‘May you live in interesting times’ is a phrase of dubious origin but very real meaning for Europe’s leaders. Blessing or curse, times have been perhaps too interesting recently, as leaders watch the European project being dismantled in front of their eyes. They seem unable to change course and to have learned nothing from the accumulation of crises tormenting the European Union.
Take the financial crisis, widely acknowledged to have been caused by weak regulation and poor enforcement. Instead of learning from the past, toughening up laws and enforcing them more strictly, the European Commission – under President Jean-Claude Juncker in particular – has embarked upon a course of deregulation and, through its Better Regulation programme, sought to reduce ‘regulatory burden’.
But regulation is not a burden – rather a necessary tool for governments to do their duty and act in the public interest: to protect people’s health, wellbeing, labour rights and the environment, rather than oiling the wheels for companies to make quick profits.
From this perspective, a post-Brexit EU may be marginally better-off than one that includes the United Kingdom – or at least less worse-off. While the UK is not the only member state infected by the deregulation disease, it has been one of the strongest proponents of this agenda.
Former British prime minister David Cameron negotiated a reform package that, had the UK voted to remain in the EU, would have “…establish[ed] specific targets at EU and national levels for reducing burden on business…’’. While this approach will now hopefully be off the table, it is likely to be the only positive effect of the June 2016 referendum when it comes to the environment.
“Our transport, energy and farming systems are all eating away at the Earth’s safety net”
No-one can predict at this point how organised or disorganised the Brexit negotiations will be. But it is clear the impact for both the UK and the EU27 will be significant. There is a high risk that environmental and climate goals may be traded away in the process. This is why environmental organisations like Friends of the Earth, both on the continent and in the UK, are working together to ensure that the Britain does not water-down hard-won EU environmental standards and laws. Retaining them is not only important for the UK, but also to avoid a future where environmental dumping has a negative impact on the rest of the EU.
In spite of this cross-Channel uncertainty, the environmental challenges in Europe do not stem only from Brexit. As the world approaches safe planetary boundaries, and in some cases starts to cross them, we need a radical rethink of our economic system of production and consumption. The Arctic saw unprecedented temperatures of 20°C above normal at the end of 2016. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels officially passed the symbolic 400 parts per million mark in September last year, never to return below it in our lifetimes. Extreme weather is becoming the norm.
Large-scale impacts like these are rooted in the everyday. Our morning cup of coffee has a water footprint of 140 litres. Our throwaway cotton t-shirts require a staggering 2,700. Our transport, energy and farming systems are all eating away at the Earth’s safety net. We need a drastic change of course to avoid planetary catastrophe. Meanwhile, the world is entering the Trump era, where climate deniers and chiefs of fossil fuel companies no longer have the ear of government – they are the government.
At EU level it is no secret that Juncker has neither an understanding of nor an interest in the environment and its importance to our future. The European heads of states pursue ‘business as usual’ politics with an unwavering zeal, unwilling or unable to see that this approach is fuelling the numerous crises in which we find ourselves, from climate and the environment to the economy and democracy itself.
These are, in my view, much bigger challenges than anything Brexit might bring.
The change we need is profound. It may appear frightening at first. No-one will be more afraid than today’s political elites, who operate and legislate to a short-termist, short-sighted electoral calendar.
But this change is inevitable. The European electorate has run out of patience and is starting to turn to dangerous populists bearing false promises of healing the unease caused by increasing inequality and job uncertainty. Further austerity, deregulation and the granting of more rights to corporations will only fuel this isolationist fire. The status quo is an option we simply cannot afford to choose.
“67% of citizens want to see more EU action on the environment”
Instead, the solution lies in a new pact for Europe based on a positive vision of global solidarity, where people are engaged towards building a society that lives within its ecological limits; one that ensures that standards of fairness and equity are applied while keeping vested corporate interests at bay.
It is important to recognise that it makes more sense to develop progressive and sustainable policies at a European level than it does to act nationally. Left to their own devices, countries will begin a race to the bottom for environmental standards (and social rights), underpinned by the hope of attracting businesses and investment. There was a time when EU legislation on the environment, and on social issues such as women’s and migrants’ rights, was progressive and forward-looking. It has been done before, and we can do it again.
This unprecedented situation calls for unprecedented action.
I am talking to activists, non-governmental organisations, scientists and politicians in many countries, both inside and outside the EU. There are rays of light on the horizon. I see people forming new groups and coalitions to work for the environment, but also volunteering to improve the situation of refugees or marching for the rights of women. People are taking control of their lives and rekindling feelings of community. Political elites need to listen to these movements and empower them to build a society based on solidarity; one that can take care of its people while recognising environmental limits.
This means managing the negative impacts of globalisation by building sustainable and resilient local economies, supporting local food and energy systems and the full circularity of our economy. This change in mindset will be possible only if we also profoundly challenge our current patriarchal system and opt for collaboration over competition.
The environment remains a popular issue with citizens: 67% want to see more action from the EU in this area. Putting the environment and citizens’ health and well-being at the centre of the EU’s future is not just the most reasonable way forward, it is the only realistic option for restoring faith in the European project.
The EU can make the most of these interesting times. It is under the spotlight. It needs to deliver.
IMAGE CREDIT: © European Union 2014 – European Parliament