Why I’ll be voting Remain tomorrow

The Green Party and I strongly believe in participatory democracy, and a commitment to a public referendum was included in our manifesto at last year’s General Election. We stand for Three Yeses to Europe – Yes to a referendum, Yes to EU reform, and Yes to staying in a reformed Europe. 

I will be voting to remain tomorrow. As I outlined  in plenary of the European Parliament, I want Britain to remain a part of the EU because I believe that we need to work together on shared solutions to the collective challenges we face. Climate change, the pollution of our oceans, terrorism and the refugee crisis shows no respect for borders and require collaborative and cooperative solutions. Isolationist politics can play no part in today’s globalised world.

Through this campaign it’s become clear there are concerns of some that the European project has been running ahead of what the people of the UK and Europe as a whole are comfortable with. I share these but I think a significant part of this is driven by poor coverage in the UK media of just what goes on at the EU level and how decisions are made. I still believe the European story should be celebrated; countries with different histories and cultures, benefitting from unprecedented peace and stability and working together for the common good.

It’s clear that the EU is strong when it works together: Whilst the Out campaign are unsure about whether they would like Britain to have a relationship like Norway or Switzerland or neither, it is important to note that these are both small countries with specialised ‘niche’ economies: Switzerland with its often-criticised banking system, and Norway with its massive oil reserves. Both countries’ industries have to follow EU rules as that is their main market and as non-members, they have no say over the adoption of those EU rules. They cannot defend their interests. They have, effectively, lost sovereignty through their isolation — as the Norwegian government itself admits. Nor does staying out save money — the Norwegian contribution per capita to the European budget is about the same as that of the UK.

There are many fundamental reasons myself, the Green Party, and my colleagues, (other elected MEPs from across Europe) in the Greens-EFA group of the European Parliament want the UK to stay in the EU as I’ve covered on this blog before.

  • Peace and democracy – The EU has helped secure peace among previously warring Western European nations. It helped to consolidate democracy in former Soviet bloc countries and has helped preserve peace in the Balkans since the end of the Balkans War. With the UN it now plays a leading role in conflict prevention, Peacekeeping, and democracy building.
  • Equal pay and non-discrimination – Equal pay for men and women is enshrined in EU law, as are bans on discrimination by age, race or sexual orientation. This benefits Britain, and the many British people who live across Europe.
  • Environmental protection – Pollution and climate change don’t respect national borders, so we need cross-border solutions to these challenges. Europe was a key player in the COP 21 negotiations in Paris, and sets the bar high globally for environmental legislation. For example in the South West, the bathing waters scheme has drastically improved the quality of our beaches.
  • Influence in the world – As a group of democracies, and as the world’s biggest market, the EU is strong when it works together. Britain is represented in many international organisations in joint EU delegations, and drives a strong human rights agenda across the world, recently calling for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia for example. The EU plays a major role in climate, world trade and development.
  • Fighting crime – The European Arrest Warrant replaced long extradition procedures and enables the UK to extradite criminals wanted in other EU countries, and bring to justice criminals wanted in the UK who are hiding in other EU countries. Eurojust helps UK authorities work with other EU countries’ to tackle international organised crime such as drug smuggling, people trafficking and money laundering.
  • Research funding – The UK is the second largest beneficiary of EU research funds, and the British Government alongside our academics expect future EU research funding to constitute a vital source of income for our world-leading universities and companies. Exeter University just this February received€700,000 EU funding to study our future food, water and energy security.

We recognise that the European Union isn’t perfect; it would be idyllic to think so. However, being at the table means that we are able to push for real progressive reform – something the Greens continue to do. Following a vote in Parliament to protect the EU’s world leading Nature Directives, I spoke in plenary about my commitment to a Europe of peace and unity, and later that day about how I will be using European powers to investigate the Google tax scandal in the UK.

It’s evident that those who fantasise about Brexit are driven by ideologies that impact the worst off in our society the hardest, through their contempt for our high social and environmental standards. It’s also certain the markets will be equally as unforgiving, and again, they will shoulder the burden. But my commitment to our European project isn’t through fear, it’s through celebrating all we’ve achieved in strength and unity. We shouldn’t be thinking of leaving Europe, we should be leading it loud and proud.

Tomorrow we’ll be asked a question bigger than any single one of us. Whatever the outcome Friday morning, the result will impact our entire society. 

Brexit on the environment and Green Economy

While my life as an MEP continues with the busy round of committee meetings and visits to scythe fairs (ok, that was something of a one-off!) it is hard not to be distracted by the referendum campaign. It is especially hard to overlook the comments from George Eustice, the environment minister who is fighting for us to leave the EU, about the impact of the EU’s environmental legislation.

The EU has been widely praised as a global beacon of strong protection for species, habitats, and the cleanliness of our air, water and beaches. This has led to a raft of the UK’s environmental pressure groups coming down clearly in support for our continued membership of the EU; even risking their charitable status in the process. From Friends of the Earth and RSPB to the Wildlife Trusts and Bug Life, the organisations that do the most to restrain the destructive impacts of unsustainable business have joined in common voice to make clear the importance of our remaining inside the EU.

However, there is less unity at DEFRA.  To Eustice this legislation is ‘spirit crushing’. He gleefully foresees the end of the Birds and Habitats Directives. Greening and cross-compliance measures included in the Common Agricultural Policy would, in a post-Brexit world, be replaced with insurance schemes and non-statutory accreditation.

The hostility to climate change action is also a feature shared by many in the Leave camp. Former Chair of Vote Leave, Nigel Lawson, was the founder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which dedicated itself to delaying government action on climate change, while leading Brexiteer Michael Gove tried to remove a study of climate change from the school curriculum during his disasterous stint as Minister of Education.

We have already seen from this Tory government the impact of their close ties with the fossil fuel industry and their hostility to renewables. However, the prevalence of ideological opponents of climate change suggests an even more troubled future for the UK’s hugely promising renewables industry outside the EU, where we would no longer have the current mandatory targets on renewable capacity.

While in many EU member states the Green transition has been seen as an economic opportunity, to the British Conservative party it is always portrayed as a burden on business. No wonder, then, that we have no capacity for the manufacture of either solar panels or large-scale wind turbines (and full credit to Dale Vince for developing micro turbines in my home town of Stroud). Small wonder also that the Tory government has shown such inordinate enthusiasm for the toxic white elephant at Hinkley Point, but has always been lukewarm about the proposed tidal lagoons in the Severn Estuary which would represent a huge engineering advance for the country.

This distorted view of EU policy to support green industry has been typified by the banal and ill-informed debate around energy-efficient products. While other European manufacturers are watching energy standards tighten and upgrading their products to match, British businessmen are forced to read the Daily Express nonsense about floppy toast and the theft of the Great British roast. The higher-efficiency products will limit energy in, not energy out, meaning they work better and reduce consumers’ energy bills. But given the deliberate misunderstanding of this policy in the UK, we are unlikely to see them manufactured here, as foreign competitors with support from their forward-thinking, future-proofing governments have a huge industrial advantage.

The absence of the environment from the referendum campaign has been noted by Green commentators, but I think the environment is highly present as a ‘hidden’ issue. When Brexiteers talk about cutting red tape, what they have in mind is a full-scale assault on the legislation that protects our special places and ensures climate responsibility from businesses. This foreshadows a Dickensian world where the profit motive is allowed to let rip, heralding a chilly future indeed for Green Business.

 

This blog was originally posted on Business Green.

Animal Exports and the EU

In 1997, European lawmakers agreed that animals should be protected in all areas of EU trade; the definition of animals as sentient beings was adopted to show animal welfare should never be ignored.

We’re known for our caring nature in the South West, and a lot of constituents have written to me in the past with concerns over animal exports from the UK. Some on the Leave side are using this as a platform to call for us to exit the European Union, in a cynical attempt to manipulate peoples’ caring nature into votes for their own cause – one we know involves a bonfire of legislation they label “red tape”. As animal welfare advocates myself and the rest of the Greens-EFA group will continue to be vocal supporters of abolishing the practice. Unfortunately leaving the EU will not help us achieve our goal.

To be clear, there have been no live export sailings from the South West, or anywhere in the UK to date this year, and all sailings for slaughter last year were of sheep, from the port of Ramsgate in the South East. As Vice President of the Animal Welfare intergroup here in the European Parliament, my Green colleague for the region Keith Taylor MEP has been working tirelessly on this issue, whether live animals are exported from the UK or elsewhere in the European Union.

Whether a member or not of the EU, the UK is bound by the rules and regulations that come with being a member of the World Trade Organisation. These rules, as the RSPCA have pointed out, enshrine the principle of free movement of trade. Should the UK attempt to unilaterally ban live exports, it is likely that such a trade restriction would be overruled by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

A major impediment to the adoption of stronger animal protection legislation by the EU (and other countries) is the free trade legislation of the WTO. The conventional view is that while a WTO member country may prohibit the use of cruel practices in its own jurisdiction, it cannot restrict the import/export of products with other countries. EU officials often state that they cannot take a particular action because it would be incompatible with the WTO rules. For example, the EU has been unable to ban:

  • The import of products made with eggs from hens kept in barren battery cages, despite the EU prohibiting this farming system across member states.
  • The import of fur products from the US, Canada and Russia which use cruel leghold traps, instead they have negotiated agreements with these countries that at the moment do little to truly discourage their use.

We can only speculate about what the Conservatives would do in the event of a vote to Leave, but I doubt that a party that has already tried to weaken our animal welfare laws would put banning live exports at the top of its agenda.

Either way, a UK ban on live exports is not the route to bring about an end to his trade. As a part of the EU, we can push for tougher welfare protections for exported animals. The recently launched Stop The Trucks campaign is calling on the EU Commission to review and update Council Regulation 1/2005 on the protection of animals during transport and Austria, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands have all submitted an official request for such (the UK is yet to do so).

The introduction of stronger regulations that impose maximum journey times and better conditions that align with animal welfare science, could bring about an end to live exports from the UK as the majority of journeys would fall outside the maximum recommended journey time of eight hours. For example trials by Compassion in World Farming have highlighted 18 hour journeys from Northern England to France (630 miles) and 23 hour journeys from Southern England to South Germany (590 miles). So we see again that with the political will, we can achieve great things through the European institutions. If animals had a vote, they’d vote to remain!

 
Along with my colleagues Jean Lambert and Keith Taylor, I produce a  newsletter on Animal Welfare and the EU called Making Tracks. You can find the latest version will soon be available here, and might be interested in our referendum leafletWhat Europe Is Doing For Animals“.

Is the EU trying to ban kettles, vacuums and hair dryers?

It’s likely that you’ve seen a host of UK media publications having a poke at the EU for wanting to “ban dozens of high-wattage household electrical appliances” from hair dryers to smartphones. But with 95% of Brits in favour of tougher energy standards, what’s the problem?  

The story about power ratings comes from EU legislation on Ecodesign. The ‘Ecodesign’ scheme aims to increase energy efficiency of our products and is part of ‘Europe 2020’ the EU’s jobs and growth strategy.  Europe 2020 was launched in 2010 to create the conditions for ‘smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.’ It has five headline targets for the EU to achieve by the end of 2020. These cover employment; research and development; climate/energy; education; social inclusion and poverty reduction. It’s safe to say these are all ideologies that sound good.

The Ecodesign falls into this scheme as it is aims at eliminating the least performing products, and improving the environmental performance of products sold across the EU, which would both reduce energy consumption and increase innovation.

The European Commission (The EU’s executive body) is currently in the process of developing a new working plan for the scheme. As part of the development of this plan, it commissioned researchers to narrow the options to about 20 ‘priority product groups’. Once identified, each type of product and the potential for regulation will be investigated further. Some priority groups are common household appliances, such as kettles – which the media has been so quick to report on – others are not, like escalators.

So what’s the benefit? Well, there is good reasoning behind these energy efficiency measures. It is estimated that they will curb global warming by reducing carbon emissions by 7% below 2010 levels. Furthermore consumers could make a saving of around £370 per household per year; so it’s no surprise that in an official poll 95% of Brits were in favour of tougher energy standards.

These measures will also help the innovation of new, better performing products in the EU which would create greener jobs. It is estimated that, together with the Energy Labelling Directive, it will generate €54 billion in extra revenue by 2020 and help create 800,000 jobs across the EU including the UK.

My colleagues and I in the Greens/EFA group of the European Parliament support these measures, with Claude Turmes, Greens/EFA MEP and member of the Industry, research and energy committee, saying:

“It is estimated that labelling and ecodesign rules could save the equivalent of Italy’s annual energy consumption by 2020. The Commission’s proposal is a good starting point to ensure the new system is consumer-friendly.” 

EU Action on Tax Avoidance: Ramped Up a Gear

So many of the problems facing us today are international in scale. Even issues that might appear local, such as the independent bookshop on your high-street closing down, have an international dimension. Tax avoidance is when wealthy individuals or global corporations hide their earnings and profits in order to escape paying tax in the countries where they work. Multinational corporations can afford the expensive lawyers and accountants that are needed to exploit loopholes and shift profits between different countries. This means that companies, such as Amazon, end up paying far fewer taxes than your local book shop, and this impacts at the local level in terms of what your high-street looks like, and what your day to day experiences are. 

International problems require international solutions, and the EU is best placed to tackle tax avoidance. In the European Parliament, following  a successful call from the Greens, we have just established the Panama Papers Inquiry Committee, to investigate the recent scandals coming out of Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca. It showed how just one law firm helped clients launder money, dodge sanctions and evade taxes. Our committee, of which I am to be a full member, will assess whether member states failed to enforce EU rules on anti-money laundering or failed to alert each other and share information when they suspected tax evasion. We will identify the loopholes which exist, and make steps to close them. Ultimately we need to see all tax havens shut down and for the states and jurisdictions which make their money this way to have support transitioning to ethically sound local industries.

Meanwhile the European Commission is very active in the area of enforcing competition law to tackle tax avoiders. Commissioner Vestager, the Commissioner for Competition, has recently taken three very important decisions on unfair competition in Europe. Her and her team have published their decision on Belgium’s excess profit scheme, and have also published their decision to open investigation into transfer pricing arrangements on corporate taxation of McDonalds (Luxembourg).  The latter follows on from some a huge investigation led by trade unions campaigning at EU level to expose the tax loopholes used by the fast-food giant. They will also soon publish their decisions on Starbucks (Netherlands) and Fiat (Luxembourg). In May they also clarified the Commission’s application of State aid rules to tax rulings on the basis of decisions taken in the Notion of Aid Notice, and have also produced a working paper on state aid and tax rulings. State aid – when a government gives a company favourable rates, taxation, subsidies, or benefits – has gone hand in hand with tax rulings – aka sweetheart deals – in Europe. This working paper offers a summary of the different types of tax rulings that she has investigated, in order to ensure that all actors are treated the same.

Earlier this year my colleagues and I wrote to Commissioner Vestager to ask her to investigate the tax deal struck between George Osborne and Google, which was exposed in January. I was delighted that several constituents wrote to me at this time, asking me to do this. This agreement, which was for a paltry £130 million tax out of £6.5bn revenue, provided an economic advantage for Google and we believe that this could constitute illegal state aid. We received a prompt response from the Commissioner, and sent a further letter outlining where we judged EU competition laws to have been breached. She has replied that, ‘the European Commission has launched an inquiry into the tax ruling practice of all Member States including the UK under EU State aid rules’, and this is very encouraging. Her team of experts are currently assessing the information that we provided, and they will follow up if they have indications that EU State aid rules are not being complied with.

Far from being a faceless bureaucrat, Commissioner Vestager will come to the Economics committee, of which I am a member, at the end of June, for one of her regular discussions. She will further explain how she is directly and publicly going after companies who are dodging taxes. I hope at that stage the UK will still have its place at the EU table because without a doubt this is the best place to be to tackle tax avoidance and corporate power.

Will There Be an EU Army?

There have been a lot of ungrounded scare stories during the EU debate and one of these that has reared its ugly head lately is the idea that there is a plan for an EU army. That British soldiers might fight under an EU flag is one of these exaggerated myths designed to frighten rather than communicate clearly what the EU is about.

It is true that there are EU politicians who would like to see a unified European Army. However, in what typifies the democratic structure of the European Union, any merging of forces cannot happen without the consent of all 28 countries in the EU agreeing to it. Article 42 of the Lisbon Treaty (which is fully public) states that what it calls ‘a common defence’ would require unanimity in the European Council, meaning that every single government would have to agree to it. The UK even has an extra clause – if our government did in fact wish to merge an EU army, any proposal on defence mergers must be put to a UK referendum so that we’d get the final say directly.

Current EU military efforts remain tentative and are largely intergovernmental rather than EU-based, and the Common Security and Defence Policy entails few obligations. Current projects include training anti-jihadists in Mali and disrupting human traffickers in the Mediterranean. Countries can veto each operation and largely decide how much to contribute on a case-by-case basis. EU military staff do not become part of an EU military bur remain employed by their national governments operating on secondment to the EU military staff.

If we remain in the EU after 23rd June, little is set to change without our consent, and this level of cooperation will continue. Obviously, it is impossible to say what the outcome of negotiations over security cooperation would be in the event that we leave, however it is worth noting that as we are arguably the country most opposed to any
‘EU army’, so leaving could actually make it more likely.

The European Gendarmerie Force or EUROGENDFOR is not an EU body, but its stated aim is to participate to the stabilisation of crisis and conflict areas outside the European Union. It only has 7 member countries, and the UK is not one. It has not been deployed in any EU country. It is currently engaged in the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, and missions in Central African Republic and Sahel Mali and was previously deployed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the UN mission in Haiti, as well as in a NATO mission Afghanistan. The Bosnia-Herzegovina mission remained under the control of the ambassadors of EU countries but was led by British former soldier Paddy Ashdown as High Representative. Ashdown worked to strengthen the central state institutions, bringing in statewide legal bodies such as State Investigation and Protection Agency and bringing the two ethnic armies under a central civilian command.

So the claim that the EU could somehow create an EU army against British will and behind closed doors is utterly untrue. There is also no prospect of British soldiers fighting under an EU flag. It is likely that we will continue to cooperate in military operations where we have common objectives and where cooperation can help to achieve these.

The EU leading on Climate Action

Today is World Oceans Day. Our oceans are the life support system of our planet, regulating our climate and producing around half of our oxygen, as well as being a rich source of biodiversity. I’ve previously written about the important role the EU has played in protecting our local environment, but what about our global environment? Climate change drives ocean warming, and is the most daunting issue facing us all today. But it’s one issue we can overcome if we tackle it together, and in doing so create a cleaner, greener and more equal society.

Our historic carbon emissions are causing ocean acidification as well as warming the climate, and today our leaders recognise the importance of acting now, even if they sometimes fail to do so. Climate diplomacy is one of the best examples of the European Union acting to facilitate cooperation among its member countries, and their collective voices on the global stage, working together towards the common good. Our influence and ability to be ambitious in climate negotiations is through EU membership. Together, we represent around 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the third largest in the world behind China (at around 24%), and the US (at around 12%). The UK on its own emits a small and declining share of global greenhouse gas emissions, and as such would be left lacking in influence at international climate negotiations if it were to leave the EU.

As part of the EU therefore, we were instrumental to the successful negotiation of the Paris Agreement at COP21. This was because we successfully used our position as an ambitious bloc of developed countries to bridge the historically conflicting interests of reluctant developed countries and ambitious developing countries. The EU did so by building the ‘High Ambition Coalition’ over the course of 2015, which eventually drew in well over 100 countries, including other big greenhouse gas emitters such as the US and Brazil.

Under previous governments, the UK even led on pushing the EU to be ambitious with its own climate policy. As a result, the block set a 20:20:20 target under Europe 2020. That’s 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, 20% increase in efficiency, and 20% energy production from renewables from 1990 levels and we’re set to surpass those today. The UK is legally bound through this to produce 15% of our energy from renewables, and with a government so keen to slash support for renewables, having these obligations and targets is essential to prevent us dragging our feet.

To help us meet these targets, the EU supports the development of low carbon technologies. For example, the NER300 programme for renewable energy technologies and carbon capture and storage is one of the world’s largest funding programmes for innovative low-carbon energy demonstration projects, and we’ve already heard lots about the Horizon 2020 programme for research and innovation. This is alongside our strong Nature Directives that protect our marine and terrestrial envrionment.

“But we can fund these projects ourselves without the EU,” cry some Brexiteers. Well yes we could, but all it takes is a look at the leading figures of the Leave campaign to see the grim picture they paint for our environmental laws and targets, climate change focussed or otherwise. Michael Gove tried to remove climate change from the National Curriculum, Nigel Lawson is an outspoken anthropogenic climate change denier, and the other Nigel is the leader of a party that would scrap the UK climate change act.

So we know then that protecting our environment, our oceans, and our climate is not on the Leave agenda here. In the EU we have some of the strongest environmental protections in the world and lead on progressive climate action globally. We should be celebrating that and building on it with our dedicated citizens and NGOs, not putting it at risk for Leave’s sake of cutting red tape.

 

Stop Climate Change
Greens-EFA MEPs outside of the European Commission