Rethinking the Green Party’s approach to policies on Europe

“Europe is not just a threat but also an opportunity.” Ahead of the Spring Conference, former MEP Catherine Rowett considers the aspects of the Green Party’s approach to the EU that need to be revised and revived. 

Map of Europe
Map of Europe
Catherine Rowett

What are the Green Party’s policies on the European Union? Even those of us who were involved in Another Europe is Possible (with its awareness that all is not good in the EU as it stands) might be surprised at just how Eurosceptic our existing long-standing policies are. Here is an extract:

EU300 The Green Party is committed to the fundamental reconstitution of the current European Union, including its present institutions, in accordance with our Green vision for Europe (see Part 1).

EU301 The present EU structures are fundamentally flawed. Their remoteness has resulted in a lack of accountability which is working against the interests of people and the environment. 

EU302 Our aim is to reconstitute the EU as a democratically accountable and controlled European Confederation of Regions, based on Green principles. Its organisation would follow the Green principle of subsidiarity, that decisions are made at the lowest appropriate level, not impose the "harmonisation" of the current EU. Proposals for developing the position of Regions are at EU390-3

EU303 Meanwhile, we support lesser reforms which move in that direction, and oppose those which move counter to it. In particular, we oppose proposals which seek to tighten the grip of "ever closer union" on member countries and regions, except in those areas of competence outlined in EU211-214.

The main thrust of this “Europe” chapter, written in 1990, reflects the assumption that the UK is (without question) a permanent member of the EU, that we (the Greens) dislike it profoundly, that we find it works almost entirely against our own agenda, and that if it continues as it is, without fundamental reforms, it can do nothing but damage to everything that we care about. The chapter makes some very minor exceptions (in environmental and energy policy for instance), where it rather reluctantly suggests that international decision-making is necessary and valid.

That perspective, from which the main part of the chapter is written, is now a thing of the past. We are no longer in the game of campaigning from within the organisation to reform it, or to prevent it from becoming the kind of organisation that those policies feared it would become. Instead we are outside, and with no voice there, watching it threaten to become those things. Yet we are also watching, from outside, its potential to become something quite else, something much more positive, as Green voices and elected politicians emerge in increasing numbers in governments right across the EU27, as the Green Deal for Europe becomes a reality, and the determination grows in the European Parliament (at least in some of the political groups) to “build back better”, to green the transport system, and to use soft power for environmental rights across the world.

At the end of our “Europe” chapter in PSS is a supplementary section, written in 2017, in the light of the 2016 referendum. It reflects briefly on what Theresa May ought to do in her negotiations with the EU about our future relationship. It takes no line on whether we ought to argue for calling Brexit off (as it would have been then) or ensuring proper parliamentary (or indeed plebiscite) confirmation of any withdrawal agreement. It suggests that we should remain as close as possible to EU structures in any post-Brexit deal.

Sadly, in removing our voice from the EU Parliament by way of a Leave vote that was supported by some good and well-meaning members of the party (not unreasonably, and in line with our existing policy, as we have seen), we have lost a huge portion of our own elected power—a power whose global potential only became apparent in 2019 (long after the most recent 2017 annexe to our Europe policy). In May 2019 we sent seven elected members to the Greens/EFA group in the EU Parliament (to join four other UK MEPs in the same Group, sent by SNP and Plaid voters). This delegation, the third-largest in the Group, made the Green Group large enough to capture a level of influence it had never had before. It put the Greens in a position to change the balance of power in key votes—in situations where those Green votes were the sine qua non for some alliance of groups needing support to win their legislative votes (or to defeat a right-wing vote). Never before had we, that is GPEW, been in a position to hold that kind of balance of power in an institution capable of changing the face of the world. 

Ironically, it was Brexit, followed closely by a new hatred of Brexit on the part of a new pro-European majority very soon after the referendum, and the consequent growth in the UK of the strongest pro-Europe movement in any EU country—it was this sequence of curious events that had put us in that position, of having more Green Party delegates to Europe than ever before. But it was also Brexit that quickly took us away, after the 2019 “Get Brexit Done” election. And that withdrawal of our representatives sadly took some of the wind out of the sails of the Green agenda in Europe, as the Greens/EFA slipped into a lower place on the list of Groups by size, losing their role as king-makers in many debates and elections. Our retreat shifted the balance of power in Europe to the far right. This was, and is, tragic.

All this has shown clearly that Europe is not just a threat but also an opportunity. It has shown that so long as we struggle here from the lack of a Proportional Representation system for elections, being there in the EU as elected representatives was and would be the best thing we could do to further our (avowedly international) ambitions. 

Noticing this should, I suggest, make us rethink the wording and the approach of our policies on Europe. So it seems to me. Those statements and policies are, it seems to me, 30 years out of date. They were written when we were disgruntled about what Europe was in 1990 and powerless to change it. We reacted in fear of the neoliberal agenda that dominated it then—and to some extent dominates it now— instead of with a will and a determination to go there and change all that. It had nothing to say about the opportunities presented by sending a Green voice to Europe. Nor did it consider the huge resources for amplifying our political message that come from having MEPs, their public profile, their stamp of authority, the substantial resources they have for their work at home and in the media. Even the updated final paragraph about Theresa May’s negotiations is off the point and misses what it was that was good about being in, not out, of those cooperative chambers of decision making. 

What we need, I suggest, is to focus on the powerful and exciting possibilities that were given by sending a large contingent of Green voices, by PR, from the UK, to argue our case in Europe; the exciting possibilities of working for the Green agenda in an institution that works by a kind of collaborative and benevolent political debate totally unlike Westminster politics; the importance that this held, while we were members, for the Green Party— indeed the lifeline that it gave us, while we remain hampered by our First Past the Post national voting system, and while we remain unable to secure a majority government (or even to get any place in a shared government) at the UK level. At this crossroads—a moment of opportunity as all the parties position themselves in a new depressing situation for the UK—we need to consider and debate whether we want to limit our ambition to something undistinguished, advocating merely membership of the Single Market or EEA. Does this not strike us as one of the least Green things we could be looking for, given its focus on facilitating the old economic priorities? For sure, it is important for many businesses now, but it is not a route to delivering major change across Europe or stopping the obsession with economic profit, trade and growth against which we would normally be campaigning. 

Maybe this is our chance to become the preferred pro-EU party in England: a party that looks to promote full membership of the EU, providing that membership comes on terms that don’t undermine our principles and fundamental philosophical basis? There is, after all, a huge and increasing number of people who think that leaving the EU was a disastrous and ill-thought-through relinquishing of our power, our opportunities, and the many freedoms and rights that we enjoyed as members of a team of our nearest and dearest countries. Many of those countries send our best and dearest Green friends to argue their case in the EU institutions: Green friends who belong to the bigger family in the European Green Party. We in GPEW do, after all, stand for a kind of politics that breaks down borders and believes in cooperation for the greater good of all. We are not in favour of a little England where we just look after ourselves. Ours is not an island mentality.

Now is the moment we need to start our rethink of where we stand on all this. Watch out for a fringe event at the Spring Conference, and the forum I’ve opened for debate on Green Spaces. I’m hoping we can get a working group together to help us develop and refine a better and more nuanced, more excitingly motivational and forward-looking set of policies for what will inevitably become a big issue for voters as we go forward from here.