by Rowan Gavin
With just four days until polling day, the EU referendum continues to dominate news headlines and pub conversations. Like many, I have been exhausted by the fearmongering, unconvincing and generally depressing arguments churned out by the mainstream campaigns on both sides. So when The Norwich Radical asked me to interview Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, about the positive Green case for staying in the EU, I was excited to hear some refreshing ideas on the topic. I also got the chance to speak to David Raby, a Green Party City Councillor in Norwich.
Natalie is in Norwich discussing with residents the environmental case for the European Union, and I ask her about that first. Both she and David emphasise the importance of EU regulations “forcing our government to action” on environmental issues that it has “dragged its feet on” like cleaning up our beaches, waterways, and air. Just thirty years ago Britain’s rivers and beaches were “filthy”. Without legislation like the European Commission’s Water Framework Directive, they likely still would be. Of course, EU environmental legislation isn’t perfect, and isn’t nearly as comprehensive as many environmentalists would like it to be, but it’s a big step in the right direction. As David puts it, the EU “haven’t been doing nearly enough, but they’ve been doing more than our government”.
Just thirty years ago Britain’s rivers and beaches were “filthy”.
In preparing for this interview, I did a little digging to see if I could find any environmental arguments for leaving the EU. Encouragingly, I found a lot of the opposite – groups like Environmentalists for Europe are mounting a strong case that staying in will do a great deal for the health of our islands, and us their residents. But one or two leave campaigners have had a crack at swinging the environmental case their way. Essentially their line is that the UK doesn’t have enough say in the environmental legislation that the EU produces, and that by leaving we’d be in a better place to form environmental agreements with nations beyond Europe.
As I mention these arguments, Natalie’s face contorts, an expression which she describes for the sake of my dictaphone as one of “deep scepticism”. She cites the progress on restricting neonicotinoid pesticides which are harmful to bees and other pollinators, and on restricting the herbicide glyphosate, recently found to be ‘probably carcinogenic’ by the World Health Organisation, as more examples of “our current government being dragged kicking and screaming to essential actions” by the EU. Ultimately, she points out, it doesn’t matter if an independent UK might in theory be able to set appropriate environmental standards on our own – with the current political situation in this country, that simply won’t happen. And even if we had a different government, one with more of an environmental consciousness, continued membership of the EU wouldn’t be a drawback, environmentally speaking. There’s nothing stopping us from setting our own higher standards than the EU give us.
Natalie is quick to emphasise that she’d been making the case for Britain’s membership of the EU in Norwich and throughout the campaign on a plethora of issues, not just environmental ones.
She tells me that freedom of movement, which “enriches all of our lives”, had been coming up a lot in discussions with residents. Grandparents had been expressing their concerns that their grandkids won’t have the freedom to travel across Europe that they’ve had in their lifetimes, and nearly every student she’s spoken to knew someone who has headed across to Germany or Scandinavia to enjoy a tuition-fee-free education as EU citizens, an opportunity she sees as a great benefit of EU membership (tellingly, Mr Farage recently took the exact opposite line on this topic).
There’s nothing stopping us from setting our own higher standards than the EU give us
And of course there’s everything the EU does on protecting our rights as well. Natalie expresses her alarm at the Vote Leave campaign’s manifesto for a post-EU Britain (“in other words, Boris Johnson’s manifesto to be Prime Minister”), which trumpets abolishing the Charter of Fundamental Rights set out by the EU. The Charter and related legislation protect many rights, from the general – the right to life and freedom of expression, to the specific – the right to maternity leave and rights for agency and part time workers.
It is pretty scary to think that our rights, our freedoms, and the environment on which we depend are being explicitly threatened if the UK votes to leave. But from Natalie and David’s warnings and comparisons to our incapable government, the EU was starting to sound like the lesser of two evils rather than anything particularly inspiring. I asked them if this was a fair characterisation, and whether those of us who care about the environment and social justice might reform or improve the EU if we continue our membership.
Natalie rightly objects to my rehashing of the rather over-simplified ‘is it reformable’ question. She acknowledges that the EU’s democratic structures leave a lot to be desired, pointing out that as it is elected by proportional representation the European Parliament is “more democratic than Westminster” (although that’s not saying a lot). On top of this, she tells me the European Commission can be sacked by the parliament, and although the parliament cannot make laws, it can now propose laws to the commission, a recent improvement.
Natalie rightly objects to my rehashing of the rather over-simplified ‘is it reformable’ question.
But all this bear little relevance to the most important feature of EU democracy. She raises the example of the popular campaign to end the wasteful discards of fish caught in European waters, which led to the incorporation of a discard ban into the Common Fisheries Policy. As Natalie puts it, “There was a campaign, and the rules got changed. That is exactly how democracy is supposed to work.” I couldn’t agree more. The fundamental illusion of elective democracy is that our votes alone will do all the work to change our institutions. In fact, with the EU, as with all large political organisations, if we want change we can make it – we just have to get out onto the streets as well as into the polling station. This is how the EU is reformable, and how it can be held accountable.
David agrees with my characterisation that, in many ways, the EU is the lesser of two evils, but also argues that there is more to it than that. The EU represents “a positive idea” of “peace and co-operation across the continent”. There are powerful interests in the EU with a rather different agenda, but many people are still working for this ideal. And there is change in the air in Europe. Greece elected a left-wing government, and they were infamously shafted by the rest of the EU. But, as David tells me, there is hope elsewhere, as for example in the less-well-reported successes of Antonio Costa’s new socialist government in Portugal. It’s “not revolutionary”, but it has ended a public sector wage freeze and a pensions freeze, limited privatisation of public transport, and brought in a 35 hour working week. In Spain, the left-wing alliance Unidos Podemos have ever-growing support, and stand a good chance of winning the upcoming General Election (June 26th).
The EU represents “a positive idea” of “peace and co-operation across the continent”.
These are governments that are looking to change the EU agenda, away from the over-centralised, neoliberally-minded trend of recent politics that so many of us are tired of and angry about, towards something democratic, idealistic, and truly respectful of European people and the environment. Meanwhile in the UK, our government is doing its damnedest to achieve the exact opposite. If we stay in the EU, the Greens, Corbyn’s Labour, the People’s Assembly and all the other groups fighting against the dominant ideas of austerity and uncontrolled capitalism will be better placed to collaborate with our more successful friends in Spain, Portugal and other places, to try and spread this new change to our side of the channel.
My last question on the referendum to Natalie and David is around the role they see for the Green Party in the event of Britain leaving the EU. Neither were particularly optimistic at the prospect. Natalie expects the Greens and all likeminded organisations will have some tough decisions ahead: “There’s a huge list of things we’d lose or be at risk of losing. We’re gonna have to, with great difficulty, prioritise those and defend what we regard as the most important.” Over decades of campaigning, working with and through the EU, Europeans have won many provisions to protect and maintain our rights and our environment. If we leave, well, Natalie reckons “we’re gonna have to turn round and do it all again.”
If we leave, well, Natalie reckons “we’re gonna have to turn round and do it all again.”
I’m sure you don’t need me to remind you that, at present, the political, social, environmental and economic situation in this country is dire. We’re facing ill-thought-out austerity programmes, savage cuts to public services, increasing poverty and discrimination against the least-well-off, and a disregard for environment and community on many levels. Since the referendum debate started, I have thought that a leave vote is likely to only make this situation worse, and if anything talking to Natalie and David has confirmed this for me. But I can’t honestly say that staying in the EU will, in itself, make things better. What will change Britain, and Europe, for the benefit of all the people who live here and will join us here in the coming years, is the persistence and growth of the popular movements through which we fight for change and build it for ourselves. The message from the Greens, and many other pro-EU campaigners on the left, is that we’re best placed to keep fighting that fight, and keep creating alternative approaches to politics and the environment, in the EU.
[Off-topic endnote: out of curiosity, I asked Natalie whether she’s backing Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley, who recently announced their intention to run jointly for the leadership of the Green Party. She said that as leader she’s never endorsed any candidate for any internal post, as she wouldn’t want connections to her position to influence members’ decisions. Quite right too, I think.]
Featured image via huffingtonpost.co.uk