Having voted – albeit narrowly – to leave the European Union, we as a country are faced with a multiplicity of choices.
‘Brexit means Brexit’ Theresa May unhelpfully told us. In truth, ‘Brexit’ at the moment, with no formal negotiations having taken place, still means whatever anyone wants it to mean. The refusal of Leave advocates to describe the future outside the EU means that people have voted for the unknown. We have stepped through an exit door but we do not know yet which direction we are going to take on the other side, or where our final destination is.
The path we choose will define what kind of country we will become and our place in the world.
Not least among these choices is our attitude to the environment and sustainable economics. If Brexit must mean Brexit, then the Green Party – we campaigned passionately for Remain – will push as hard as we can for the pursuit of progressive, sustainable choices.
All options are – at least theoretically – on the table and we must seek a transparent, democratic, consultative negotiation process which explores all avenues to arrive at the best deal for Britain, our partners, and future generations.
The UK mustn’t fool itself that we can isolate ourselves from global environmental and economic challenges or respond to them alone. Climate change, resource scarcity, pollution and other environmental concerns do not recognise borders. As Caroline Lucas memorably said during the referendum campaign, ‘environmental problems don’t queue politely waiting for their passports to be checked’. So no matter what, we must continue to work with other countries and look for spaces to cooperate on environmental challenges.
The UK Government is going to have to decide what of the EU’s environmental legislation it will keep. Landmark EU directives on birds and habitats, marine life, water quality, and biodiversity have served us well for decades. Without them the UK risks resuming its status as ‘the dirty man of Europe’. The only green choice outside the EU is to maintain at least the same environmental protection standards – and the funding for nature conservation that goes with them – as we have now.
These are the laws that the now Minister of State with responsibility for agriculture, fisheries and food, George Eustice, described as “spirit-crushing” back in May, so this is likely to be a hard fight.
Emissions reductions, renewable energy and energy efficiency targets must be kept. Both the UK and the EU as a whole need to up their ambition to meet their commitments under the Paris climate agreement.
Stringent targets for reducing waste and increasing recycling and resource efficiency are essential. The UK would be foolish to walk away from progress the EU is making towards a more ‘circular economy’. Figures suggest that up to 20 million jobs could be created across Europe in the green economy by 2020. Whilst this transition is not yet happening fast enough, progress is in a positive direction and it would be folly for Britain to turn our backs on it. The UK should be aiming to be a global leader in renewables, resource efficiency and the creation of a green economy.
When it comes to agriculture, the choice to carry on with the existing rules will not exist. The UK will need to devise its own farm subsidy system to replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which currently grants UK farmers £3.1 billion each year.
Greens have rightly been critical of the detail of the CAP and pressed for payments to be more closely linked to nature protection and animal welfare. Sustainable agriculture policy means shifting farming away from intensive practices and factory farming. The environmental component of the CAP should not be lost and more environmental considerations must be made central to support schemes in future.
It will be disastrous if the new Secretary of State for environment, food and rural affairs, Andrea Leadsom, gets this wrong. If the subsidies are too low, this could put farmers out of business on a grand scale – with small farmers hit first and hardest. It could also lead to rising food prices and open up the countryside to intensification and GM crops where only global agribusiness can survive. In this scenario the UK could become even more reliant on imported food.
To avoid this we need a subsidy system which provides stable levels of support, especially for small farmers, and has environmental protection and animal welfare at its heart. Subsidies should also encourage long-term sustainable land and resource use and the urgent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. And, any subsidy system would also have to take account of WTO rules. These choices are available to Leadsom, but you’ll forgive me for being sceptical they are getting the top priority status in her department they need. Will the Minister even try to keep her referendum promise to maintain support to farmers?
Early indications of the direction of UK trade policy also give me cause for alarm. Trade needs to be seen not as an end in itself or a ‘duty’ but as a means to ensure sound social, environmental and workplace standards.
Much significance is being attached to our continued membership, or not, of the single market. But there is sometimes misunderstanding of the value of staying a member. It is not about a narrow neoliberal commitment to the free market – far from it. The single market applies ‘non-tariff barriers’ which in plain speak are product safety standards, energy efficiency standards, controls on chemicals, limits on emissions, as well as workers’ rights and all sorts of other environmental, social and anti-discrimination regulations that companies must – and do – comply with to operate within that market.
Free movement is also required under EU single market rules, and for these reasons a progressive outcome should mean staying in the single market.
But the future currently looks bleak for sustainable trade. The men tasked with negotiating Britain’s trading relationship; Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, and Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, favour a so-called ‘hard Brexit’ in which we sacrifice single market membership for controls on free movement. Let’s remember that inside the EU the Tory Government has been the loudest cheerleader of TTIP and CETA. If it can’t sign up to these mega deals between the EU and the US and Canada, then the Government will anyway use them as templates for its own harmful bilateral agreements. A Government that chooses not to protect workers’ rights in the EU is unlikely to do a better job outside it.
Worse, they are courting the types of agreements that would align the UK with multinational corporations, tax dodgers and arms dealers and go completely against trade justice and sustainability principles.
Without the EU framework, the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 are a useful alternative and our obligation to honour these is unaffected by the referendum outcome. They extend from environmental issues including climate, clean water, and ecosystems to poverty, gender equality, sustainable cities, resilient infrastructure, responsible consumption and production, and beyond. If the Government were to use the 17 SDGs as tests for its choices, I would be confident of heading in a more green and sustainable direction.
As the UK looks to loosen our ties with the EU, there are big choices to be made. Reducing inequality, building a sustainable society, and protecting the environment must be our goals. With the right choices we can still move towards these goals with our European neighbours. However, when people and politicians really start to look at the myriad of policies they will have to reinvent, and the associated bodies they will need to recreate, I wouldn’t be surprised if some who wanted to leave have second thoughts.
Jean Lambert, Green MEP for London (@GreenJeanMEP)