Breaking Faith

The European Union is becoming ever harder for progressives to love. Is it time to get out?

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 10th July 2015

Had I been asked a couple of years ago how I would vote in the referendum on whether or not the UK should stay in the European Union, my answer would have been unequivocal.

The EU seemed to me to be a civilising force, restraining the cruel and destructive tendencies of certain member governments (including our own), setting standards that prevented them from destroying the natural world or trashing workers rights, creating a buffer between them and the corporate lobby groups that present an urgent threat to democracy.

Now I’m not so sure. Everything good about the European Union is in retreat; everything bad is on the rampage.

I accept the principle of sharing sovereignty over issues of common concern. I do not accept the idea of the rich nations combining to crush the democratic will of the poorer nations, as they are seeking to do to Greece.

I accept the principle that European Union should represent our joint interests in creating treaties for the betterment of humankind. I do not accept that it has a right to go behind our backs and quietly negotiate a treaty with the United States – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – that transfers power from parliaments to corporations.

I accept the principle that the EU could distribute money to the poor and marginalised. I do not accept that, as essential public services are cut, €57bn a year should be sloshed into the pockets of farmers, with the biggest, richest landowners receiving the largest payments. The EU’s utter failure to stop this scandal should be a source of disillusionment even to its most enthusiastic supporters.

While these injustices, highly damaging to the reputation of the European Union among people who might otherwise be inclined to defend it, are taking place, at the same time the EU’s restraints on unaccountable power are in danger of being ripped away.

The slippage began with the disastrous abandonment last year of the Soil Framework Directive, at the behest of agricultural lobbyists and the British government. It’s the first time a directive has been derailed.

The directive would have obliged the member states to minimise soil erosion and compaction, maintain the organic matter contained in the soil, prevent landslides and prevent soil from being contaminated with toxic substances. Could any sentient person object to these aims? And can anyone who has studied the complete failure of current soil protection measures in countries like the United Kingdom, where even Farmer’s Weekly admits that “British soils are reaching crisis point” fail to see that further measures are required?

The National Farmers Union, who appear to regard it as their mission to vandalise the fabric of the nation, took credit for the decision.

Now the same industries are trying to sink the directives protecting the natural world. In some European countries, the nature directives are just about all that prevent the eradication of the wildlife that belongs to everyone and no one. Thanks to the capture and cowardice of the European Commission, there is now a real danger that the industrial lobbyists who want to destroy our common heritage will get their way.

The European Union’s two nature directives – the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive – are often all that stand between our wildlife and the industries that would destroy them.

Look, for example, at what’s happening to our harbour porpoises. These beautiful creatures, that enhance the lives of everyone who has seen them leaping and playing the sea, are being caught and killed in fishing nets, starved to death by overfishing, mashed up by propellers and driven out of their feeding grounds by a cacophony of underwater noise from boats.

The only way in which they can be protected is through creating areas in which these activities are restricted, particularly in places such as the Hebrides, the outer Moray Firth and in parts of Cardigan Bay. But the only site the government has proposed is a tiny speck of sea off the coast of Northern Ireland.

The one defence this species has against the mailed fist of the fishing industry, which appears to be locked around the sensitive parts of the UK’s environment department, is an appeal under the Habitats Directive, of which this country is blatantly in breach.

Or look at the continued massacre of birds of prey by grouse shooting estates, which operate as black holes in which hen harriers, peregrines, eagles and other species disappear without trace: shot, trapped or poisoned by an industry that exists to serve the ultra-elite, while damaging the common heritage of humankind. There’s no point in asking nicely: representing the interests of the ultra-elite while damaging the common interests of humankind appears to be the government’s mission. So the only possible restraint is an appeal under the Birds Directive, which the UK government signed and still claims to uphold.

Badly and erratically as we protect our precious species and the places in which they live, they would be in a much worse state were it not for the restraining influence of European law.

I happen to think that there is quite a lot wrong with the Habitats Directive. Some of the places it protects, at the behest of national governments, are highly degraded ecosystems, and it locks them into their depleted state, ensuring that they can recover neither the wealth of species that might live there, nor much of dynamism and ecological function that could otherwise have been restored.

The irrational way in which upland heather moors are protected is one example. Like the strikingly similar landscapes of low wiry vegetation that you can now see in some former rainforest areas in the tropics, these habitats have been created through repeated cycles of cutting and burning. This destruction is necessary to keep these wastelands in their current state, by preventing trees from returning.

While we decry these processes when we see them take place abroad, here we treat them as if they were essential conservation tools. It’s a form of madness which afflicts everyone from grouse moor owners to conservationist groups, and it reflects an astonishing loss of perspective on the part of those who should be protecting the natural world. The Habitats Directive is one of the legal instruments that has turned this continued destruction into a legal requirement.

But the European Commission’s proposals to “reform” the directives, are likely to make them worse, not better. The danger is that it will leave their irrational aspects intact, while stripping away the essential protections they offer to our wildlife.

No one is in any doubt that the “reform” being proposed is the kind that is usually enacted with can of petrol and a box of matches. In November last year, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, instructed the Environment Commissioner to “overhaul” the directives and to examine the possibility of merging them. A reliable if sometimes eccentric set of protections is now at mortal risk.

A public consultation on these proposals is taking place at the moment, and it closes on July 24. I’ll repeat that because the only hope these directives possess is a huge public response calling for their defence. The consultation closes on July 24. Please send in your views. Already, 270,000 people have done so, prompted by campaigning organisations such as the RSPB. Let’s turn this into half a million.

The ostensible purpose of this proposed vandalism is to reduce the costs to business. But when the Conservative former president of Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber, was asked by the European Commission to conduct a review of all European legislation, with a view to deregulating it, he discovered that the combined impact of all seven of the EU’s environmental directives (of which birds and habitats are just two) is less than 1% of the total cost to business caused by European law. In other words it is utterly insignificant.

In fact, changing these directives could be costly for businesses, as they have already adapted their practices to meet them, and they would have to start all over again if the laws are changed.

The threat to the directives arises not from a demand by business as a whole, but from pressure by two of the most destructive industries in the European Union, Big Farmer and the construction lobby. That the European Commission should have chosen to listen to them while ignoring the views of everyone else cuts to the heart of what is going wrong there.

So when the referendum comes, I will find myself in a struggle I never anticipated. I am an internationalist. I think it’s essential that issues which transcend national borders are tackled together, rather than apart. I recognise the hideous history of conflict in Europe, and the extraordinary achievement of peace that the European Union represents. I feel nothing in common with the Eurosceptics of the right, who appear to see the EU as interfering with their god-given right to exploit other people and destroy their surroundings.

My feelings towards the EU are now similar to my feelings towards the BBC: a sense that I ought to join the defence of this institution against reactionary forces, but that it has succumbed so catastrophically to those forces that there is little left to defend. If the nature directives go down, while TTIP and the fiscal waterboarding of countries like Greece proceed, it will not be obvious what continued membership has to offer us.