Brexit: radicals unmoored

The problems with the EU, I was told, are made concrete in the Altiero Spinelli building. The Kipper MEP I was meeting was aghast that the main building of the European Parliament would be named after this Italian communist and passionate European federalist. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t share my worries about the World Trade Organisation, the G8, or the Basel Accords – he didn’t know or care about the names of their buildings.

We discussed Spinelli during a week in 2004 when I lobbied MEPs in Brussels on a directive about software patents. The second of three trips for that obscure cause was all about persuading UKIP’s MEPs – who supported us in principle – to bother turning out for the vote. That week was spent with other free/open source software enthusiasts and small business owners, talking to all the Kippers (even Farage), hanging out in the Greens’ offices and fending off an invitation from a Tory MEP to build a website to track all charity donations. It was as good a political education as a term of my university degree.

Calling UKIP MEPs from the corridors and hanging out with the Greens in 2004.

Standing at a balcony discussing Spinelli, I tried to tell this MEP why he should be every bit as concerned by the WTO as he was by the EU.

But he seemed unconcerned. If not for reasons of architecture, it was because those other institutions enshrined principles of free trade, something he was content to cede sovereignty over. But to communism, federalism and freedom of movement? Never!

I now wish I had a copy of Ian Dunt’s book Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now? to hand. Because it lays out the bewildering complexity of not just the EU but the entire international legal and economic order in which Britain is hopelessly entangled. This not only makes leaving the EU unbelievably complicated and risky, but also more futile than most Brexiteers would lead you to think.

To take an example, Dunt estimates that one third of the EU’s remit focuses on churning out technical regulations, standards, testing and certification to comply with international bodies like the United Nations, the International Maritime Organisation, the International Labour Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Almost another third comes in the form of the EU cutting and pasting international standards on animal and plant health matters. Overall, most EU law starts in these other international bodies, rather than the Commission in Brussels.

In leaving the EU, we will still be bound by these international conventions. Far from freeing ourselves to trade the open seas, we will simply be putting ourselves through a decade-long bureaucratic nightmare to shake off a small portion of the regulations and conventions and rules that govern us. If we scrapped all the product standards and certification mechanisms our exports to Europe and America would sit rotting at border controls. If we tried to ramp up steel tariffs we’d have China on our back with a crippling WTO trade dispute.

On the afternoon of reading Dunt’s book I developed a painful headache that lasted well into the evening. I now want every politician that makes Brexit sound simple on the telly to be hit over the head by Dunt’s slim copy until their head hurts every bit as much as mine did.

His book made me more fully understand why so many want Britain to stay in the single market. It allows the UK to have an administrative Brexit – triggering Article 50, no longer being an EU member; and a political Brexit – leaving the Parliament, Council and Commission; but not an economic Brexit, avoiding a painful process of disentangling ourselves from tens of thousands of product and service standards that grease the wheels of trade, thousands of trade agreements and customs arrangements to carry those, and hundreds of mechanisms for testing, certification and enforcement to make it all work. It is this third Brexit that would be so painful, and threaten so many jobs and industries.

This would be why Caroline Lucas responded to Theresa May’s “we’re leaving the single market” speech by describing the plan as “a reckless gamble” that will “sacrifice our economy at the altar of ending free movement”.

But Lucas hasn’t always been a fan of the Single Market.

In 2001 she wrote a report from her Brussels office as an MEP criticising the free movement of agricultural goods. She asked why, for example, Britain imported 126 million litres of milk in 1997, the same year we exported 270 million litres of milk. This “great food swap” was associated with a range of ills including high carbon emissions, the loss of biodiversity, weak protections for animals, and the spread of animal disease.

The Single Market operates hand in glove with the Common Agricultural Policy, and both have wreaked havoc with our countryside, our small and tenant farmers, and the climate.

A few years later, and around the same time I was lobbying against software patents, I had been reading Colin Hines’ book Localization: A Global Manifesto, and Mike Woodin’s and Caroline Lucas’ Green Alternatives to Globalisation: A Manifesto.

In the latter, Lucas and Woodin proposed ‘sacking’ all the institutions of economic globalisation, and replacing globalisation with a new multilateralism. This new world order would enshrine the Green principle of subsidiarity – that we make and trade things at the most local appropriate level. Most milk, meat and veg would be produced as locally as sensible within the UK; we’d import fruit and less seasonal produce from the continent, spices and wines from around the world. Countries would be free to erect trade barriers to protect strategically important industries and sectors, like steel manufacture and public health systems. Such a system would tear the Single Market in pieces and rebuild it around ecological principles.

Molly Scott Cato, a Green Party MEP, has also ridden to the defence of the Single Market. Her ten point Green Guarantee requires that “the UK will defend its economic interests by remaining in the single market” before she can support triggering Article 50.

So what of Scott Cato’s economic radicalism found in books like Market Schmarket?

In that book she criticised free trade and the free movement of capital, arguing that both should be subject to more democratic control. She advocated local production and trade, with a contraction of resource use. She allowed for the place of markets, well regulated, but ultimately preferred a decentralised form of mutual and democratic ownership over an international free market.

Where has this radicalism gone?

Greens have always had a love-hate relationship with the EU. We criticise its undemocratic structures and neoliberal economic institutions, but on balance support it because of its ability to tackle serious ecological and social problems.

The Single Market wins favour because it enshrines hundreds of legal protections afforded to people and planet in what the EU calls its “acquis communautaire”. In a truly free market, capital will seek competitive advantages by driving down labour, environmental and health and safety standards. This body of EU law constraints the free market, preventing this race to the bottom.

Lucas and Scott Cato and other Greens have made this latter case in recent months. Read Lucas’ excellent report on the protecting the environment through Brexit, for example.

But they – and many other pro-EU radicals – have also fallen into step with the mainstream in defending the conventional economic importance of the Single Market. Greens now appear to extend our support to the entire liberal international order in reaction to the horror that is Brexit, Trump and Le Pen.

Dunt’s book makes a powerful case for the futility of leaving the EU and entering an equally constrained and complex international order. But it also left me feeling that I had heard these arguments before, levelled against Greens for our radical revisioning of the international order. Ours an is even more ambitious vision than UKIP’s. We would tear down the lot – including the EU, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, heck, maybe even the International Maritime Organisation. Unlike Leavers, we would then rebuild these international institutions, along democratic lines and to enshrine principles of ecology, equality and peace.

In jumping to defend the Single Market and Britain’s “economic interests”, the public might be left wondering whether Lucas and Scott Cato still want to have that fight with the international order, just like the Brexiteers? Ours is a difference of purpose and ambition, but we would not allow warnings about “sacrificing our economy at the alter of x/y/z” to turn us from this task. We don’t believe our economy is in a very good shape, anyway, being based upon ecological devastation and appalling inequality.

Lucas tried this line of argument with Jon Snow on Channel 4 News recently, sharing the anti-globalisation concerns of Farrage, Le Pen and Trump but arguing for a “progressive” response to these problems.

This interview was really very welcome, and timely. It showed another side to the party after our repeated defence of the status quo. It suggested that we, too, are anti-establishment radicals. But what, then, of her warning of reckless gambles? What of Scott Cato’s call to defend our economic interests?

Over-complicating your story is never a good way to ensure people remember it. There’s a simplicity to saying “no hard Tory brexit, stay in the Single Market”, and an attraction at a time of sheer panic at Trumpism. But it’s not a very Green argument, and risks supporting the very arguments that block any kind of radical Green agenda.

Perhaps we all enjoyed the calm waters of the EU, in which we could propose a bold move into open seas without ever having to actually go there?

Brexit has unmoored us from this calm, making the counter-arguments to our radicalism all too real.

Faced with the prospect of a race to a tax haven island on a boat full of petty xenophobes, we crane our ears to hear the siren voices of the Single Market.

No economic Brexit! We cry. We’ll trade in our radicalism for the safe harbour of the acquis communautaire.

EDIT 21/02/2017 – one day after publishing this, Molly Scott Cato MEP published a fantastic pair of reports on agricultural policy post-Brexit and post-Single Market, setting out a clear Green vision to strengthen environmental protections and support small farmers.


  1. Martin said:

    It’s a bit unusual to find a blog post on politics that doesn’t come to some simple soundbitey conclusion. Or did you come to one and I missed it?

    So come on Tom, what do you hope will happen? Or do you even know what to hope for?

    20th February 2017
    • tomchance said:

      I’m really not sure!

      I could set out my ideal scenario – persuading the public of the futility and danger of the Government’s direction of travel but pivoting popular disquiet towards more radical reforms of EU institutions.

      But I’m not sure that’s a very realistic aim. As it stands, I think we need to focus more clearly on the environmental and social protections and avoid being drawn into general statements of support for EU institutions like the Single Market.

      21st February 2017
  2. davidflint said:

    We have the same dilemma for climate change policy. We need a carbon tax and therefore we need to tax the carbon embedded in imports. Now I’m no lawyer but I’m fairly sure that is inconsistent with EU and WTO rules, and probably with other treaties too.

    The standard green answer is that we seek reform of these institutions so that they support a sustainable world. But we are kidding ourselves. Decades of experience should have taught us that they cannot be reformed in that way. Or not in time to be useful.

    So should we prioritise addressing the biggest threat facing humanity and non-human life? Or should we prioritise the economic advantages of EU/WTO membership?

    For Greens that ought to be easy. We prioritise the survival and well-being of human and non-human over economic measures like GDP. We know that GDP is a rubber ruler. But behind GDP is the reality of people with inadequate housing, insecure work and poor diets. These, surely, are important issues of human well-being.

    Personally I would prioritise climate change. But I’d be a lot happier if someone could tell me just what economic price I’d be paying!

    22nd February 2017
  3. robjlinds said:

    Great piece. This is has nailed exactly what I was worried about with some of the Green rhetoric going on. So pleased that Caroline and Molly have started to paint a Green Brexit picture. I voted Remain because I didn’t want an extreme right Brexit. Now Brexit is inevitable we must push for a Green Brexit – a Grenexit, if you will. For starters do not replace the CAP, throw it away and replace with a susbidy for transition to organic and carbon neutral farming. Localise the economy, devolve tax raising and other powers to councils and scrap the Local Enterprise Partnerships.

    22nd February 2017
  4. “a reckless gamble” that will “sacrifice our economy at the altar of ending free movement”.

    For me part of the problem here is that ‘we’ have to win the argument again.

    This is the first generation when many of us are less hopeful for our children than we were for ourselves as children. In a situation like this people retreat into nostalgia. “When they are disenchanted by something in the present, can you meet them in an idealized place in the past and build from there?” Impossible to Ignore. See ‘Make America Great Again’

    I think a lot of people want to go back to before the Blair government when ‘all the eastern europeans came in’ and they felt positive about their future.

    I don’t know what swing is required, without that information I can’t see how fruitful these conversations are?

    The only way to take on this fiction of an idealize past to have a better product and that is a really tall order. We have to show that their product is total crap and that we have something better.

    People need to believe staying is going to give their kids better jobs than they have. That it means we can keep the safety nets we have and that in fact they will be improved. That although we wont be able to control who comes in, we will have the choice of good fulfilling jobs that family time will be protected and the rewards will be fairly distributed.

    That is a really tall order. I don’t see anyone involved in the single market getting their cheque book out to fulfill that level of promise. That is probably what is required at this point.

    23rd February 2017

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