KEYNOTE SPEECH TO THE EUROPEAN MOVEMENT

Introduction

It’s an enormous pleasure to be with you today.

Thank you so much to the European Movement for making this conference happen, and for recognising the value of coming together to share reflections on the challenges we face post Brexit – and hopefully of inspiring one another to renewed action for a progressive, green and European future.

I’ve been asked to speak about what is undeniably the greatest challenge facing humankind – a challenge not just to our security and wellbeing, but to our very survival.

The interlinked climate and nature emergencies.

But first I want to take just a moment to recognise that many of us in this movement are still grieving about Brexit.

That we still feel part of Europe - and that no treaty, or Trade and Co-operation Agreement or political declaration is going to make us suddenly feel un-European in our heads, our hearts or our souls.

The end of the transition period hurt.

And that deep pain of dislocation was compounded by the loss and loneliness of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Many of us are feeling cut off and adrift, from our neighbours the other side of the Channel, and from our friends, families and loved ones.

It has made the so-called vaccine wars – and the vilification of the EU, with barely a nod of recognition towards the fact that acting from a position of solidarity is a positive aspiration, even if was so clumsily and incompetently executed in this instance -  it makes all of that, all the more difficult to witness.

No surprise then that German paper die Zeit ruefully noted a few weeks’ ago, that the EU’s fumbling has been a brilliant advert for Brexit.

At the same time, Boris Johnson, pumped up on the pure political Viagra of the EU blundering through this moment and, for once in his life, actually being made to look efficient.

Of course, like so much of Brand Boris, it’s all mouth and no trousers, and it doesn’t deliver when it matters – and that’s what really counts in the long term.

And it’s that longer term perspective that I hope we can focus on today.

Lessons from Covid

And in doing so, it’s important that we start by learning some of the lessons from Covid, which have taught us so much.

For example, that things we’ve long been told were impossible are in fact perfectly possible with the right political will – and can happen fast and be paid for.   The homeless can be housed, billions of NHS debt can be written off overnight.

That humankind can transform the way we do everything for the greater good, we can put others first.  

That real value is to be found in community, in connection, in the natural world, in the positive change we can affect locally and globally with our choices. 

Friends, that for me is what the European project has always represented – and always will.

Brexit can’t take that away.

Moreover, with our ongoing acts of generosity, openness, and solidarity, we can keep alive the diplomacy that’s being dismantled by this Government.

We can look beyond the grief, the hurt and the anger to the point of healing – ensure that when that time comes, we have sustained the foundations for co-operation through our individual and collective acts of cross border friendship.

Brexit can’t take away our ability to imagine big either.

Not Boris’s “Global Britain” big – which appears to be little more than an extra 80 nuclear warheads, presumably with union jacks emblazoned on their noses.

But the kind of Big that uses our place on the global stage to inspire other countries to join us in tackling the pandemic and climate challenges ahead.

Yesterday President Biden tweeted that he was meeting the EU Council to revitalise US-EU relations as partners to tackle the climate crisis.

Where was the UK?  On the fringes, absent, self-marginalised.

Yet if Global Britain is to mean anything, it surely has to mean leveraging a broader alliance of nations to tackle the existential threat of the climate and nature emergencies in a way that has global equity at its heart.

What better way to redefine ourselves post Brexit?

To reset our purpose post-pandemic.

To rebuild the future, much as the founders of the EU built peace from the rubble and destruction of the 2nd World War.

The Environment Bill

Admittedly, it would require an enormous step change in the Government’s performance to date.

Even when the UK is hosting the COP26 summit in November, and attempting to position itself as a global leader in tackling the climate and nature crises, there is a vast gulf between Ministerial rhetoric and action on the ground.

An alarming propensity for glossy green announcements that barely mask the UK’s dangerous addiction to fossil fuels and infinite, resource-depleting economic growth.

Ministers promised the country that they would secure a so-called “Green Brexit” – where, and I quote, “environmental standards are not only maintained but enhanced.”

The scepticism which many of us felt then has sadly been vindicated many times over.

Take the allegedly flagship Environment Bill - which dilutes, chips away or simply throws overboard the protections we had in the EU.

A Bill which abandons the core duty for Ministers and public bodies to apply key environmental principles when law-making. Those principles include the polluter pays principle, for example, and the precautionary principle.

The requirement to uphold these principles is to be replaced by simply paying “due regard”.  And not even that if you’re the Treasury or the Ministry of Defence.

It’s like the Evil Queen having a brief pang of consciousness before handing over the poisoned apple to Snow White – utterly immaterial to the outcome

Nor will there be rigorous or independent enforcement of the protections that do remain.

The new Office for Environmental Protection will be subject to “guidance” from Ministers, its sanctions and remedies limited, its Budget constrained.

And the Bill lacks the binding, measurable targets which are essential to halt and begin to reverse the decline in the state of nature.

In a nutshell, it drives a coach and horses through fundamental EU environmental protections. 

And it makes a mockery of the idea that Brexit was about people having spoken, when in polling, 81% of Leave voters under the age of 48 wanted to keep or increase environmental regulation.

Moreover, despite the Government’s aim to, and I quote, “be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than that in which we inherited it”, the Environment Bill was allowed to languish in committee for over 200 days.

It’s now been delayed yet further, meaning it won’t be passed in this Parliamentary session.

Indeed, my best guess is that it will barely scrape onto the statute books by the time of the delayed UN COP15 Biodiversity Summit in October.

This less well known, but equally significant, sister event to COP26 is when global leaders come together to agree how to restore the natural world, including proposals to conserve 30% of the world’s oceans and land by 2030, and reduce plastics pollution.

Without robust, fit for purpose domestic legislation, the UK Government is singularly poorly placed to claim any kind of global leadership at what will be the biggest biodiversity summit for a decade, which doesn’t bode well for its credibility or authority in the run up to the climate COP the following month.

Environmental laggards

The handling and content of the Environment Bill epitomises the challenges we face post Brexit when it comes to tackling the climate and nature crises:

A lack of urgency and ambition.

An ongoing belief that it you put your fingers in your ears and tell a different story, people will start to believe it.

And a deliberate agenda of rolling back the progress that we had made as members of the EU.

Trade Bill

The Trade Bill betrays a similar reticence to regulate, with the Government repeatedly refusing, for example, to guarantee that imported products adhere to at least equivalent agricultural, environmental and labour standards.

And despite repeated promises about not allowing the import of chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef, Ministers have resolutely refused to sign those pledges into law, while loopholes in the regulations mean food standards can be altered without consultation.

Perversely, a majority of MPs then proceeded to vote away their own rights to scrutinise future trade agreements – when I was a Member of the European Parliament, I had far more powers over trade policy than I do now as a Westminster MP.

What could have been an opportunity to set out a truly ground breaking trade policy which delivers on the UK’s environmental commitments has been wasted.

Agriculture Bill

The Agriculture Bill at least contains the promise of something better for our farmers – a greener and fairer vision for food and farming, based on public funds for public goods.

But the proof will be in the pudding and you’ll forgive me for not feeling overly optimistic when so many details have yet to be fleshed out.

The signs aren’t good either given the absence of a coherent strategy for reducing the climate emissions from food production; the lack of comprehensive action to stop peatland being burned; the refusal to phase out the use of dangerous pesticides; the gap when it comes to targets for organic farming and agroecology; the deregulation of genetic engineering in food and farming; and a whole host of other areas where the opportunity to rise to the nature and climate crises has been so far squandered.

The cumulative impact of this lack of ambition and vision is laid bare by analysis from the brilliant coalition of NGOs, Greener UK.

Their Risk Tracker provides the documented evidence that environmental protections are indeed weaker now than under the EU, with air pollution, chemicals, waste and resources, and nature protection being considered at particularly high risk.

They conclude – as we had warned - that the ‘Green Brexit’ which was promised simply hasn’t been delivered.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Channel…

Things could have been so different.

The European Parliament recently called for binding targets to reduce the EU’s material footprint – a key step towards ending overconsumption of natural resources.

The European Investment Bank, the world’s largest multilateral lender, has aspirations to become the EU Climate Bank, aligning all of its activities with the objectives outlined in the Paris agreement.

This is happening against a backdrop of the EU having developed a Circular Economy Action Plan covering the use of natural resources, design of products and systems, and management of waste.

That in turn is part of the European Green Deal, which will see every EU law and regulation being reviewed in order to align them with the EU's new climate goals of climate neutrality by 2050.

This timeframe is too late - but the approach is at least thorough and it’s happening because it’s enshrined in EU law.

Announcing the plans back in 2019, the European Commission President talked of Europe’s man in the moon moment[6], perfectly evoking the courage, investment and sense of collective purpose that we need to bring to the crisis facing us.

By contrast, the ideology behind so much of Brexit is now being played out in deregulation and a deeply regressive economic agenda based on the exploitation of nature and humans alike.

It has seen democracy under relentless attack, with power and influence concentrated yet further in the hands of the unaccountable elite.

This is fundamentally at odds with the public interest and how to overcome the climate and nature crises.

It’s fundamentally at odds with what we have learned matters to us during the Covid pandemic. 

And it’s fundamentally at odds with the values that the vast majority of us say over and over that we want to form the basis of a reimagined future.

Role for the European Movement

That future needs a strong European Movement. It needs you.

It needs a long-term perspective and for us to be keeping the spirit of collaboration alive now.

In that context, I want to say a few words specifically about Erasmus because I know its loss is particularly keenly felt.

It’s especially cruel that the young people who will pay the highest price for Brexit have had this brilliant opportunity stolen from them.

Erasmus is no political threat.

Not even the most ardent Brexiter could keep a straight face and depict it as an attack on parliamentary sovereignty, or blame it for the failures that were routinely laid at the door of the EU.

The opportunity to fall in love with another country’s culture, explore new languages, live and study abroad, build new and lifelong friendships – and that opportunity open to anyone, from any background.

So I welcome your commitment to continue the struggle to be properly part of Erasmus again – it’s one that I think is winnable and symbolises the spirit of sharing and co-operation that as Europeans we hold dear.

Perhaps more controversially, I’d also urge you as members of the European Movement to properly acknowledge the democratic deficit that allowed the idea of Brexit to flourish - and to confront that head on.

Because that hasn’t gone away.

And when the dust settles and the people of Britain are still deprived of credible, representative power that clearly belongs to, or is accountable to them, I fear for whom will be blamed next.

That narrative does not end well, so I think all of us need to be part of writing a different ending to that story.

Of being part of an honest conversation about the disproportionate power that’s held at Westminster, our failed voting system, our intolerably unequal country, and the perniciousness of fake news and post-truth advertising.

A conversation that’s genuinely open about solutions and doesn’t retreat into binary positions - but does the hard and messy work of listening and learning.

That’s democracy - and it needs to be done by the people, not to us.

The European Movement can and should start beating that drum. 

Conclusion

I began by taking a moment to grieve for what we have lost.

I want to end by taking a moment to reflect on all we have to gain.

This moment is a chance to reset.

To renew our democracy, and hand power to people not just for one vote, but forever, so that our country can unite around a new settlement that gains popular consent across the Brexit divide.

To redesign our economy for the ecological challenges that lie ahead and the just transition to a fairer, greener, more equal society.

Just as in the 1950s Britain had “lost an empire and not yet found a role” so in 2020s we’ve left the EU and are yet to find a new purpose. 

I’ve focussed on how a green transformation needs to be part of our new purpose and identity, our place in the world, our new journey.

That journey may take us back - one day - into the heart of Europe.

It may take us places we have yet to imagine – and that’s part of the joy of acting with ambition, courage and vision.

But as we set ourselves on the right course, I have never been more certain that Brexit cannot take away our connections with one another or our hope, unless we let it.

And that the future into which we are crossing demands that we build bridges, not burn them.

Thank you

 

 

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Sharon Sutton
28th March 2021 21:07
Every day I look forward to a time when we are again part of Europe