The EU referendum from an environmental perspective: are you willing to be challenged?

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Posted Jun 20 2016 by Dave Darby of

Almost all of my friends, and people whose opinions I respect, are intending to vote ‘Remain’ on Thursday. Here are the four main reasons I hear:

  1. I’m not a ‘little Englander’, a nationalist – I feel European rather than British, and I want to unite with other Europeans.
  2. The EU prevents the neoliberal UK government from wreaking havoc on the environment and on workers’ rights.
  3. We’ve got to be in it to be able to influence it.
  4. Nigel Farage and Michael Gove support Brexit, so I’m going to go in the opposite direction thank you very much, based on the premise that anything they believe must be wrong.

Now I concur with point number one, but points two and three seem to cancel each other out, and I’ve found it very difficult to be able to get people to see it. Yes, the UK currently has a neoliberal government, and that’s because the British population tends to lean a bit more to the right than continental Europeans. The EU is also a neoliberal institution, but has to proceed more gingerly, to satisfy a slightly more left-leaning / green populace. But it will try to get us to neoliberal Nirvana eventually – just by a more circuitous route. However, this also means that the only way that the UK will influence the EU is to make it more neoliberal. Progressives who want us to stay in for our influence must believe that the UK is naturally progressive – and there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for that. So either the EU is going to save us from ourselves, or we’re going to influence the EU in a good way – but not both, surely?

On point four, there are those nasty pro-Brexit people who are all xenophobic, anti-immigrant, ‘don’t mess with our sovereignty’ types. So it’s easy to know which way to vote, isn’t it? At one point I promised myself to stay off this subject, because if people make snap decisions and don’t listen to the details of what you’re saying, it’s easy to get instantly bracketed with the Goves and Farages of this world – not a great place to be. However, I would encourage people to make up their own minds on this issue, rather than reacting to other people’s position. The easiest way to illustrate this is to point out that Gove and Farage also oppose ISIS. Does that make you want to support ISIS?

But below, I’m going to explain why I think it’s possible to be pro-Brexit and also a progressive and an environmentalist. I’m mainly arguing from an environmental perspective, but also on the implications for democracy of EU membership. I have strongly anarchistic leanings, by the way – I hate the corporate-dominated circus that ‘democracy’ has become, so I’m not going to vote, and I’m not trying to persuade people to vote one way or the other. I just want to explain that there are other reasons to want to be out of the EU than xenophobia or fears around loss of sovereignty.

I don’t think you can argue with xenophobia – people will generally stay that way until they a) become more closely acquanited with Johnny Foreigner, or b) die. But the sovereignty argument is nonsensical – saying that we lose sovereignty because the European parliament is in Brussels is like saying that people in Newcastle lose sovereignty because the UK parliament is in London. Londoners don’t have more sovereignty than Geordies just because they live closer to the parliament, and Belgians have no more sovereignty than Brits. We gain more sovereignty if anything, because our votes influence decisions that cover a wider geographical area. But generally, I hope that turnout for elections in the great ‘Liberal Democracy’ sham continues to fall so that we can begin to challenge its legitimacy, and we can have public conversations about how we can get rid of (or at least bypass) state and corporate power.


Capitalism is primed to grow forever. Almost all money comes into circulation as debt – via credit cards, overdrafts and mortgages. Compound interest on this debt requires constant growth to enable it to be repaid. Advertising, government policies, zero-reserve banking, the stock market and various other casinos add to the pressure for perpetual growth. If the economy stops growing, or even if growth falls below about 2% annually, capitalism goes into recession and people suffer. Not the people at the top of course – I’m talking about ordinary working people. And if the economy crashes, governments will make it grow again with our money.

This perpetual, cancer-like growth is the root cause of our ecological problems. And those problems are not trivial. They will kill us if we don’t stop. But we can’t stop as long as we have capitalism. Sustainable capitalism is an oxymoron. The EU exists to maximise growth and exports – both of which, as environmentalists, we should be opposing. Instead, we should be looking for ways to stabilise the economy and orient it towards production for local communities rather than for export.

And those EU environmental directives are not responsible for our clean rivers and beaches – that’s down to outsourcing the manufacture of our consumer goods to the Far East, where they’re produced in dirty factories and then shipped or flown half-way round the world to get here, which, although it allows otters to return to some UK rivers, devastates global ecology. EU policy on growth and exports will make this situation worse.


The other thing that capitalism is primed to do is to concentrate wealth and therefore power in fewer and fewer hands as time goes on. This isn’t controversial by the way – see here. That makes a mockery of democracy, EU or no EU. Democratic capitalism is an oxymoron too.

The EU is indisputably a capitalist, corporate project, which assists in concentrating wealth in the corporate sector. Its policies are initiated largely via corporate institutions like the European Round Table of Industrialists (see here), and every neoliberal institution you can think of wants us to stay in, from the Conservative party, the Corporation of London and the OECD to the Bank of England and the US government. Indeed, there is evidence that the project to unite Europe under corporate institutions was initially a brainchild of the US – see here.

Plus, although the UK isn’t part of the Eurozone, European Monetary Union has been slowly taking fiscal and monetary policy away from national governments as a way to deal with recession – which leaves wage reductions, cutting jobs in the public sector, cutting benefits and privatisation of public assets as the only tools that they can use. All of those solutions are, of course, welcomed by the corporate sector, and indeed, designed for their benefit.

I had an online debate with Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition movement recently. He said that choosing between staying and leaving is like choosing between two parents, a bad one and a worse one. We may as well stay in, to keep the bad parent, because it’s better than just being with the worse one. This assumes that national governments are better at pushing the corporate growth and exports agenda than the EU, and I don’t think that’s the case. The Transition movement is about building local resilience, and the entire raison d’être of the EU is to do the exact opposite. This is in addition to the fact that, as mentioned above, British people keep returning neoliberal governments – and so any influence Britain might have on Europe will be in the wrong direction. The worse parent will make the bad parent worse.

But perhaps the most important mistake that pro-EU progressives make is to believe that the EU can be reformed in ways that make it more sustainable and more democratic. The EU is unreformable. Give me one mechanism by which corporate fingers can be prised from the steering wheel of the EU. The corporate sector writes EU policy, and their investors will punish (and have punished) countries that try to implement policies they don’t like, by withdrawing their money.

Let’s unite in a different way – let’s build something from grassroots, comprising only co-operative businesses, self-employment and open source, with no route in for profit-seeking corporations at all, because once they’re part of something, they eventually control it.

Ultimately, I don’t think that corporate power will be threatened whichever way the referendum goes. It could be interpreted as a cynical distraction to give us the impression that we have agency in a world where we have none, whether in or out of the EU.