone wrong.
The Commission’s warning should be taken at face value – as a demonstration that urgent action is needed to protect the population, particularly in metropolitan areas. And, yes, we won’t be subject to these limits once we leave the EU. But equally we shouldn’t dismiss them within the context of Brexit.