Beyond Little Britain: a Green New Deal for Europe

The climate crisis demands that progressives focus on different ways of co-operating with Europe, regardless of Brexit, argue David Adler and Pawel Wargan

People hold up signs as they take part in a climate strike after the five-day Summer Meeting in Lausanne Europe (SMILE) of the Fridays for Future movement in Lausanne, Switzerland August 9, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

In June 2015 – at the 41st summit of the G7 in Bavaria, Germany – Prime Minister David Cameron scolded the international press for referring to his country as ‘Great Shrinking Britain’. The rumour was that US diplomats had a habit of mocking Britain’s diminutive status on the world stage, and Cameron was indignant. ‘Britain is a serious global player,’ he insisted. ‘We are not shrinking.’

Four years later, the United Kingdom is in a state of severe contraction. Boris Johnson’s arrival to Downing Street all but ensures its exit from the European Union – and the prospect of an unruly exit is already inspiring talks of independence for Scotland and reunification for Ireland. The British Isles look smaller by the day.

The UK’s retreat from the international sphere could not arrive at a worse moment. The climate and other environmental crises are accelerating all around the world, demanding that governments work together to deliver a swift green transition. The irony of Boris Johnson pitching his glorious Brexit while the country suffers through its hottest summer on record is painful to watch.

Activists in the UK are agitating for change. Under the banner of the UK Green New Deal, they are calling for rapid decarbonization and industrial transformation – and many MPs appear to be listening. ‘Britain needs its own Green New Deal,’ Caroline Lucas of the Green Party argued in the FT. ‘Let’s seize the moment and create a Green New Deal for the UK,’ Ed Miliband of the Labour Party echoed in The Guardian.

Activists across the UK have hung their hopes for internationalism on the prospect of Remain – and put their international thinking on hold until they get it. But the climate clock is ticking

But such a domestic Green New Deal is meaningless in the absence of a broader international framework. After all, the UK contributes just 1.2 per cent of global greenhouse emissions. While a ‘green industrial revolution’ may serve to create new job opportunities for Britain’s underemployed, but would amount to little more than pissing in the wind of global environmental destruction.

What is to be done?

Some climate activists, recognizing the dangers of international retreat, call to cancel Brexit altogether. ‘We have a responsibility to contribute to building a Europe that could help us deal with these dangers,’ says LSE Professor Mary Kaldor, in her pitch for revoking Article 50.

But this view simply conflates European Union membership with the cause of internationalism – and in doing so, runs the risk of deepening the divide that has grown between Leavers and Remainers. After all, Britain’s exit from the EU does not mean its exit from Europe: Why can’t we articulate a vision of international co-operation that does not involve – or at least, does not require – a second referendum?

The true agenda

To reunite Leaver and Remainers around an agenda of environmental justice, then, we should advocate a Green New Deal for Europe that links all countries across the continent into a single framework that pools funding, co-ordinates production, shares best practices, maximizes comparative advantages, and redresses Europe’s history of colonialism and resource extraction – regardless of EU membership.

In a new report on ‘Internationalizing the Green New Deal’, commissioned by the thinktank Common Wealth, we set out five key areas in which the UK can link up with its European neighbours to deliver a just transition, ranging from a Green Energy Union to invest in renewables to a Green Macroprudential Framework to link up central banks.

Such a strategy, we argue, provides both necessary defence for the domestic Green New Deal and a strong offence for its core principle of internationalism.

On the former, international co-ordination promises to defend the UK against the vengeance of the global investment community. While advocating for a radical shift in Britain’s economic model, few activists have considered how it might provoke a backlash on the international markets – and how that backlash might undermine, in turn, the ability for the UK government to finance its green transition.

To protect against this possibility, the UK can link its National Investment Bank to the European Investment Bank, and issue Common Green Bonds between them – backed up in the secondary markets by the Bank of England and the European Central Bank. The credibility of such a scheme would ensure that no radical government was left to fend for itself.

But a continental Green New Deal is also good offence, allowing the UK to play an active role within Europe in taking responsibility for the continent’s exploitation of the Global South and creating new ties across this divide.

Through the Green Solidarity Network, for example, municipal governments in Europe and around the world can exchange ideas, staff and training to support sustainable governance. This would not only ensure that resources flow across borders. It would also create durable structures for horizontal co-operation that challenge the vertical grip of corporate power.

Similarly, through a Green Horizon 2050 programme, the UK can pool funding with its European neighbours to develop new solutions to the climate and environmental crises. And the programme can also contribute to a wider reparative agenda: technologies developed by the UK for the green transition can be made available to the Global South for free or at a low cost.

Many commentators complain that Brexit has become a distraction from domestic issues. But the same is true at the international level. Activists across the UK have hung their hopes for internationalism on the prospect of Remain – and put their international thinking on hold until they get it.

But the climate clock is ticking. We cannot afford to hold our breath while the drama of Brexit unfolds. We need a Green New Deal for Europe now. And the good news is that we can get it, no matter which way Article 50 swings.

David Adler is the policy director for DiEM25 and the co-coordinator of the Green New Deal for Europe campaign. Pawel Wargan is the co-coordinator for the Green New Deal for Europe campaign.