A really interesting evening was had at the Priory Street Centre for the GreenSpeaks event on exploring EU referendum issues with an environmental focus. The two quite brilliant experts we had were politics lecturer Dr Sofia Vasilopoulou discussing democracy and public opinion and causes/ consequences of Euroscepticism which sparked an interesting discussion on why there is an underlying attitude of “them and us” for some people in the UK and our conclusion that a better question than IN or OUT would be a collective vision of “what kind of Europe do we want?” Followed by environment lecturer Dr Charlie Burns who presented some of the findings from “The EU Referendum and the UK Environment: An Expert Review”  demonstrating how as part of the EU we can share expertise transnationally in order to tackle global issues such as the refugee crisis and climate change.

All that plus due kudos awarded to the YGP in putting on an event a) hosted by our female policy officer alongside b) two female speakers- gender balance and environment focus achieved! – which, it was noted, are both typically lacking in the referendum campaigns elsewhere.
Sofia Vasilopoulou, Lecturer in politics’, opening talk aimed to correct some common assumptions:

  • Myth busters

1. The EU Commission makes our legislation
Yes, they’re unelected but they don’t make our laws- they consult widely and make drafts. Their proposals need to be co-approved by the EU Council (elected) and the European Parliament (EP). Our opinion I that it’s not an issue of representation per se but one of accountability – who exactly to blame.

2. EU is too bureaucratic
Only 6% of the total EU budget is spent on civil servants (30k people compared to 400k people in UK)

3. Is the UK on the winning side of arguments in the EP?
From 2004-9 we were about 80% of the time. Since 2009 this has declined for reasons such as the rise of UKIP.

…highlighted key issues such as

  • What is the main- democratic- problem with the EU Referendum?

There are no clear policy options, including on the environment. This is a serious democratic issue and is not the same in other national referendums e.g. New Zealand where the public are given specific questions relating to policy and clearer options to choose from. For us, no one knows, a) what really is the current status quo? Or b) what really are the alternatives?

This was all gratefully received since significant areas of concern were raised from the audience about the steadily increasing lack of democracy and transparency across the political sphere, at home or in Brussels and how governments are distrusted by serving the interests of large corporations primarily above their own people. This argument does not mean, quid pro quo, that this would in any-way be resolved by leaving the EU… One solution being trialled is to call more strongly on academic experts to influence decision-making but unfortunately this is also considered an undemocratic option.

And, recapped for us the 3 potential scenarios the referendum could bring:

  • Scenarios
  1. Remain in a Reformed EU ..for which there is low uncertainty of our position.
  2. Leave and join EEA… … all rules and regulations would still apply This means the EU rules and regs would now be made and implemented without the UK having an opportunity to shape them. (except for: the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), water quality and habitats + birds policies which would each be repatriated (remade at the national level).
  3. Leave and pursue free trade relationship with EU… in regards to which environmental NGOs are particularly pessimistic about standards being maintained and any long-term policy stability would be uncertain.
  • Key points:
    A consequence of leaving is that we will be made an example of which might in itself impact negatively on the remaining countries: any country choosing to leave would be left out at the negotiating table on its future relationship with the EU AND we could quite likely face more regulation since it is currently the UK who block a lot of it getting through the EP!

Next Charlotte Burns, Senior lecturer in Environmental politics and policy spoke about

  • Hot policy topics:
    Experts from both the marine and agricultural worlds concede that the CAP and the CFP have been disastrous but that a) our fisheries were already in decline before that so some kind of commonly shared policy is essential anyway and the CFP is in the process of reform no; there would be no confidence in that progressing if we vote leave and b) understandably farmers are unsure whether they will get their money post-referendum but intensive farming was equally becoming a major problem in the UK anyway and there a big questions over any responsible stewardship in place if we left the EU; the UK has been a key driver in pushing for green policy in the CAP so far.

And notable EU-based environmental achievements

  • Water quality e.g. pre-EU in the 1970’s there were only 27 designated safe bathing sites, since there are now 671 due to minimum standards being met in 98.9% of places.
  • Recycling has increased 400% since EU directives established in 2000.
  • Habitats + Birds: many regulatory ‘Fitness checks’ have been beneficial to our wildlife.

A general (cake-fuelled) discussion followed with questions and inspiring points from the floor, including:

  1. It is such a political minefield because we are comparing apples with organs – the Labour government who were at least somewhat environmentally minded versus the current Tory administration who are picking part the Climate Change act.
  2. Where does the strength of feeling for Brexit come from?
    Broadly speaking, economic reasons are driving the Remain campaign and migration issues are driving the Leave campaign. It would be helpful if both sides addressed their respective not-so-comfort-factorial issues!
    There are ‘hard’ Euro-sceptics who are typically “old white males” perhaps feeling disenfranchised and fear losing control (although this generalisation was countered by an older white female in the audience who said most of the elderly people she had spoken to were pro-Remain) and there are ‘Soft’ Euro-sceptics who could swing the vote due to a lack of ‘hard’ Europhiles!
  3. Do you think the problem of the UK media giving us constant messages that “Brussels is complicated!” and that “we can’t lobby Brussels” and its huge influence in shushing EU-focussed news and interest generally is probably one of the reasons we are lacking in hard Europhiles? There has been no successfully maintained, EU funded central information centre on all-things-EU in this country like there are elsewhere- the media would prey on such a thing!
    Yes, there is research which substantiates this but there have always been factions of EU dissent from Tory and Labour sides which contribute to the “don’t talk about Brussels!” culture alienating people from being confident to talk about it for fear of being branded as ‘So-Pro’!
    Also, Euroscepticism is not a British problem specifically.
  4. What is the significance of such strong feelings over sovereignty? The main Brexiteers seem to operate within a neo-colonial ideology longing something akin to past colonial times.
    Yes, people do have perceptions of both cultural and economic advantages of the past.
  5. How will the numbers decide the final outcome? – will 1, 10 or 100 votes be considered enough – we have not been told!
    Either way, there is no certainty that this ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity will be either held to account or not repeated!

To conclude,

  • Ideally, the questions that matter should be reframed around What kind of EU do we want? And I would advocate, as does Compass’s ‘Good Europe’, that the emergence of transnational networks of political action as the only “European and democratic alternative to the neoliberal incarnation of the European project”.
  • Please visit this website to Charlotte Burns’ document “The EU Referendum and the UK Environment: An Expert Review”
  • Most importantly, Please encourage everyone to get registered to vote, especially young people, BY 7TH JUNE, just 2 more weeks!

Thank-you, Rosie Baker, Policy Officer.

PS. Look out for the next “GreenSpeaks” discussion event coming soon!

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