The European Venue for Green Ideas
Future of EU

Caroline Lucas MP: ‘Missed opportunities’ by EU led to Brexit

By Caroline Lucas , Josiah Mortimer

On March 29, 2017, Britain will formally begin the process of leaving the European Union. The following day, the Green Party of England and Wales meets for its Spring Conference in Liverpool. But it will also be a major international event – with the European Green Party and the Global Greens both hosting their congresses alongside it. It’s a pivotal week, then, for the Green movement. In light of all this, GEJ spoke to Green Party of England & Wales co-leader Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion, on the big issues for Greens in the UK and across the globe – and what needs to happen now.

You can listen to an extended version of this interview in the podcast below.

What is your main approach in Parliament in response to Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for a hard Brexit? Pulling out of all EU regulation and agreements could have a huge impact on important rights and safeguards, such as EU citizens living in the UK, or consumer and environmental protections. Are you hopeful that Greens can make an impact on the negotiations?

Caroline Lucas MP: Well, hopeful – but under no illusion that we’ve got a steep cliff to climb, not least because sadly Labour hasn’t been as outspoken as we’d hoped the official opposition would be, because essentially what we’ve got here with the prime minister is a particular interpretation of the referendum result. Basically she has morphed what was a small majority in favour of leaving the EU into what she would say is an overwhelming mandate for the most extreme kind of Brexit imaginable, where you’re out of the single market, out of the customs union, where there’s no free movement, where social and environmental protections are at risk, and it’s almost like the government is having a competition amongst themselves about who can envisage the most macho way of leaving the EU, with many of her backbenchers now saying as well that they want to have no trade agreement with the EU at all – they just want to go straight out into WTO rules.

This is so damaging, so dangerous, and she has absolutely no mandate for it, so my strategy in Parliament has been to keep calling her out on that and to say that there is no mandate for this extreme kind of Brexit. She said many times that she wants to bring the country together again, while I think we should keep reminding her that there are four nations in the UK and two of them voted to leave and two of them voted to remain – so if you’re serious about wanting to keep the UK together the best way of doing that would be to find a way towards a less extreme Brexit.

Of course, following the outcome of the referendum it was clear that the UK will be leaving the EU, but there are a million different ways of doing that, and to deliberately have chosen the most extreme and most painful way of doing it I think is unforgivable.

You’re backing a second referendum on the terms of the deal – what drove that decision, and if it will be a ‘take it or leave it’ vote on the terms, would you vote against the deal?

If the deal is anything like the one Theresa May is saying she wants to get, in other words, one that does mean out of the single market, out of the customs unions, no free movement, and as I say, social and environmental considerations at serious risk, then I certainly would vote against it, because I don’t think that’s what my constituents in Brighton would want me to support. And actually, I don’t think the majority of people who were voting “leave” necessarily wanted that either.

Following the outcome of the referendum it was clear that the UK will be leaving the EU, but there are a million different ways of doing that

The point is that we don’t know, and that’s why I think it’s right to give the public the right to have their say in a ratification referendum.

It feels as if the UK is supremely unprepared for the complexity of the negotiations that are about to happen, and that’s why I think it is right that people have a right to look again at what is delivered in 18 months’ time.

Referenda have long been endorsed by Greens. But more recently they’ve been used as a tool by the Right (not only Brexit but also in the Netherlands, Hungary, etc.). Does there need to be a rethink among Greens about direct democracy and referenda – and how can we bring tools like this into the progressive camp?

It’s something that I’ve been thinking about very strongly because, as you say, Green parties generally and certainly speaking for myself personally, I would have said before the last 18 months that, broadly speaking, I think it’s a good thing to ask people what they think – to have referenda, to have processes where people’s voices are heard.

But the experience of the way that’s been done – and I obviously know the situation in the UK best, so using that as an example – I think there are big question marks about the rules that surround referenda, so I think you need much greater clarity before we start out as to whether it’s an advisory referendum or whether it’s a binding one, because those two things were pretty fudged really when it came to the one we’ve just had. Issues about thresholds I think probably need to be built into there.

You were an MEP for ten years. Based on this experience, how do you think the EU institutions could have acted differently to try to combat nationalism and encourage pro-EU sentiment among citizens? Were there missed opportunities?

I think there were a huge number of missed opportunities, and each landmark in the development of the EU, whether that was the Nice Treaty or the Lisbon Treaty or whatever, all the time Greens were saying, “use this as an opportunity for greater transparency, for accountability, for a greater reaching out into communities across the EU, to dispel some of the myths” but also to ensure properly that the EU is more democratic.

Those opportunities were constantly ignored – it was almost as if some people in the EU wanted to live up to this reputation that they have about being arrogant and out of touch.

And those opportunities were constantly ignored – it was almost as if some people in the EU wanted to live up to this reputation that they have about being arrogant and out of touch. And certainly, plenty of people in the EU institutions are arrogant and out of touch, and that hasn’t helped in terms of recognising that vital as I think EU institutions are, we also have to acknowledge that they’re not perfect, and we should be making the EU far more responsive.

Just very easy things you can do very quickly are things like council meetings – you could live-stream them for example, you could make the documents far more accessible. There are things you could do tomorrow if you really cared about this stuff, as well as longer-term looking at the relative powers of the Parliament versus the Commission for example.

How would you advise your Green colleagues in the European Parliament of other nationalities to act today to try to prevent an exit from the EU in their countries?

I would certainly be saying that the EU needs to reform and the group here in the UK – Another Europe is Possible – had strong links with other groups in other parts of the EU who also wanted to imagine a different kind of EU, with different end goals, to make sure that the environmental and the social obligations were key objectives and were not always made second fiddle to the economic motives. So, I think part of it is about reforming the EU institutions themselves, and I guess our media is a particular problem.

But what I’ve seen in our country is how the EU has been used as the whipping boy for years and years, whenever there’s an unpopular government decision or whenever there’s some piece of crude journalism then the EU is often used as a convenient scapegoat. And if you do that for years and years and years then you suddenly turn around and say, as David Cameron did, that this institution is important and we should stay in it, you can’t be very surprised that people look at you twice, because we spent so long undermining that institution in many ways.

So I think we just need to be more careful about where criticism is justified then absolutely give it, but not to just make the EU into a convenient scapegoat for so many domestic problems as certainly we’ve done in the UK and may well happen elsewhere.

If these kinds of changes aren’t made, where do you see the European project going? There’s been a lot of quite pessimistic voices saying the EU is doomed – would you agree with that?

I certainly think its legitimacy gets further called into question, and therefore the fightback in many other countries from nationalistic instincts are more likely to be effective.

I don’t know that I want to literally predict its demise, but certainly its legitimacy and therefore its credibility and authority are absolutely called into question unless those reforms are put in place. And also its potential for being a positive force in the world. I still believe the EU is on balance a positive force for the world – I think it has been on balance a very effective peace project. I think on balance it has helped many countries – not all of them, but many in terms of improving their social and environmental standards, the rule of law, the independence of the press and judiciary and so on. It has exerted its soft power by and large very effectively, but at the same time we also know that many of its policies have been damaging – the way it treated Greece for example was appalling, and the Common Agricultural Policy, although it’s getting better, has been responsible for serious amounts of harm in the past.

So, I think in a way it’s a narrow path to tread in terms of absolutely focusing on those areas of the EU that need reform and not performing as they should, while at the same time not throwing the baby out with the bath water.

We’re coming up to Green Party conference – what do you think will be the relationship with European Greens after Brexit? Do you think there will still be a strong link?

I’m sure that link will be there – it’s based on personal bonds as well as political visions and aspirations, and already the wider federation of European Green Party includes Green Parties that aren’t members of the European Union, so I certainly think that bond will continue.

I think in negotiations to come in the next few years we’ll also be talking to Greens in other countries, asking them to make sure that things like social and environmental standards and free movement are high up on the negotiating agendas of their governments, because if our own government aren’t putting it there then we need help from other governments around the EU 27 to put those issues on the agenda.

I think that so many of the ways in which we take inspiration from different Green Parties, the way we share best practice, the way we share common ideas and policies and visions – all of that will be as vital as ever, if not indeed in a sense more important when the UK leaves the EU.

Let’s talk about populism. Since the US election, a mobilisation against Trump has started building. How do you see this and what do you think is the approach the UK and EU should adopt towards the US for the coming years of his term?

Well, it just struck me that on the morning after Trump was elected that the word solidarity was more important than ever before, and it really has to mean something. Quite often we use the word because it sounds like a positive, friendly word but without really thinking what solidarity means – and I’ve been incredibly impressed and inspired by, for example, the women’s marches on both sides of the Atlantic that have really been challenging the misogyny of the President, and by the people who’ve gone to airports carrying placards saying “refugees welcome” at the very time when their own president has been trying to keep out people from certain predominantly Muslim countries.

So I think the election of Trump has stirred new political awareness of people that perhaps hadn’t been involved before. And the challenge now is to keep up the momentum, to keep the hope, to make those solidarity links practical and effective.

So how should Greens respond to the national populism that we’ve seen from Trump, Viktor Orbán, the Brexit camp and in the French and Dutch elections?

One thing we should do, in a perverse sort of way, is learn one thing from them at least which is that…I think sometimes Greens, as many on the progressive Left do, think that evidence is enough. And evidence is essential, and I’m certainly not suggesting we go down the line of evidence-free politics that Trump and others do, but nonetheless evidence is not enough, and marshalling figures without speaking to people’s hearts doesn’t get us where we need to be.

So I do think there’s something to be learnt about the telling of the stories, the responding to people’s emotions, rather than thinking people only act as a result of objective facts. I think that’s something we can learn. And I think as well, it’s quite interesting that it is Trump, for example, who has been challenging some of the worst extremes of economic globalisation, and there are quotations he has made about the ravages caused by unfettered economic globalisation that could easily have come straight out of a European social forum or out of a Green Party conference.

I think it’s interesting that he is using that very real pain and dislocation that economic globalisation can cause people who pay the highest price for it if you like. For people who either don’t have a job or who are in a very precarious kind of survival, Trump has very successfully mobilised those people having understood some of the problems but then proposing very false solutions. So, making it sound that the enemy here for example is immigration – rather than employers that want to exploit and will do everything possible to have a race to the bottom in terms of social and environmental standards.

There are quotations Trump has made about the ravages caused by unfettered economic globalisation that could easily have come straight out of a European social forum or out of a Green Party conference.

So, I think there’s a job of work to be done for those on the Left to refresh our analysis of the costs of that process of economic globalisation, but to be proposing far more articulately, far more boldly, solutions to it. And for us here in the UK that might be for example talking much more about basic income as an absolute guarantee of basic security. That’s been policy tucked away in our manifesto for years but has never really been at the forefront of messaging and yet at a time of chronic insecurity then that might be a very bold policy that could speak to people’s very real fears about this process of economic globalisation.

Would you say then that Greens and other progressive voices have been too meek when it comes to challenging the right and the big crises in politics? Is it time for a populism of the Left, to reflect these trends?

I do – as long as we’re clear that a populism of the Left is about talking to people’s hearts as well as their minds but not in an evidence free fashion and not in a way that speaks to the worst of people rather than the best.

So what I am saying is that we need to be bigger and bolder, and we need to also communicate in ways that are more meaningful but not at the expense of the evidence and the facts, and not going down the road that Trump has shown which is basically a spiral downwards of hatred and intimidation.

Certainly Jonathan [Bartley – co-leader] and I, when we were in our co-leadership bid, talked very much about the use of digital democracy, about how we can make the party more inclusive, about how we can make the party more representative, because a casual glance around most Green party meeting shows that sadly we do not represent in our numbers the diversity that is modern Britain. So that is an example certainly that I think we can learn from.

What are the ways that can happen? How can the green movement, and GPEW specifically, become more inclusive and representative – going beyond its image as a largely white middle-class movement. Are there things that can be done to represent a broader spectrum of society?

Well there certainly are, and one of the things that Jonathan and I wanted to do was set up a commission on inclusiveness and equalities that would look at best practice where some local parties have done really well, in terms of being more inclusive, and seeing how we can roll that out more widely in the party.

I think generally speaking it’s also about making sure that we go to where others are, rather than thinking that we’re just going to carry on having the meetings in exactly the same way we always have in the places we always have and just assume that people will find us – I think that’s very lazy and complacent. I think we need to be moving out into all areas of our communities, and maybe in particular those areas where we haven’t traditionally had strong representation. And to take that message to people, because I think there is a real hunger for bold, genuinely distributive policies.