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Environment and Climate Change (European Union Referendum)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 27th October 2016.

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Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

T his debate is timely and important. It speaks to the broader question of how we in this Parliament and in the UK Parliament handle our departure from the European Union, because in my view it will happen whether we like it or not. If it does not happen, I believe that there is the real potential for an ugly social, political and democratic crisis. In a recent

Guardian article, George Monbiot summed up the possible consequences of such a scenario. He said:

“Were this vote to be annulled ... the result would be a full-scale class and culture war ... pitching middle-class progressives against those on whose behalf they have claimed to speak, and permanently alienating people who have spent their lives feeling voiceless and powerless.”

I think that the stakes are that high and, tragically, I fear that he may be right—an issue that I will return to later. First, there is much in the Government motion that I agree with but there are other assumptions that I believe are in need of challenge. I recognise the benefits that being part of the EU have brought to our environment. Our drinking water and beaches, the treatment of waste water, air quality, climate change targets and the protection of wildlife have all seen positive action as a consequence of joint working across the nations of the EU.

Through legislation, enforcement and awareness raising, the importance of the environment and our need to protect it has risen up the political agenda and we must ensure that the standards set by the EU are sustained and improved on as we continually strive for a better environment. However, we know that there is a constant tension and often a contradiction at the heart of things—between trade policy and a desire to see environmental protection; and between protecting and sustaining the environment and adhering to the neoliberal economic doctrine driven by the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Those institutions often talk a good game in terms of environmentalism but it always seems to play second or third fiddle.

We can see examples of those tensions playing out here in Scotland with the very powerful airline industry. The Scottish Government sets much-lauded targets to cut carbon emissions but at the same time promotes airport and air route expansion and the scrapping of air passenger duty and is a cheerleader for Heathrow expansion. All that will result in more flights, resulting in more pollution and more greenhouse gases. Once again, economic gain trumps environmental protection.

The EU falls into the very same trap. It has put in place worthy directives, which have been transposed into our law, but it is also in thrall to many of the corporations that pollute and damage our environment, exploit workers and avoid tax on an industrial scale as they put profits before people, planet and communities. TTIP and CETA are cases in point. Both deals are currently being negotiated outside democratic lines of accountability, a situation that goes to the very heart of the democratic void at the centre of the EU. They are agreements that are more concerned with protecting free trade than with protecting our communities and the environment and which will see corporations at the heart of policymaking, with a seat at the table.

If—it is a big if—Governments then put in place policy and legislation that run counter to corporate interests, those democratically elected Governments could be taken to court and sued. It has happened in Canada, Australia and elsewhere. What arrogance; what an affront to democracy. I believe that it is for those reasons—and many more—that voters across the UK voted leave.

We must not think that such things could not happen here. Imagine if TTIP had been up and running: Ineos or some other similar company might be dragging the Scottish Government through the investor-state dispute settlement system to stop a democratically elected Parliament deciding its own policy on an issue such as fracking.

I am raising these concerns—I will continue to raise many more—as the debate over the terms of Brexit unfolds, because the political class in Scotland is coalescing around a narrative that seeks to frustrate the democratic will of the people who voted in a referendum not as separate nations but as one entity. We are in danger of fulfilling Monbiot’s gloomy prediction. I say that as someone who voted remain.

A failure to heed the warnings and to hear the voices of marginalised communities across Europe, a failure to take urgent action on mass youth unemployment in Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Italy and elsewhere and a failure to listen to those forced to leave their homelands to find work—often very low-paid, exploitative work—elsewhere, will drive people towards the simplistic solutions of the far right and threaten greater instability on the continent.

We all know that there is a rocky road ahead with Brexit, but if all we talk about is doom and gloom it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have the opportunity to argue for a social Europe, for a progressive Europe and for a Europe that protects our environment and puts people and communities first. We have the opportunity to make those points here and now, and not to focus on what I will continually call project fear on steroids. [