This is a longer version of an article I wrote for The Ecologist. It provides some additional peripheral information supporting my arguments.
Our economic activities are destroying the environment, putting us at risk. We need a radical change of economic paradigm to prepare for upcoming challenges and to achieve genuine sustainability. But the E.U., neoliberal by construction, is locking the Member States into an ideological status quo. For any institutional change to occur, the E.U. treaties need to be changed, meaning that the 28 Member States need to agree unanimously and simultaneously on the new terms. The most straightforward way to reform our economies is therefore to leave the E.U. Awareness of this possibility is rising, and movements beyond the classical left-right spectrum are developing and joining forces throughout Member States to push for an exit from this undemocratic, regressive and ideologically blocking political construction. But in Britain today, the debate lies almost exclusively towards the far right. Progressive movements such as ecological ones have to develop and push for U.K. independence for their own reasons.
A change of paradigm to reach sustainability
I am a supporter of political ecology. I consider that human economic activities are damaging the environment so badly that world peace and our civilisation are at risk, and that something has to be done about it. Indeed many warning lights are on: global warming, the depletion of non-renewable resources, in particular oil, antimicrobial resistance, crashing fish stocks and more generally biodiversity… For our own sake, a reorganisation of our economies is needed to halt and adapt to irreversible damage such as climate change and to deal with the growing scarcity of currently crucial resources such as fossil fuels. A controlled shift to a sustainable economic regime, i.e. a model that can be sustained through time, is needed, rather than an uncontrolled global decline, if not collapse, forced by events. However, while immense changes are needed for this controlled shift, very little is changing at the national or international level. Fossil fuels are still largely subsidised, highways and coal plants are built and international conferences on climate change, now sponsored by the most polluting companies, fail to reach strong (or even weak) agreements and continue to postpone binding targets. People are still incentivised towards more consumption, and companies towards more growth and profit, while governments of even the most economically developed countries are still as obsessed with GDP growth as ever.
The required drastic reduction in the environmental impact of our activities implies a strong reduction in the global consumption of natural resources. Soberer modes of consumption, a shift away from fossil fuels, a scaling down of distribution networks (i.e. de-globalisation) and a reduction or stabilisation of world population will be necessary. Needless to say, these changes will not be brought about by the magic hand of the free market. The ideological framework of neo-liberalism and globalised free markets as we know it is not compatible with the setting up of a truly sustainable economy. The goal is always towards more growth and therefore more environmental impact and pollution. Strong regulations are necessary to reduce the consumption of natural resources, which will necessitate a reorganisation of the economy towards more circularity (reuse, recycling), as well as a decrease of production and consumption. For this to happen, we need a new ideological paradigm underlying the organisation and goals of our societies.
The E.U.: undemocratic, regressive and ideologically locked by law
The E.U. enjoys a progressive image in most European countries, including Britain. This may be a consequence of the claimed purpose of the construction of the E.U.: a political project for peace intended to prevent the barbarity of the early twentieth century wars from recurring. Some positive societal and environmental projects and legislation such as the popular Erasmus student exchange programme or the REACH regulation that limits the manufacturing and use of dangerous chemicals contributes to this progressive image. It is however essential to bear in mind that the construction of the E.U. has never prioritised social and environmental welfare. Emphasis is instead put on productivism and liberalisation of the economy, regardless of the interests of E.U. citizens, who have very little – if any – control over the policies, new treaties or new enlargements that the E.U. pursues. In fact, productivism and globalisation are ideologies that are in the DNA of the E.U. construction as they are enshrined into the E.U. treaties, i.e. the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). For instance, aspects of globalisation are enshrined through Articles 32 and 63 of the TFEU. These articles prevent Member States from applying protectionist policies to protect their workers from delocalisation to third countries where social and environmental requirements are lower and therefore production costs are cheaper. These articles therefore also promote large distances between production and consumption locations. Article 39 on agriculture and fisheries does not state that the objectives of the common agricultural policy are to produce food while limiting the damage to the environment or ensuring the high quality of the products. Instead, the first goal stated is to “increase agricultural productivity” by “promoting technical progress” and the optimisation of the “factors of production, in particular labour.” This explains the logic of mechanisation and industrialisation in the agricultural sector over the years.
Some may object that a stronger Union is needed for the E.U. to be able to apply more progressive policies. However, the successive treaties are like Russian dolls, where each new treaty is built upon the preceding one, thus preserving the original ideology of free trade and markets. There is no indication today that this underlying ideology will be ever questioned in a future treaty. On the contrary, the new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the U.S. and the E.U., being prepared for us in total secrecy, is going to go even further in freeing the markets and giving leeway to multi-nationals, leading to fears about a downgrading of the social and environmental regulations that protect consumers, workers and the environment and about making the policy implications of environmental research entirely irrelevant. Maintaining the status quo thus means only going further in the same direction and applying the changes that multi-national companies and lobbies want (see also e.g. the conflicts of interest of the European Food Safety Authority panel members or the aggressive lobbying operated by pesticide firms to prevent the ban of neonicotinoids thought to be at the origin of pollinators collapse).
Others argue that a different Europe is possible. However, for a radical shift in policies to happen, all 28 Member States have to agree unanimously to change the treaties and then to agree unanimously on the new terms. Given that these treaties are a compromise reached after extremely ferocious negotiations and that nobody wants to renegotiate them, despite the crisis, there will be no other Europe. The E.U. is what it is and cannot be recreated: take it or leave it.
But is it technically possible to leave the E.U.? Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union states that “Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.” This article defines the modalities of withdrawal. If after two years of negotiations, no agreement is reached between the withdrawing State and the European Council, the treaties simply cease to apply. A withdrawal is therefore not only possible, but legally allowed in the treaties.
The risk of deeper liberalism in an independent Britain
There is, however, the risk that leaving the E.U. will aggravate neo-liberalism inside the U.K., in particular given the fact that a “YES” answer to the potential referendum may be interpreted by the Tories as a green light in that direction. Indeed, since the advent of Thatcherism, the U.K. has been one of Europe’s champions of deregulation, whether Labour or Tories are in power. Still today, the U.K. is pushing the E.U. to keep its hands off the economy. Indeed, the U.K. lobbied the Commission and succeeded in aborting further control on fracking activities this last January. The U.K. also appeared to be responsible for the watering down of the revised Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (“MiFID II”), whose aim is (or was) to regulate the financial system, for instance to limit speculation on food prices. There are therefore serious reasons to be concerned that a fully independent U.K. would apply even more economically liberal policies. While it is true that the E.U., until now, has acted as a restraining force in front of British right-wing anti-environmentalism and neo-liberalism, it should also be noted that recent lobbying operated by the U.K. has been fairly successful. Indeed, the trend that the E.U. is taking does not leave room for much optimism (see also its disappointing CO2 targets, its progressive authorisation of GM usage). In any case, there is not the slightest sign that the E.U. regards the environmental crises to come as sufficiently serious to necessitate any radical paradigmatic change.
“It’s a right-wing thing”
One difficulty in many European countries, including Britain, is that the idea of withdrawing from the E.U. is associated with exacerbated nationalistic or xenophobic ideologies. Indeed, the strong desire to leave the E.U. essentially resides on the far right-hand side of the political spectrum: the vocal U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) is also, for instance, in favour of pausing immigration and against gay marriage. These ideas are shared by the British National Party, which in addition plainly denounces the “Islamic colonisation of Britain.” Not to mention that both of these parties are sceptical about climate change. In particular, UKIP does “not regard CO2 as a pollutant” and criticizes the E.U. for distorting the energy market (through the Emission Trading Scheme and subsidies and feed-in tariffs for renewables) and for preventing the U.K. from restoring its coal industry. In most people’s mind, overtly wanting to leave the E.U. is to be on the far right and not to be environmentally sound. Similarly, being conservative can be associated with the manifestation of some kind of moderate E.U. – as well as climate change – scepticism. Indeed, the Tories are planning to organise an E.U. withdrawal referendum if they are to be re-elected in the next general election. However, the desire to leave the E.U. should not be confused with conservative, islamophobic ideologies or climate change scepticism. These are in fact perfectly separable.
It should be noted for instance that the Communist Party of Britain has understood that it is indeed impossible to apply their programme in the framework of the E.U. In fact, given that their conception of how society and economy should be organised is radically different from the one imposed by the E.U., they reached the conclusion that the E.U. project should be rejected.
E.U. withdrawal should therefore merely be seen as a way for the people to regain control over the economic, social and environmental policies applied in their own countries, and to avoid being trapped inside the one-track ideology of an international oligarchy. As a consequence, the referendum should not be seen as a way to express one’s view about the party that proposes the vote, but merely as an opportunity to allow radically different society projects to happen.
A need for anti-E.U. progressive movements
In order to show to rulers that the desire to leave the E.U. is not necessarily a call for neoliberal, conservative or far right policies, progressive movements have to organise themselves to weigh into the debate. They should inform people about the regressive characteristics of the E.U. and the ideological prison that the E.U. treaties represent. They should apply pressure on moderate and left wing representatives to also call for a referendum if they get into power or, better, get organised themselves as a political party.
Such movements already exist in Europe. In France, for instance, the Union Populaire Républicaine (UPR, Popular Republican Union), although barred from access to the mainstream media, is becoming increasingly popular as it is growing exponentially and now counting 4,000 members. This political party intends to transcend the left-right divide by focusing on E.U. withdrawal. It manages to gather people from the far left to the far right and many others simply fed up with politics. Most importantly, it is a moderate movement calling for radical political changes. Most of its programme is indeed only applicable in an independent France, including the renationalisation of many companies, a total ban on GM foods and a favouring of local food production while guaranteeing self-sufficiency of the country. In Britain, an equivalent may be the cross-party organisation Campaign for an Independent Britain, which, as its name indicates, focuses solely on withdrawal from the E.U. On 1st December 2013 in Athens this organisation signed a joint communiqué with nine other European organisations (including the UPR) pursuing the same goal. The joint statement makes the same observations I detailed above: that the E.U. is an undemocratic and regressive regime and that the peoples of Europe have to choose between “the dictatorship of the markets or democracy and an economy based on the needs of the peoples.” People across the Union are therefore starting to realise the E.U. is a political construction that aggravates the loss of control over the decisions taken inside their own country.
The battle will be difficult. After decades of being told that the E.U. is the most beautiful political construction that has ever been built, it may be difficult for people to accept that it is anything but progressive, and that wanting to withdraw is not an extreme leftist or rightist stance. Nevertheless, such acceptance will be necessary if the people of Europe are to become masters of their own destiny.
Once free of the ideological framework imposed by the E.U. treaties, Nations will have to apply the policies needed to confront the upcoming challenges facing our civilisation. Leaving the E.U. is of course far from being sufficient: a controlled shift of the economy to environmental sustainability will require strong political will and great strides in popular education. We cannot be sure that leaving the E.U. will in itself result in a better response to the challenges of the 21st century, but what is almost certain is that without leaving the E.U., there is no hope of any ideological shift.