Lord Bourne, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and the Wales Office, recently gave an open lecture about the effect of the EU Referendum on Highfield Campus. I sat down with him afterwards to discuss his support for remaining as part of the Union and the effect a vote to leave could have on the fight against climate change as well as Britain’s energy supply.
Lord Bourne makes no secret of the fact he is clearly in favour of remaining in Europe. Asked about the possible risks of a ‘Brexit’, he says that Britain as a country has always had a historical attachment to Europe and that in his view turning our back on Europe would be a mistake of historical proportions that could lead to us becoming an ‘inward looking country’.
In economic terms, he also highlighted the risks he believed that a ‘Brexit’ could pose to the UK’s economic prosperity as a trading nation dependent on the sale of goods and services. He stated his belief that leaving the EU would either lead to the UK completely turning its back on the single market which is currently our biggest trading partner or that the UK could become a ‘rule-taker’ and rather than a ‘rule-maker’ and be forced to accept the EU’s trading rules without having a say in their formation.
When asked about the impact leaving the EU could have on Britain’s further education establishments, and in particular the University of Southampton, he warned of the risks that leaving the EU could have in terms of availability of research funding. He explained that if Britain left the EU there was no ‘Plan B’ for the academic community and it was simply mean that the benefits and funding currently available would be rescinded. He pointed out Southampton’s ‘outstanding reputation’ in terms of research and that the University received the 8th largest contribution from the Brussels in terms of research funding and questioned the need to plan for the eventuality of leaving the EU if the system in place was working for us. He acknowledged, however, that there may be points of contention that Britain wanted to refine within the EU but maintained that the best way to do this was to be ‘part of the club’ rather than ‘standing on the sidelines’.
Regarding the EU’s effect on his own ministerial portfolio, Lord Bourne highlights the many respects in which the UK has been leading the EU’s fight against climate change. He cites the example of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, of which a large part is based on policies originally developed in Britain focusing on setting a fixed price for Carbon. He also highlighted the progress made at the recent Climate Change Conference in Paris, where the EU delegation was led by the United Kingdom and chaired by Peter Betts (a British Civil Servant), meaning that the UK held a key role in deciding what was being tabled and discussed.
I then asked about the level of influence that the EU was able to exert over the world’s biggest polluters, many of which are not member states of the EU. Lord Bourne responded by saying that as a body of 500 million people, the EU was able to make a concerted effort to exert influence over all such countries, putting aside differences which he acknowledged did exist between some member states. He stressed that some polluting countries such as Brazil, India and China had since responded to such efforts and started to come to the table to fix the contributions that they could make. He attributed a large part of the success of the Paris conference (which he suggested was sometimes forgotten) to the ability of the EU to ‘come together’ and act as a bargaining tool within the discussions.
On whether the EU’s response to international policies and decisions relating to climate change, I raised the fact that the 2012 Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol (establishing that countries would agree to commit to the protocol obligations for a further period) has still not been ratified by the European Union yet has been approved by a number of independent countries within Europe including Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland. Lord Bourne responded by saying that the UK was following the obligations of the amendment despite it not yet having been ratified due to the ratification mechanism not being triggered. He added that the UK had a significant strong record when it comes to adhering to such international agreements.
On the point that Britain could remain an active participant in fighting climate change through the European Environmental Agency (which already counts a number of non EU states among its membership), he pointed out that states involved in this agency and the European Energy Union have to accept any new rules as they are developed. He said that Britain ‘can’t have it both ways’ and that we can either remain a part of the EU and lead the development of rules within such organisations, or we can lose the chance to ‘shape the rules’ by voting to leave. He highlighted the case of Norway as an example, pointing out that to retain involvement in the common market the country has to accept on average around 15 pieces of EU legislation each day which they have not had the chance to shape due to not being full members of the Union, a situation which he believed would not be a good deal for Britain.
In the open lecture, Lord Bourne discussed the ‘trilemma’ relating to energy supply and the difficulty of ensuring that the UK electricity supply is affordable while being both clean and secure. He expressed his doubt regarding the assertion that the current savings of around £50 billion a year that the UK is able to pass on to consumer’s energy bills would remain in the event of a ‘Brexit’, unless the UK signed up to all the agreements which it is currently involved with as a member of the bloc, in which case he suggested that Britain might as well remain part of the Union regardless. He added that much of the security of energy supply that the UK was able to guarantee came from being a part of the European Energy Union and the National Grid being able to call on interconnectors to supply power from other EU states if needed at short notice to satisfy increased demand if the need arises.
Asked about the holdups that have plagued some European backed energy projects within the UK, such as the controversial Hinkley Point C nuclear reactor which has been criticised for rising costs as well as the agreement for a currently rather expensive guaranteed price for the energy produced by the reactor, Lord Bourne responded by saying that the rising costs of the project will not affect the price that end consumers will pay for electricity as these costs will be footed by EDF and the Chinese companies managing the project. He emphasised the fact that the price for energy from the Hinkley Point C plant was fixed for the next 35 years, which could alleviate many of the concerns about what will happen to the energy market over that period, especially with the current ‘historic low’ in the price of energy bills. He then further stated his belief that the benefits of such a good deal would be seen when energy prices start to move once more.
I ended by asking why students should vote to remain in the EU. Lord Bourne again highlighted the large amount of EU funding that researchers and students at Southampton receive. He also stressed that the vote was about the UK’s future, and that there would be little benefit to Britain as a trading nation leaving one of the largest free trading areas in the world.