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  • Posted June 20th, 2016

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

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

    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.

    The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's


    • 1John Harrison June 20th, 2016

      If we vote to stay we’ll be overwhelmed by criminal gangs and the Moslem hoards sweeping in from the east but if we leave the economy will collapse and we’ll be desperately trying to escape from a starving wasteland where the 4 horsemen of the Apocalypse roam! In other words, if the politicians are to be believed, whatever we do we are doomed.

      I just don’t know which way to vote – but I do feel you should vote – even if voting just means going to the polling station and spoiling a ballot paper. If we stop voting then we have no say whatsoever and can never win.

    • 2Dave Darby June 20th, 2016

      Hi John. This discussion is one for another day, but my position is that governments are not where real power lies, and whether we vote or not ‘we have no say whatsoever’ – apart from in choosing representatives to an institution that doesn’t have power. Elections tend to distract people from the fact that power in 21st century capitalism is corporate, and we don’t get to vote for it. Elections prolong and legitimise this situation, because they make people believe that they have some say in the way the world is run.

    • 3Steve Gwynne June 20th, 2016

      Im voting out. Personally I havent taken on board much of the general campaign but just researched the supposed facts and it is quite startling that even Caroline Lucas is lying through her teeth with her exaggerated claims that the eu is the saviour of europe.

      My response to a green party bremainer to the various saintly qualities of the eu including the notion that the eu is more democratic than uk parliamentary democracy ..

      Democracy is allowing the people to vote in policies. At present uk democracy is reduced to electing who will be the next managers of eu policy including eu neoliberalism. The eu instituted its policies with 0% of the public vote.

      Eu policy is designed to stimulate consumerism so of course it has an obligation through agenda 21 to dispose of its huge waste in an efficient way hence the landfill directive.. The same applies to cleaner beaches since effluent from manufacturing i industries has become increasingly more toxic.

      These eu safety features are simply mitigation measures so we dont kill ourselves with our highly consumptive lifestyles. It is also why the eu sets up free trade deals with developing countries in order to avoid its own safety levels. Shell and BP are of course notorious for dumping their toxic waste in regions with little or no effective safeguards.

      Obviously the eu is highly unsustainable with an ecological overshoot of 2.6 planets.

      The Berne Convention mandates the eu to protect biodiversity which gives rise to the Habitats Directives and is already incorporated into uk law as the wildlife and countryside act 1981.

      I guess your decision to remain is largely arrived at by framing the referendum like an election so you are choosing between the authoritarian nature of the eu which you see as a better policy option than the potential policy outcomes from a revitalised democratic uk which you envisage as being the worse option because you fear that the tories will demolish eu safeguards.

      Personally I dont see the tories demolishing safeguards which are already enshrined in uk law. There would be a public outcry considering the toxic nature of our production processes these days. Similarly, free from eu control, the left can actually be the left and form alternatives to eu neoliberalism. Also, many Tories are interested in eco-modernism and revitalising local economies just as much as the greens. Lastly any government is bound to the sustainable development goals 2030 which are already incorporated into the national planning policy framework. Unfortunately, without ever having the responsibilty of actually running the country it is difficult to determine to what extent the greens would actually do things differently.

      For me there would be little difference in how the tories would be compared to the present eu which is essentially right wing itself these days and will most definitely be moving more right if bremain wins considering Cameron’s ttip manifesto for the uk on the guise of his Best of Both Worlds regorm package. The first thing the eu will do with a bremain win will be to make ttip a sole competence of the eu under the common commercial policy and so change it from a shared competency as it is at present. Therefore with Cameron’s leadership which will be further augmented with the uk taking its turn as the eu council presidency will mean the tory corporates will be drilling down the finer details of eu neneoliberalism including how to enhance competition through deregulation. Once ttip becomes under the sole competence of the eu then it will leverage support through threats if heads of states dont conform.

      At the end of the day, the eu simply exists to enable global capital to dominate europe. Nothing more. Social and env protections are just mitigation measures to protect themselves from revolt and to keep the workforce relatively healthy and compliant.

      In terms of the eu green credentials, the eu funds green lobbies to lobby the eu. These lobbies are not accountable to anyone despite the fact that they are funded by taxpayers money. They are just an extension of the eu commission, like a quango. Natural England has gone down that path on a national level.

      It is global capital that is behind the eu and having no effective democracy means that is how it will remain. No electoral accountability, just keeping the four economic freedoms intact so that they can carry on with their wheelings and dealings unhindered with the support of the managerial class who implement and enforce competition and regulation rules.

      Ultimately, its all control in order to transfer power over to the private sector and keep countries in debt. Leaving is not a panacea but it does put some control back into the people and make our ‘chosen’ systems and policies more accountable and open to alternatives.

    • 4Dave Darby June 20th, 2016

      I agree with pretty much all of that – there’s a first time for everything, eh? ?

      especially ‘Eu policy is designed to stimulate consumerism’,

      ‘the eu is highly unsustainable with an ecological overshoot of 2.6 planets’ (and with a mission to increase it)

      and ‘At the end of the day, the eu simply exists to enable global capital to dominate europe. Nothing more.’

    • 5Steve Gwynne June 20th, 2016

      I might be wrong but I think the tories are outflanking us big time and have been from the start. They’ve put their most gruesome at the head of the leave campaign, scaring all the well meaning progressives into their well thought out trap, the Best of Both Worlds reform plan that the tories had already concocted with the eu council. As far as I am concerned this whole referendum has been about getting ttip past the uk electorate which they have openly presented in their best of both worlds deal. Brexit means any trade deal has to go through parliament whereas if ttip goes to exclusive competence, which is very likely, then it does not require national parliamentary ratification. They then just need to get the eu parliament on board.

      Although Brexit is not the best plan when considering the problems in europe, on a national level we are literally fighting for our political lives and if we lose even more national democracy, we are going to be royally fucked for ever more. The eu will just become more of a giant corporate monster consuming the planet and rendering us and our governments as debt ridden slaves.

      In this, I think Paul Mason and other Guardian ‘lefties’ has been duped big time. The weakness of the progressive left is their ideological adherence to liberalism. It makes them easy to manipulate and the tories have done a grand job of doing just that so we have whole swathes of the progressive left that believe the unreformable capitalist eu club is the better option despite it thriving on the power of public sector debt and rampant consumerism.

      In my opinion, the only way out of this corporatised neoliberal mess that we’ve got ourselves into since the Maastricht Treaty is to vote Brexit.

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