This is a draft for a speech to an Open Britain meeting, where I have been invited to put a Green Part viewpoint….
No point speculating…
There is a great big black hole which I would like to avoid, and that is the black hole of speculation. We could spend all night speculating over the outcome of three battles.
Firstly, one between the UK and the EU negotiators: will either side find a way to a deal of any sort in time?
Secondly, the one within the Tory Party: will any deal be acceptable to a sufficient number of Tory MPs to get through (we already know that a No Deal Brexit will never be accepted by a majority of the House of Commons, so this outcome can only happen by catastrophic accident)
Thirdly, the one within the Labour Party: Will Corbyn, the Blairites and the Northern Leave MPs find a way to shape a Labour Brexit and Peoples Vote policy? What will that look like? Will a new party result from the battle?
Where will we end up is hugely affected by these three battles but we can’t do a hell of a lot about them unless we can mobilise civil society with our own agenda, so let’s talk about that instead.
The Big Picture
Before finally getting to that though, let’s also recognise the context in which this is all happening.
First; the climate crisis is on us. If the world doesn’t literally get it’s act together very soon the consequences will be catastrophic.
Next; the forces of anti-democratic nationalism, from the US and from Russia, are on the move. Whether through encouraging and funding the far right, whether through unleashing war and the subsequent refugee crisis in Syria, or whether through infecting us all with fake news and social media manipulation, none of us are immune.
Finally, the structural problems that led to the 2008 crash haven’t gone away: we continue to face a potential further crash triggered by financialization and speculative investment driven by massively unequal wealth distribution – in which the wealthy don’t actually invest in much that is useful because the rest of us can’t afford to buy it anyway, so they invest in our debts instead.
In the face of all this, what’s the point of the EU?
Shared Values Europe
The EU clearly means different things to different people. Firstly, there’s what you could call the ‘Shared values’ Europe. People who say things like this are often derided by Brexiters of both left and right varieties as the cosmopolitan liberal elite. But easy travel, the opportunity to live and work in the rest of Europe and the availability of cheap Polish delicacies in Lidl…. these are valued across society. Yes, it is true that making the most of these opportunities is not available to all; but that is not about taking away the opportunity, it is about providing properly rewarding and rewarded work and adequate support when work is not possible, so we can all enjoy what Europe can offer us culturally, through travel and through work opportunities.
But beyond that, there is a deeply held social democratic/liberal consensus across most of Europe that is undoubtedly fraying, but which is both of value in and of itself, and which is providing resistance to the populist tide. This aspect of Europe should not be disregarded.
There is a battle raging over these values, with the far-right Sweden Democrats becoming their country’s third largest party, with far right parties sharing government power in Austria and Italy, and with anti-immigrant, and frankly anti-democratic parties running Poland and Hungary. But it’s not all one way, and, it’s crucial to note, this is not really between countries, but within them. Despite much of the anti-European rhetoric from, and actions of Poland’s Law and Justice party the overwhelming majority of Poles want to stay in the EU. You may well have heard about more than 11,000 marching with the far right in Chemnitz in Germany, some giving Nazi salutes, but then 65,000 turned up to an anti-racist event within days. I don’t think progressively minded people in the UK should step away from these struggles. We should be in there, arguing our corner.
The aspect of the European project we are hearing most about is the economic: the Europe for economic growth and competitiveness. Here I suspect many Greens, myself included, struggled when we first thought about how to respond to the referendum. Because it is true that the treaties of Maastricht and Lisbon embedded a ‘neoliberal’ approach to economics, originally pushed – let’s remember – by a UK government led by Thatcher, along with plenty of supporters in Germany. Its treaties do seek to constrain social democratic economic measures and did lead to punishment beatings for Greece, with even the IMF wincing at the way the ECB and the commission were treating the country. (But remember that the rules for the Eurozone, of which Greece is a member, defined by the Maastricht Treaty, do not apply to the UK.) The growth-is-king model has to be questioned, because as long as GDP is the driver, rather than living well and sustainably, both inequality and unfairness, and planetary scale environmental degradation and disaster will continue to threaten.
For these reasons Greens are associated with organisations such as ‘Another Europe is Possible’: we want new treaties that reverse some of the free-market pro-corporation anti-public spending stimulus aspects of the EU. This is not a forlorn hope by the way, but it does need a revival of the social democratic and green movements across Europe. Again, there is no need for despair. Portugal, which holds the presidency, wants to reform Europe to provide more space for the sorts of social democratic Keynesian measures favoured by left and green parties across the continent, starting in the Eurozone with measures to ‘level up’ in specific areas. Progressive politics continues to feature strongly across the continent. Often it’s the discredited centre that is losing out the most.
For greens, our economies need a complete redesign, so they are embedded appropriately within society and within the constraints of the natural world and so that the wealth and goods and services are distributed equitably. We recognise that this isn’t something that will happen without a redistribution of power, and in turn, that won’t happen without civil society finding its voice and its feet and its fighting strength. I am convinced that in a Britain which has turned its back on Europe our ability to move in this direction will be weakened – maybe not for ever – but certainly the current trajectory represented by any form of Hard Brexit suggests a future of more Trump style xenophobic battles where we look for enemies within and without.
Whether we are in it or not, the EU is an economic superpower, and across the Atlantic is another one. To pretend that we can exist in this world with any sort of effective, sustainable and properly distributive economic relationship with these powers purely on our terms is crazy. So which lot should we align with? And wouldn’t it be better to also have some influence?
Socially Just and Green Europe
For many the EU is about tackling issues of social justice and the environment that can no longer be effectively tackled by single countries. They see this as core to the European project. It is self-evidently true that being in a large single market with political structures makes it possible to redesign regulation for the benefit of workers, small firms, consumers, people who want to breath fresh air, drink clean water and eat healthy food. Has the EU delivered in this area? Partially. It can do much more. What we do know is that many of the rights that we value, we hold due to European law.
Here I need to say something about freedom of movement, because it is an issue where we and the SNP stand out from the rest. For us the right to live, love and work across Europe needs defending alongside any other, both for the people of Europe and for the people of the UK. Of course, exploitative contracts for migrant workers need to be resisted, and of course effective services that can deliver to those in need must be available. But that is no excuse for taking away rights. This is about strengthening workers rights, not weakening them. It is remarkable to me that there are people on the left who favour giving up this right. Being in the Single Market should mean we can all continue to enjoy freedom of movement.
Of course playing a role in strengthening the protections across borders – whether to do with free movement, other workers rights, or measures to combat climate breakdown, suggests staying in the EU too.
So where do we go from here?
I began by saying how hopeless it is to speculate on the political developments in the Tory Party or the EU leadership. But whatever happens we have some solid ground both for pushing for a continuing useful partnership with the EU and for ensuring that whatever is done it is done democratically.
Paul Mason talks about the leave voters take on this in a useful way. He doesn’t accept the idea that the vote has a ‘half-life’ – that it is decaying and that those who voted Leave will just drift across to Remain. Instead he suggests that they have watched politicians desperately seeking the mythical Promised Land Brexit, hoping that this will materialise. But now this is reaching a crisis point and for many it’s beginning to look like promised land might not exist, and anyway the wrong people have been holding the map. So they need to be offered something in its place; a new form of salvation. That requires an offer that is not back to the same old… it needs to be about a new relationship that is more democratic, less bureaucratic, and tackles unseen power. Does a hard Brexit offer that? Of course not. Does a soft-Brexit offer that? Maybe. It would need to include guarantees that will allow a UK government to take social democratic and green measures free from legal challenge – something of course that would actually be easier to contest if we were still a rule maker, not just a rule taker, but we shouldn’t rule out a useful Soft Brexit just yet, because to do so would be to ignore the referendum. Does staying in offer this hope? Maybe, if we approach reforming the EU with some serious intent. So let’s get to that stage and decide. Let’s find out what the best arrangement for ordinary people could be outside the EU, and then let’s compare that to what staying in would look like. And then, let’s decide will a new People’s Vote.
This is a much better way to frame this, it seems to me, than simply to push a ‘you were wrong, we were right’ position. This could indeed push some leave voters to abandon any hope of being listened to and leave them in the hands of the extreme right.
Of course, getting to this stage takes us right back to the speculation I’ve been desperately trying to avoid. A Tory crisis triggering a snap general election is one route: whoever then forms a government will need to have committed, in advance, to – yes – continuing the negotiations to respect the referendum vote, but also saying, once we’ve got an outcome – and not a looney tunes crash-and-burn Brexit – we will come back to the people to decide.
So there is a job of work to do; to convince those who can sway this – politicians, commentators, voters, – that the final choice has to be between the best deal we can get – for all the people, not just for the hedge-fund investors – and then it needs to be presented, alongside the option to remain in the EU as full members, with an intention to reform and to deepen the democracy, for a People’s Vote.