Grexit: The environmental case for voting Leave
On the last day before polling, it may still shock some of my environmentalist comrades that I am planning on voting to leave the European Union. Environmental policy has throughout the debate been considered a strong suite in the Remain cannon, and the overwhelming majority of Greens support staying in. Moreover, high profile figures (such as Boris Johnson’s own father – ouch) have come out waving the EU flag, claiming that the Union keeps us greener, and always will.
Despite the invocations of argumentum ad populum, hominem and verecundiam that it invariably provokes, I remain completely opposed to this view. The EU is not, as is claimed, the ultimate safeguard of environmental rights and standards, and even when it is, such protection is transient, top down, unaccountable, and ultimately ineffective when taken in the broader context of other areas, such as industry and trade.
The Green Remain (‘Gremain’?) case, as I understand it, can be roughly summarised as follows: since the 1970s, the European Union, through its directives, seven Environmental Action Programmes (EAPs), legislation and treaty obligations has helped raise ecological standards across the continent. Moreover, it is the ideal body through which to tackle the likes of global climate change, because such issues are necessarily cross-border in nature, and thus require supranational co-operation. The UK government at present has no vested interest in the environment (an understatement), and thus the EU serves as a protector to keep our beaches clean, our air breathable and our natural habitats flourishing, in lieu of a Green administration at 10 Downing Street.
It’s compelling stuff, and factually correct for the most part. The difficulty arises when begins to examine more than just the EU’s environmental policy. Much like you wouldn’t trust the Tories if they told you they were introducing a new green initiative while simultaneously fracking the North into oblivion, any Gremainer worth their salt must account for the rest of the EU’s acquis communautaire (total legislation) – which unfortunately lies in total contradiction to its environmental policy (measly in size and influence compared to other departments), and to fundamental green values.
Examples of this include the infamous Common Fisheries Policy, in which millions of dead fish were thrown back into European waters for years due to quota regulations. This has been admirably amended (and by pressure from a lone UK citizen no doubt – if only the unelected Commission were as flexible on austerity as they are on fish), but that simply one mole in an infinite and expanding Whack-A-Mole of EU legislation. The Common Agricultural Policy, for instance, continues to destroy sustainable farming methods in Eastern Europe, replacing them with unsustainable, gigantic, industrialised agribusiness: 80% of CAP aid goes to just 20% of farms. Thus, small-scale European farmers producing the likes of free range, local produce get little, and poor farmers in developing nations are shut out of European markets. This policy (one of the most lauded centrepieces of EU legislation) is antagonistic to any Green vision of sustainability and internationalism I’ve ever heard.
The salient point here is this: the EU erases its own environmental policy. Any well-intentioned environmental action means nothing when enacted in a political union that has endless industrial growth written into its very DNA. Every heart-warming initiative here is outweighed by a corporate splurge there. Even when we narrow our focus only to environmental policy, the EU does not always come out as the eco-benefactor it’s often paternalistically lauded as (for example, the EU has insisted that VAT at the full rate be applied to solar panels and home insulation, making a transition to renewable energy financially unattainable for swathes of low income households).
Another example: the EU Commission is now pushing for control on air pollution (the city of London was fined in 2014). This seems a wonderful development if one only looks at the EU’s paper environmentalism, but in fact this new initiative only came as a too-little-too-late attempt to reverse years of successful lobbying in Brussels by the car industry to push diesel (increasing pollution by releasing more nitrous oxide). Indeed, multinational corporations have long been in the practice of opening up headquarters within earshot of the EU Commission, Parliament and Council buildings, in order to more easily facilitate lobbying. Of course, it would be fatuous to argue that this can never be changed, but it seems increasingly obvious that such change would happen on a timeline so long as to be almost meaningless.
This brings me to my second point: the ‘Another Europe is Possible’ camp have grown a campaign around the concept that the word ‘reform’ will somehow appear on the ballot box tomorrow, but as much as my heart aches for it to be true, a cursory glance at the experience of Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Ireland and France shows it to be an ambitious falsehood.
There is a basic inconsistency that (B)remains unaddressed here: if we’re too small a political force to defeat the Tories and reform the UK according to a left-wing and green agenda outside the EU, how can we have the power to reform the EU from the inside, when the first necessary step surely would be convincing either 27 other member states of each of our arguments, or at the very least France and Germany? Any reform that the UK has won has been in the first part measly, and the second to the tune of the Tory party. Outside the EU, we have the power to evict the anti-environmentalist and elect someone better. Not so within, as much as I pray it were true.
Nowhere is this truer than with TTIP. Naturally, the US-EU trade deal constitutes a nightmare scenario for Greens and democrats alike. Yet many of my Green comrades argue that because the Tories and the EU Commission seem at least equally in favour of it, leaving the EU will debilitate us in our fight against TTIP. Perhaps, as some have indicated, TTIP (or something like it) is inevitable in or out, and so the question becomes in which scenario is a progressive, grassroots movement more likely to repeal the deal? The answer seems obvious, and it is notable here that the deal has thus far been negotiated in total secrecy (in fact the only reason we know about it at all is because of a leak from Greenpeace). This is the EU in its true form: ideological privatisation, both in plain sight (it’s literally written into the Treaties) and behind Brussels’ many closed doors.
I mentioned the likes of Greece and Portugal earlier, and I imagine some readers will point out that all of these countries are in the Eurozone. Such resistance to change is hardly limited to the Euro, but even if it were: at what point did the Green vision of Europe drop concepts of fairness and democracy, in exchange for a counter-effectively exclusionary reading of environmental policy? Workers’ rights, now being forcibly rescinded in France solely because of pressure from the EU Commission, seem no longer that important, so long as there is a well worded action plan on light pollution and forestry. One of the cornerstones of Green politics in Europe is grassroots democracy and bottom-up decision making – the EU in its current form is the antithesis of these values.
The Green vision is necessarily internationalist. It screams for co-operation across nations more than any other, and it is simply untrue that we need the European Union to achieve this. To put it bluntly: why exactly would our carbon emission or conservation policies require a Parliament, Commission, two Councils and a Central Bank to co-ordinate and enact? Ambition is what is needed here, not least because the environment does not end at the hard borders of the 28 member states.
Yet Gremain laments: if we leave the EU, Boris Jonson will be free to shred all environmental legislation and all our hard work (oops, pardon me: the work of the Commission) will be in vain. Plants will wither and die and the ground will turn to sludge!
My own, awful hyperbole aside, the idea that an exit will trigger an environmental catastrophe has been exaggerated to the point of cringe, and the bizarre obsession with this current parliamentary term (it will likely be at least another 20 years before we can vote on the EU again) is astounding in its short-sightedness, and is at best an argument for changing the government, not for staying in the EU (again: complaining about the Tories and Boris is an argument for changing the government, not for staying in the EU). Part of the reason any of us are involved in environmentalism is because we are not short termists. Indeed, the Green cause is distinguished in its commitment to the long term: to combatting climate change for the sake of future generations.
To summarise, distasteful as a Leave vote may feel in the short term, the British Left and Greens in particular need to think beyond 2020, as we are normally known and admired for so doing. What gains the European Union has made in environmental protection are more often lost to industrial or corporate interests, and there seems little we can do to change this, especially in our favour, in the next decade. Calls for solidarity across Europe ring loudly, but solidarity, support and co-ordination simply does not require us to be in the EU. The other issues of this referendum inevitably bleed into the Gremain case, and democratic accountability continues to be the most salient amongst these.
The future does not lie with endless capital accumulation, which is what the EU itself stands for. It is unfit for the post-growth vision of the world that environmentalist activists and political actors are mobilising for. The EU remains wedded, constitutionally, to the ‘Three Earths’ consumption model, and no amount of ‘Another Europe is Possible’ will change that, at least in our lifetimes. Lip service to the Green political movement is not enough – we demand realistic, radical change. We demand a democratic, greener Europe. Vote Grexit!