A green, cooperative Europe - for people and planet!

Photo: jacinta lluch valero via Flickr (re-coloured by The Ecologist) (CC BY-SA)..
Photo: jacinta lluch valero via Flickr (re-coloured by The Ecologist) (CC BY-SA)..
The main concerns that drove the Brexit vote - mass immigration and declining job prospects - must be taken seriously, writes Colin Hines, in the UK and across Europe. We need a new, cooperative union: of decentralised regional economies, with public investment in 'green' infrastructure driving our transition to a sustainable, low carbon future.
Green Infrastructure QE allied to a new direction for Europe - that of a cooperative grouping of countries prioritising the rebuilding of local economies - could provide a secure future for Europe's people and a positive answer to voters' concerns.

Pre and post the Brexit vote the national debate has been dominated by immigration versus how to maximise access to European and other export markets.

Two things that have emerged strongly since the vote is that for a large number of those who voted either way immigration was a major concern.

This was inevitable given that polls show that more than three quarters of the UK want immigration reduced, while less than 5% want it increased.

The significant split in the vote however was between the majority of people from the ‘left behind' regions who were beyond the reach of project fear, because they didn't feel the benefits of the exports and inward investment trumpeted by the Remain camp.

The response to Brexit will force Westminster to sort out a new shape and policy emphases for a future UK economy. This will have to take on board the major concerns that caused the referendum result i.e. immigration and the declining job prospects for huge swathes of England and Wales.

Crucially, it must do so in a way that will also protect the environment, the critical issue rarely mentioned in the debate.

Immigration does matter - for the environment too!

On the question of immigration there is little choice but for all parties to work out how to control the future level of EU migration into the UK. First and foremost this must prioritise measures to defuse the anti immigrant feeling that has been stoked up by the referendum campaign.

Also crucial is a candid recognition that the present level of EU migration, though not the cause, makes it much more difficult to tackle all social problems, that it has taken away jobs from the unskilled and that it has rapidly changed many communities in a way the majority oppose.

Not to control such migration is clearly undemocratic given the polls showing the overriding public opposition to present net immigration. A point rarely made is that the much vaunted Australian point system, if used to choose who can permanently migrate here, is the very opposite of internationalism.

It will continue the present stealing of the brightest and the best from poorer countries to save the UK the expense of training its own people. Over 2,000 doctors who qualified in Romania for example are working here, a country that has lost over a third of its hospital doctors over the last few years.

Finally if the present level of migration were to continue for another 15 years, it would contribute to an increase in UK population of eight million, almost a new Greater London. This will have severely adverse environmental effects in terms of increased resource use, a greater national contribution to climate change and further building on the green belt in a country that has to import nearly half of its food in a world of likely ever increasing food insecurity.

Green Infrastructure QE allied to a new direction for Europe - that of a cooperative grouping of countries prioritising the rebuilding of local economies - could provide a secure future for Europe's people and a positive answer to voters' concerns.

We need infrastructure renewal - and not just in the Southeast

To tackle the other driving force of the Brexit vote, regional decline, will require prioritising measures to generate jobs and investment opportunities in every community, not just predominantly in the South East.

There are only really two major sources for such local renewal: face to face caring and infrastructural renewal. The former can be predominantly state funded such as education or health or a mixture of public and private funding such as care for the elderly or solely private to cover niche markets from personal trainers to psychotherapy.

Infrastructural renewal would include building or refurbishing public sector buildings like schools and hospitals, public and private housing, more efficient energy and water systems, local transport, waste minimisation and digital infrastructure. Aside from its obvious advantages of improving social conditions and protecting the environment it has too further advantages.

Compared with manufacturing it is less likely to be automated and can't be relocated abroad. Most importantly the majority of this work will take place every town, cities, villages and hamlet and will require a very wide range of activities and skills involved in projects that will last decades.

An examples of the scope of such work has been detailed by the Green New Deal group. This has emphasised working towards making the UK's 30m buildings super-energy-efficient, dramatically reducing energy bills, fuel poverty and greenhouse gas emissions.

The programme would tackle the housing crisis by building affordable, highly insulated new homes, predominantly on brown field sites. It would require finance of the order of £50bn a year. If this seems ambitious, it is important to recall that between 2009 and 2012 the Bank of England e-printed £375bn of quantitative easing (QE), the equivalent of over £6,000 for every man, woman and child in the country.

In turn such Green QE could provide the impetus to unlock massive private co-funding from pension and insurance companies through to individual savers. The secure returns that can be earned from such investments are just what such funding sources need.

The local jobs and business opportunities provided will help rebuild the tax base and allow for an eventual reduction in public debt. In short, such a Green New Deal will replace austerity with a sustainable prosperity nationwide.

Cooperation at the heart of the new Europe

Whatever Brexit deal that emerges will of course have an effect on the rest of the EU which has its own concerns about immigration and regional inequality, fuelling as it has the rise of the extreme right across the continent.

However there is something that can immediately be built upon in terms of a continent wide sustainable infrastructure project to generate 'jobs in every community'. The Green Parties and MEPs across Europe have already proposed their own European Green New Deal initiatives and have explored the use of Green Infrastructure QE.

If this was allied to proposing a new direction for Europe - that of a cooperative grouping of countries prioritising the protection and rebuilding of local economies, then that could provide a secure future for its people. It could also turn the EU from an increasingly discredited entity to one which provides a positive answer to voters' concerns.

Cross border issues like responding to non European migration, climate change, pollution and crime would still require governments to work together and so would become the main purpose of a newly popular cooperative Europe.



Colin Hines is the convener of the Green New Deal group, having coined the term 'Green New Deal' in 2007. He was formerly Co-ordinator of Greenpeace International's Economics Unit having worked for the organisation for 10 years.

Books: Colin's forthcoming book 'Progressive Protectionism' will be published this summer. It details why and how groups of regional nation states and their communities should join together to reintroduce border controls to protect and diversify their economies, provide a sense of security for their people and prevent further deterioration of the environment. He is also author of 'Localization - A Global Manifesto'.

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