So, a deal (of sorts) has been done, Cameron is claiming an historic victory, and the date for the Referendum is set: June 23rd. This is where the real work starts – especially for environmentalists who are only too aware of the fact that, as yet, the environment hasn’t even made it onto the agenda.
Personally, I find it seriously difficult to understand how anybody concerned either about the environment or social justice imagines we’d be better off out of Europe than staying in.
It’s true that Europe today has fallen deeply under the spell of the same neo-liberal dogma that has done such incalculable damage to the USA and the UK over the last 20 years. But the idea that we’ll be better equipped to root out that incubus ‘out’ than ‘in’ strikes me as bizarre. Especially on environmental matters.
I took over as Director of Friends of the Earth in 1984. I’m not sure if we ourselves coined the phrase ‘the dirty man of Europe’, but we squeezed as much pejorative value out of it as we possibly could. And with good reason. Our air was polluted, our rivers filthy, and our beaches slicked with sewage and detritus of every kind. Recycling rates were pathetic, and our farmers had carte blanche to fell, bulldoze and drain precious habitats as if there was no tomorrow.
Until Mrs Thatcher’s short-lived ‘green period’ between 1987 and 1990, the then Tory Government really didn’t give a damn. And if I’m being honest, the Labour Party – in opposition – gave little more than half a damn either. The glib insouciance, and apparent readiness of these politicians to betray all future generations in one short-termist decision after another, seared itself into my mind.
Things did improve through the 1990s. But without that battery of EU Regulations and Directives, bearing implacably down on them, regardless of how many mean-minded derogations they negotiated, everything would have taken so much longer than it did.
All so much irrelevant history, you might suppose? Not so. When it comes to the environment, the instincts of today’s politicians are not all that different from those of the politicians of the 1980s. It’s still ‘growth first’, and the dominant model of progress still sees environmental damage and loss as the inevitable price we have to pay to keep moving forward. There’s no applied questioning, in either Party, of the feasibility, let alone the consequences, of continuing population growth, continuing resource depletion, and continuing loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
It’s just not like that in many European countries – even in some of the newly-joined Eastern European countries. Trade-offs still happen, but not with the depressing inevitability of the way they happen in the UK.
So who really supposes we’re going to be better protected – ‘out’ than ‘in’ – against those visceral instincts – and the deep-seated intellectual arrogance they give rise to?
I’m well aware that this kind of ‘lesser of two evils’ analysis is not of itself enough to persuade people to vote ‘in’. Perhaps the most pernicious consequence of the neo-liberal hijacking of the economic heart and the cultural soul of the EU is that it’s been all but impossible to dream not just of a better Europe, but of a Europe that reflects the highest hopes of both the progressive Left and the wider Green movement. The evisceration of Greece last year showed only too clearly the high price to be paid for hope and for dreams of a life beyond subservience to the bankers and the 1% of the 1%.
Yanis Varoufakis, the charismatic Finance Minister in the first Syriza Government, is intent on addressing that deficit. On Sunday, he’ll be launching in London his new Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), offering a gloriously radical alternative to today’s neo-liberal hegemony.
But it may have come too late for our own already wretched Referendum campaign, with pro-European ‘white men in grey suits’ doing either business babble or Cameroonian cryptics, slugging it out with an assortment of Little Englanders, xenophobes, nostalgics, misguided greenies and free-market zealots.
In this context, I can’t help but think of our two daughters, both in their mid-20s, looking on from afar, still waiting to find any relevant point of contact, let alone some emotional resonance in what is probably the single most important moment in their still emergent political lives – as in the moment that will have the biggest impact on them for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps they’ll get excited by Environmentalists for Europe (E4E). Or by Another Europe is Possible – although I’m not sure how any young people would ever find out about these alternatives without an interfering parent! There’s nothing much happening out there at the moment with a vibrant vision of a Europe for young people at its heart – let alone any initiative on their terms, opening up a positive conversation about the future of Europe and how it might match at least some of their aspirations.
I suspect that most young people just don’t take the idea of Brexit at all seriously. ‘You mean people might be that dopey?’ But then most people in the USA couldn’t seriously entertain the idea of Donald Trump as a Presidential candidate until it seemed that nothing he did or said would ever dent his popularity.
If I was a millennial today (indulge me!), I’d be scared shitless as the likes of Nigel Farage and Owen Paterson, bolstered by the Editors of the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, seek to turn us not just against the EU, but against all that Europe still stands for in terms of its values, its heritage, its collective commitment to human rights, anti-discrimination legislation, higher environmental and social labour standards – and the best opportunity we here in the UK will ever have to stand together as part of a progressive alliance on a world stage that is looking increasingly hostile.
But I’d also be super-excited at the idea of being part of a movement that would put those superannuated xenophobes in their place by celebrating (and voting for) a totally different vision of Europe as it could really be. Now that would be fun!