So David Cameron has finally come out with his big Europe speech. And yes, it’s clear his policy is a mess of competing interests, many of which will be somewhat unsavoury to green tastes, from the little Englanders on his party’s right to his banker friends in the City of London. It’s also likely that the referendum he talks about will never ultimately come to pass, most obviously if ungrateful voters should for some curious reason choose not to reward his spectacular governmental record with a clear majority at the next election.
But actually, in theory I have nothing against either the repatriation of selected powers, or with a referendum on whether we should be a part of the EU. Certainly I’m extremely reluctant to throw in my lot with those who argue we can’t hold a referendum on the grounds that the uncertainty may spook the market. I’m afraid democracy is inherently uncertain. This is not an argument against it, it’s an argument against the free market forces that increasingly try to dictate the limits of what is democratically acceptable.
Unfortunately, it’s those same free market forces that Cameron et al (and that et al includes Miliband et al) want to enshrine as the very heart of the European project. This is very far from the green position. The powers we must most urgently reclaim are those which have been granted to market forces (or more precisely, to an international financial elite who make daily decisions about billions of pounds of investments) and have thereby been removed from democratic accountability anywhere. We must reclaim the powers needed to pursue the re-localisation of our economy, and with it, a real empowerment of society at a grassroots level. This is what green politics is all about.
But I deliberately say we must ‘reclaim’ these powers rather than ‘repatriate’ them, because it may well be the case that in some areas extra powers have to granted to international institutions in order to challenge the rule of the market – paradoxically we may need to internationalise in order to be able to localise. Certainly the alternative route to localisation, a unilateral throwing up of trade barriers, from capital controls to tariffs to import quotas, is distinctly unattractive. The green localisation agenda is emphatically not about cutting ourselves off from the world and throwing away the benefits of international co-operation. Without international co-operation we will never be able to effectively regulate international financial markets; we will never be able to stop the super-rich playing one state off against another in a global race to the bottom on taxation, environmental standards and much more. Similarly without international cooperation we stand no chance of ever being able to fight the profound threat of climate change.
We should also recognise that localisation in no way implies that absolutely all economic activity can or should be carried out locally. For example certain raw materials may only be available in limited geographical areas and must be traded globally or done without, or to give another example, renewably sourced electricity may be much more viable with an electricity grid that covers the whole continent of Europe and even further afield, this geographical spread would held to even out production of intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar energy. Another case is food security – for all the clear benefits of food sovereignty, it is also clear that without the ability to fall back on a functioning international food market, any country or region is at much greater risk of acute food shortages in the event of localised crop failures, which are only likely to become more common with ongoing global warming.
All these challenges can be best faced if we work together with other countries. Obviously the EU isn’t perfect. There is too much of an urge to centralise power in the EU for centralisation’s sake. Power should only be exercised at an international level where it will essentially be ineffective at a more local level. Also, if the EU itself isn’t democratically accountable then there’s little benefit it granting it powers to challenge the market in democracy’s name – and at present the EU is clearly not democratic enough. And the EU does do some good work even at present, for example much valuable legislation on workers and human rights has been passed at European level (just one of the reasons the Tory right wing dislikes it so much!) But regardless of what you think of the current set-up of the EU, we must recognise that voting to leave it would not be seen as a clarion call for a better kind of EU to be created, it would simply be seen as a turn inwards, away from the rest the continent, and that we cannot afford to do. It is only through participating in the EU and in other international organisations that we can hope to change them, and only by doing that can we begin to hope to change the world.