Remain or Abstain? How Did UK Environmental NGOs Engage with the Bright Side of the EU

Viviane Gravey, Nathalie Berny

The recent EU referendum posed a quandary to the UK ENGO sector: on the one hand, it had profoundly engaged with the European Union over the last forty years - from lobbying for policy change to using EU legal remedies against pollution and habitats destruction. On the other hand, environmental NGOs, despite their large membership base, have struggled to be heard in broader societal debates. As such, the UK ENGO sector stood to lose either EU rules and governance mechanisms by abstaining from a pro­EU stance, or support from a broad swath of the British electorate if supporting Remain. This paper compares how different groups such as WWF UK, Friends of the Earth EWNI, RSPB and the National Trust grappled with this dilemma and chose whether and how to engage with European issues. Drawing on literature on organizational sociology and social movements, it analyses how the different groups defined their referendum strategy internally and in coordination across the ENGO sector and how they communicated on European questions with their members and the broader public. Our analysis builds on both a study of the materials produced by the different groups and a series of interviews within the ENGO sector.

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