By Theodota Nantsou*
The forecasts about the repercussions of Britain’s Brexit vote on economy, society and environment are gloomy. As the world waits to see what happens next, it is now important for the EU to analyse and understand what went wrong and how this can be fixed.
Europe was evidently not prepared for this dramatic turn of events. The British majority’s vote for exit from the EU came as an unexpected shock. Indeed, contrary to the assertions of the pro-Brexit campaign, the UK did not really depend on the European Union for a large share of its policies. So why would British citizens really bother to vote for an exit?
Following a massively catastrophic first half of the 20th century, the dream of a tranquil and prosperous Europe seemed to come to fruition in the early 1970s, when the key economic colossi had all signed the agreement to become an economic community of states pursuing free movement of people, capital, goods and services. As the community further expanded and included countries of smaller economic clout and different historic backgrounds, the challenge of better integration resulted in a robust acquis of common environmental and resource efficiency policies and laws and progressive international advocacy for strong agreements on climate change, thus rightly elevating the European Union to the pedestal of a global green champion.
Eleven years ago, when Europe’s economy was flying high, the last EU Presidency by the UK prided itself for having “helped ensure Climate Change was factored into a range of EU policy areas” and having “successfully achieved political agreement on the EU’s new chemicals Regulation, REACH”. In those times of euphoria, environment and sustainable development were treated by the European Union as areas of profound common interest, which have the potential of not only boosting job creation and innovation, but also uniting European societies under a universally beneficial cause.
In the process however progress stalled. For quite some time now, the European project for a more open, democratic and inclusive union has remained hostage to perplexing economic woes and the uneven between the different member states distribution of the benefits of economic prosperity. The growing European family has gradually detached itself from causes that boost the common feeling of ownership, shared responsibility and enthusiasm for the future of the European project.
Especially since 2009, when the economic crisis hit Europe, the eyes of the EU’s key decision makers remain fixed on short term economic growth. Two years ago, in fulfilment of this fixation away from common values and ideals that unite people under a shared vision for Europe, the then incoming Juncker Commission narrowly expelled the environment and sustainable development from its “10-priorities plan for Europe”, thus causing the justifiably angry reaction of civil society. The crisis triggered by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees seeking peace and safety in Europe also came as an unexpected stress test for the fundamental humanitarian values of the European Union.
The obsession with rapid growth at all costs and massive austerity in times of recession as quick fix for the economic crisis has only resulted in further prolonging the crisis. It has also increased the distance between people and the EU’s top decision makers, thus opening space for nationalistic and hate rhetoric.
In these difficult times, the European Union needs to pursue a better Europe and a better union. The financial crisis that broke out eight years ago has been dragging the entire EU into uncertainty for too long. The environment being a common asset whose good status requires concerted EU action, can become the platform for joint work that offers a much needed coherent and clear vision of Europe uniting for the achievement of the common good. It can also generate pride, as the natural wealth of each nation constitutes a common heritage that needs to be praised and preserved for future generations.
Europe desperately needs common projects that offer sustainable solutions to the economic and debt crisis, while at the same time invigorating democracy, achieving policy transparency and caring not to leave anyone out. The Sustainable Development Goals offer a globally coherent and visionary policy umbrella that needs to urgently translate into concrete policy priorities.
The task is colossal, as Europe is called to overcome its introversion and re-create a common public sphere of democratic decision-making for an ecologically, socially and economically sustainable future. This EU lifesaving mission is a wake-up call for civil society and all active citizens, individually or collectively, whose concern about the common good of people and the planet is a force for togetherness and unity.
Opinion article by the directors of WWF EU and CONCORD: Putting people and planet first in the EU
WWF UK Blog: Keeping climate policy alive after Brexit
* Theodota Nantsou is Head of Policy At WWF Greece