10 Mar 2016
Introducing ‘International’ – and some reflections on Brexit/Bremain
Our theme for the next 2 months is ‘International’. With the Transition movement now being active in over 50 countries, it feels like a good time to pause and reflect on how that is working, what it looks like, and the many wonderful things, and the challenges, that arise from that. To kick off our theme, I want to offer some reflections on the forthcoming EU referendum here in the UK (The Guardian have done a great guide to what it’s all about here). During this theme, we will look at this from a variety of perspectives, both within the UK and outside. I want to start with some of my own reflections, and how the current debates, and the issues they raise, impact on me.
It is important to be clear that what follows is not an official Transition movement, or Transition Network position on the in/out EU referendum. Within the movement there will be a wide variety of views, and many who will disagree with what I am about to write. These are just my own personal thoughts. We will try very hard to tease out issues and perspectives that make it relevant wherever you are in the world, rather than being just some parochial British storm in a tea cup. If you feel moved or inspired (on enraged!) to share your thoughts, we’d love to hear from you.
So, for me, with the Referendum looming in June, I feel like the bewildered child of argumentative parents. I feel as though one parent (Parent One) is hugely overbearing, thinks they know what’s best for me, takes little consideration of my feelings, has addiction issues, and wants to take my life in a direction that deeply alarms me … think something along the lines of Cruella De Vil.
The other parent (Parent Two) is also somewhat self-obsessed, has a ruthless streak, is used to living the high life, but has a slightly better track record in terms of caring about the good things in my life. The dilemma I am facing is whether an upcoming custody case, whose decision will be almost entirely out of my hands, is going to award Parent One sole custody, or whether custody will be jointly awarded. I find myself longing desperately for joint custody.
Please don’t leave me alone with George Osborne…
Let me expand on this odd custody case analogy a little. Parent One is the UK government. Given that historically any non-Conservative, or left-leaning administrations needed most or all of the 59 Scottish seats to make up a majority government, and in the last election Scotland voted almost entirely for the pro-independence Scottish National Party, it feels increasingly likely that we may have this current Conservative, neo-liberal, austerity-fixated administration in office for many years to come.
We hear much talk from the Brexit camp (those who want the UK to leave the EU, and who can be found across the political spectrum, indeed the Conservatives are split on the issue) that this is about the UK having more control over its sovereignty, but actually, the UK government is already doing a great job of taking away power from people in a number of ways. For example, the changes to the planning system that overrides local opinion, or what’s happening under the guise of ‘devolution’, an approach which actually puts more power into the hands of local business elites than local people (see our interview with Bob Hudson for more). Democracy is becoming more and more meaningless here, with more and more power residing with unelected business elites under the obsessive belief that “growth” is the most important thing.
The UK government’s current approach is all about freedom of movement for goods and money, but minimising the freedom of movement for the victims of our appalling foreign policy gaffes of the last 20 years. Their focus is on the rights of capital, not of people. They put the wellbeing of the fossil fuel industry before the creation of a renewable energy infrastructure. The other political parties have yet to be as vociferous on the issue as the Conservatives, but hopefully will be increasingly so.
Parent Two: the EU and its democracy deficit
Parent Two (the EU) isn’t perfect either. As Tim Lang and Victoria Schoen put it their excellent briefing paper on the impacts of a Brexit on the food sector, the EU “has been a bulwark against powerful forces, but it has also been subverted by them”. Parent Two spends money like it’s going out of fashion, is very hard to communicate with, and also has a serious democracy deficit.
Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek Finance Minister, has referred to the European Union, in particular the European Commission and the European Central Bank, as “democracy-free zones by design”. As he points out, the EU was originally set up as a cartel of heavy industry, as the European Community of Coal and Steel, later on adding farming to its focus. “It was never meant to be the beginning of a Republic of a democracy where “we, the people of Europe”, rule the roost”, he adds.
As the Finance Minister of a democratically-elected radical anti-austerity government in Greece, his account of meetings with European finance ministers is illuminating. He recalls being told by one German Finance Minister, “elections cannot be allowed to change established economic policy”. He continues, “the Troika asserted quite clearly that democracy cannot be allowed to change anything”.
The skeletons in the EU’s closet
Much of the power in the EU lies with the unelected European Commission, rather than in the European Parliament, which Varoufakis calls “a cruel joke”. “It doesn’t function as a proper Parliament” he states. Among other things, the European Commission and Central Bank treated Greece appallingly following the financial collapse of 2008.
The Greeks were (and still are) subjected to what economist James Galbraith called a form of “collective punishment”. It was an approach that, between 2008 and 2011 led to a 40% rise in infant mortality and a 47% rise in unmet healthcare needs, as well as an explosion of HIV cases and suicides. The ‘Recovery Plan’ for Greece insisted that spending on public health be kept below 6% of GDP, while Germany, one of the key EU states driving for the plan, rightly celebrates committing more than 10% on its own budgets to public health. And when the bailouts arrived, with their many onerous strings attached, where did they go? As David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu note in ‘The Body Economic’:
“The New York Times investigated and found that the IMF and European Central Bank were funnelling money through Greece and straight back to the UK, France, the United States, and Germany, to creditors there who had contributed to Greece’s disastrous bubble. Greece’s bailout was using public funds not to help Greece, but to rescue the poorly invested private money of the world’s banking elite”.
And we don’t even have space in this article to mention TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (which would make much of what Transition aspires to do far more difficult), although I will say that, as Caroline Lucas MP points out, overturning TTIP is best done from within the EU. David Cameron is its loudest cheerleader, and already 3 million of our European neighbours have signed a petition opposing it.
Standing up for democracy
At the heart of the problems with both of my squabbling parents is that we are being robbed of democracy at all scales: internationally; nationally; regionally and locally: as is happening in many places around the world.
For Varoufakis, “we have, at most, one decade to change Europe”, and key to that is to democratise the EU. In the same way that we need to fight for meaningful democracy in the UK, oppose unelected, un-transparent but increasingly influential bodies like Local Enterprise Partnerships, and the removal of democracy being carried out under the cover of ‘devolution’, we must also do the same within the EU.
Interestingly, there has been, over recent years, significant interest within the EU towards Transition, a growing awareness that it last lost connection with communities and people on the ground, and that it can learn much from movements like Transition. One manifestation of this was Transition Network winning the European Economic and Social Committee’s prize in 2012. There is a lot of interest in what can be learnt from Transition.
Varoufakis has started the ‘Democracy in Europe’ movement (see their Manifesto here), to directly tackle the democracy deficit within the EU, especially the Commission, which he describes as “not answerable to any parliament”. “Dreaming of a united, democratised Europe is our only weapon against a divided, authoritarian, potentially Dark Europe” he recently wrote. We need to stick around and play an active role in this.
Why I lean towards ‘Bremain’
But in spite of all the negatives about the EU, Parent Two has done more good things for the issues I care most about (the environment, social justice, human rights, workers rights, and, as Lang and Schoen argue, for food and farming). I see more evidence that they care, that they hold power to account. The UK’s seas are cleaner, our air more breathable, our workers better protected, and so on, because of them.
Without their influence, with no second parent to turn to, I fear deeply for Parent Two no longer having a role to play in my life, no longer being able to act as a restraining influence on Parent One. Among other things, as Lang and Schoen point out, a Brexit would lead to “unravelling 43 years of co-negotiated food legislation and exchange”.
I would have no right of appeal, no second opinion, the lunatics would truly have taken over the asylum. It was Parent Two, after all, who called for a Robin Hood Tax, and for an EU-wide cap on bankers’ bonuses, and Parent One who sunk both proposals.
It’s a future too bleak and horrible to contemplate, and, as the window to address climate change rapidly contracts, we would be placing our future in the hands of an administration for whom it is an issue to be brushed beneath the carpet whenever possible. Yes, of course we must not be passive, must come together to resist where we can, and must redouble our endeavours to model new approaches, different models, community investment and so on. But we must also argue the case for joint parenting as being the far preferable of the two options.
A future of true devolution, of local empowerment, of resilient, thriving, happy local low carbon economies, will be far more possible if we ‘Bremain’. That’s what I think anyway. What about you?
For those of you who follow Transition Network on social media, we will be posting the Best of the Press, from both sides, over the next couple of months. If you come across anything particularly good that you feel needs sharing, do get in touch.