Germana Canzi is a London-based Italian writer and consultant, specialised in climate change & energy policy. She writes here in a personal capacity. 

In December 2015 in Paris, over 190 countries reached a historical agreement on fighting climate change. The European Union has had an important role in this agreement, and will be crucial to its success. But will the multiple political and economic woes on the continent undermine these efforts? And could the messy “Brexit” debate – and potential outcome – give it a further blow?

There has been major progress on renewable energy in the past few years with prices coming down, and rapid growth of clean technology in many countries. The EU – with its continent-wide renewable energy targets - has played a crucial role. But – if the Paris Agreement is to be honoured - efforts on these policies need to be stepped up, not disrupted.

As Lord Deben, a former UK Tory secretary of state, recently said: “The battle against climate change depends hugely on the ability of Britain to remain within, and be a leader in, the European Union. We’ve only got where we have got on climate change because of the European Union, there would have been no Kyoto Agreement without the European Union, and we do have to recognise that the idea that you can do anything environmentally on your own is just factually untrue.”

The UK will hold the presidency of the EU Council in 2017, which would be a great opportunity to lead on climate change in Europe, pushing for stronger policies to reflect the ambition of the Paris Agreement. But right now, how can Britain even think of doing that, while it has one foot out of the door?

The good news is that, with the referendum debate heating up, and after years of relative silence from the environmental community on the benefits of the EU, prominent experts have started to speak up on the threat represented by Brexit. The grassroots group “Environmentalists for Europe” is being launched this week.

However, much more is needed, as some of the problems behind the Brexit debate may be very deep rooted.

What is the EU for?

Let’s take a step back. At the very least, the EU has helped to keep the peace on the continent for over 70 years, and peace is very much needed to tackle climate change. The Paris Agremeent itself - which happened just a few weeks after a terrible terrorist attack on the host city - can be seen as a triumph of multilateral cooperation at a time when this appears to be in a bit of a crisis.

As an Italian living in the UK, I finding it shocking to think that that Britons and Italians of my grandfather’s generation fought each other in the Second World War (although many of course joined the resistance or secretly helped British forces, like some relatives of mine). Yet here we are, living and working in peace in each others’ countries, marrying each other, having children with dual nationalities and language skills.

It is important to talk more openly about the great benefits of the EU (and very few people are doing that), while also recognising that of course it is far from perfect. The disproportionate influence of some corporate lobbies compared to groups representing citizens has held back good policies and led to some damaging ones, including on the environment. Austerity policies are harming citizens. EU policies on migration are making the refugee crisis worse than it should be. But these problems would not be solved by tearing the EU apart, as very similar problems exist at national level. Indeed many of these policies are driven by national level politics.

Getting facts right

Yet it is worth remembering that the EU as a whole is a democratic institution, with decisions made by elected governments and Members of the European Parliament. The management of the Eurozone is more problematic, with far more room for improvement - but this is largely irrelevant to the UK. Frustratingly, the debate on Brexit has – at least so far - been mostly a lost opportunity to discuss what really needs to be done to improve the EU.

Even more worrying is the tendency – by many UK campaign groups in favour of EU cooperation (including on the environment) – to use the same type of framing used by Eurosceptics: blaming the EU itself rather than focusing on the role of member governments in decision making. In many cases, this will take the form of a sentence like: “no matter what you think of Brussels, it does some useful things…..”. This is because the incorrect idea that “Brussels” imposes things on the UK – rather that the fact the UK negotiates through the Council of Ministers and has an additional say though its elected MEPs - has become very pervasive.

But trying to persuade the public about of the benefits of working within the EU while at the same time bashing it for imposing things, simply won’t work. Firstly, because it is inaccurate – there is nothing about EU level climate change policy that is being “imposed” on countries. Secondly, it plays into the hands of the opposite side, which includes a great number of people who would very much like EU efforts to jointly fight climate change to fail, which would in turn undermine global efforts under the Paris Agreement.


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