For a Green Europe, for a Green Scotland
This week will see the most important European election in our history – yes, in part because of Brexit.
But also because it is Europe’s opportunity to turn the tide on the rising far right: to show up in our millions and tell everyone from Farage to Spain’s new Falangists that they only represent an embittered minority, clinging to the power structures of the past. The far right thinks they are on the march like at no time since the 1930s. But this time, they shall not pass.
It’s a vital election because it’s time to reject the austerity dogma that has crippled the continent this last decade; it’s time to tear down Europe’s walls and stand up for free movement; it’s time to kick back at those who would roll back women’s and LGBT rights. And it’s time to take action to avert the breakdown of our climate and halt the mass extinction we are living through.
And in Scotland, as across most of Europe, that means it’s time to vote Green. And to persuade our friends and families and colleagues and neighbours to vote Green. And to blue-tac Green posters to our windows, and go and deliver leaflets and to knock on doors for the Greens, and to shout about voting Green on Facebook and Twitter. It’s time. Because time is running out.
A Green vote is, of course, a loud rejection of Brexit. Caroline Lucas was the first politician to propose a referendum on the final deal (she made the case to me the Monday after the 2016 referendum), and the Greens have long articulated the clearest vision for reform of the EU – a position Scottish Green co-convener and lead candidate Maggie Chapman has described as “Remain and Revolt”.
This election will see momentous struggles playing out besides which the question of whether Britain stays or goes is really only a side issue. On the other hand, the outcome of these struggles will matter enormously to Britain irrespective of what happens with Brexit. This, in itself, is a robust argument for why Britain ought to remain.
But for Scotland to show that we really are a European country, it’s not enough to treat this election as if it were nothing more than a symbolic second referendum. The best way to support European politics is to actually do European politics – to look beyond the stifling self-obsession of British internal debates and join the conversation happening across the European subcontinent. Beyond Britain, there are five great issues which dominate this vote.
First, austerity. Over ten years, the response of Europe’s institutions to a crisis in the banking system was to demand cuts in the salaries of nurses and teachers and privatisation of basic public services – slashing away at the base of the economy and destroying the lives of millions, from Greece to Italy to Spain to Scotland.
And over the last decade, Greens across Europe have been one of the leading forces opposing the cuts, privatisation and deregulation that have ripped apart our democratic settlement. Equo, the Spanish Greens, are allied with Podemos in Spain as they battle austerity and evictions. Portugal’s Greens are part of the left government which cancelled the austerity programme, boosting their economy and slashing their deficit as a result. And Greece’s Greens have allied with the rest of the left to fight the brutal cuts imposed on their country.
Likewise, Greens have taken on the austerity-ideology at the heart of Europe’s institutions. It was Green MEP Phillipe Lambert who delivered the bankers bonus tax and Greens – including the English Green MEP and economics professor Molly Scott Cato – have led the EU’s crackdown on tax havens.
Those tempted to vote Lib Dem in these elections would do well to note that their group in the European parliament – the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) – were cheerleaders of the austerity programme which set fire to the continent. Every vote for a Lib Dem MEP is a vote to entrench the cause of the current crisis. Every Green vote is a vote to build a Europe that works.
Second, there’s the rise of the far right. As people across Europe have seen their living standards fall and have come to understand that the systems which govern us are broken, they have been encouraged by our feral elite to kick down, passing on the blame to the powerless.
I’ve seen this first hand. For my day job, I’ve spent much of the last year traveling around Europe, investigating the far right in Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Italy, Spain, France, Germany and Croatia. From North East Hungary to the villages of Alpine Italy, I’ve interviewed people who have been convinced that migrants pose a major threat – despite the fact that no one has moved into these areas for a generation. The centre-right has sewn economic chaos into people’s lives and the far right has reaped the rewards.
Too often, those who should know better have capitulated – with too many of the traditional left and liberal parties across Europe lining up to blame migrants for a crisis created by millionaires. From Vince Cable to Germany’s Die Linke, too many have bent a knee to fascism just when we needed them to stand firm.
In this context, it has been Greens and their allies across Europe who have stood with migrants and the marginalised, and been rewarded with a flood of support. German Greens are riding a backlash against migrant-bashing to record figures in the polls. Austria’s Greens narrowly defeated the far right Freedom Party in the final round of the country’s last presidential election. And Hungary’s Greens secured the election of the country’s first black MP, Olivio Kocsis-Cake, in response to Orbán’s racism.
I interviewed Olivio Kocsis-Cake in November in his office in the country’s gold plated parliament building by the Danube: a building where he’s surrounded by representatives of authoritarian parties which ran racist election campaigns. He’s an extraordinary figure, maintaining his dignity in his battle for his country’s soul. But he knows he has the solidarity of Greens across Europe: Judith Sargentini, the MEP who acted as the EU rapporteur into Hungary and secured action against its far-right government, is a GroenLinks politician, the Dutch GreenLeft Party.
The price of centrist capitulation to fascists on migration has been paid first and last by the 6,309 people who have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014, and the many more who have died because they could not escape the wars our leaders unleashed in the Middle East and North Africa: as Warsan Shire wrote: “you have to understand, no one puts their child in a boat unless the water is safer than the land”. The very real suffering of those imprisoned by borders is the third issue shaping this election.
In Serbia in 2015 I interviewed a young Afghani man called Ali who had been shot in the leg while working for the British Army and flown to Cardiff for treatment. After two years in hospital in Wales, he was deported back to Kabul where he faced death at the hands of the Taliban. So, with his sister and her children, he had walked to Belgrade, in the hope of returning to Britain. If he did that today, he would face Hungary’s border wall, blocking him from entering the EU. When I was in Croatia last year, with far right activists on every street corner, border guards shot children for the ‘crime’ of attempting to enter the country.
This weekend, my colleagues revealed that hundreds of Europeans – including church ministers, firefighters and elderly women, have been arrested for simple acts of kindness towards migrants.
Trump is rightly attacked for his promise to build a wall, but we are too quick to ignore the death toll of fortress Europe, and we must use this election to make a clear statement: no more walls, no more drownings. The Green Group is the only force in the European Parliament which has consistently spoken up for migrant rights, and Maggie Chapman, a migrant herself, will be a powerful addition to their number.
She won’t be alone. The violent enforcement of the borders of the EU was first highlighted to me by a young German activist at a conference in Barcelona in 2005. She was already campaigning against “fortress Europe”, long before bodies started washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean. Her name was Ska Keller. Today, she’s an MEP, and the European Green candidate for Commission President.
The fourth issue dominating the European elections is the assault on women’s and LGBT rights being unleashed by the growing far right. In Budapest, I sat with feminist activists as they explained how every university in their country had been forced to close its gender studies department, how they are afraid to organise. In Zagreb, far right activists were campaigning against trans rights. In Verona, I watched Italy’s far right deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini charm a packed hall full of ultra-conservative activists, talking about how he’d been converted to opposition to abortion. In Madrid last month, I went undercover to a rally at a bullring and watched as the leaders of Spain’s far right party Vox focussed their ire on laws against gender-based violence, mocking such vital protections as mere “political correctness”. In Belfast, women still can’t get abortions and same sex couples still can’t get married.
The far right is desperate to unleash an assault on the rights of women and sexual minorities. And again, while too many who should know better have been too quick to compromise, Greens have stood proud and stood firm. It was a Green MP who first proposed equal marriage in Romania, and across Eastern Europe, Greens have marched with Pride parades as other politicians have cowered. In Northern Ireland, Green Party leader Claire Bailey is a prominent feminist activist and a clear voice for abortion rights. Scottish Green candidate Maggie Chapman is a formidable warrior against institutionalised sexism and misogyny, and is more than ready to go toe to toe with Europe’s bigots in Brussels.
The final issue dominating this election was catapulted up the agenda by a Swedish teenager called Greta Thunberg. When thousands of children walked out of school demanding urgent action on the breakdown of our climate, they expressed an energy that was already emerging across Europe.
In recent months we have learnt some scary things. We have less than twelve years to avert a breakdown of the stable climatic system which up to now has made human civilisation possible. The remotest oceans now contain microplastics. Grim new evidence points to the imminent extinction of up to a million species, from giraffes to koalas. Rural Britain has lost half its hedgehogs since the year 2000. Finally, the scale of the challenge faced by life on earth has started to dawn on people across Europe, and Greens are seeing a wave of support in response.
Often, people in Scotland recognise that these are huge global problems, but the solutions we are offered never feel like they are commensurate with the scale of the challenge. It’s easy to feel like Holyrood – or even Westminster – can only do so much about these global disasters. The personal actions that are often mooted feel like flimsy responses to vast crises.
But this is a European election. We are voting for our representatives to one of the world’s major powers. While you changing your lightbulbs doesn’t make much difference, the EU banning incandescent bulbs really did. Voting in European elections is one of the most important levers we have to shift the future of the planet, and voting for a Green MEP is one of the most significant things you can do about the unfolding environmental disaster.
This European election may be the most important in Scotland’s history. We could well be electing the delegates who will help us transition to an independent, European country. But if we want to step away from the Anglo-British exceptionalism which delivered the Brexit vote, that means joining a European conversation and taking a firm position in the debates being waged across our continent. The best way to announce ourselves as a progressive European country, ready to join the global family of nations, is by voting Green on 23 May.
Scotland is represented in Brussels by six MEPs, and there are six parties who have a good chance of winning one or more of these. Trying to second guess your fellow citizens in order to maximise the Remain vote, or the pro-independence vote, or whatever, is a mug’s game. The best way to get what you want in this election is to vote for the party you want.
Much of our debate about how to vote in the European elections has come down to a game of Twister with the D’Hondt electoral system, as each party tries to contort electoral maths to explain why you have to place your vote in their box in order to stop the Brexit party. The truth is that, if Westminster’s first past the post voting system is a disease, then tactical voting, and the ideas of “splitting the vote” or “wasted votes” are symptoms.
By chance, in the 2014 European elections, both the SNP and the Greens would have needed just over 32,000 more votes across Scotland to have taken the final seat off UKIP. Both are equally well placed to take the seat this time – the SNP with their third MEP, Greens with their first. Similarly, there’s pretty good evidence that the Brexit party, Tories, Labour and Lib Dems also all have a good chance of winning a seat or two.
Scottish Labour got two MEPs last time. In January, one of them stood down. The couldn’t be bothered to appoint someone to replace her, so one of Scotland’s seats at the European table has been vacant for months. Why vote for them to do a job they haven’t been bothering to do?
The Lib Dems are pitching themselves as the anti-Brexit party. But Brexit was caused by austerity, the failure to reform the British state, and a growing distrust of our politicians. Voting for the party which went back on its promises on austerity and tuition fees to clean up this mess would be like voting for an arsonist to put out the fire they started.
Then there’s the SNP. And I have to confess, I have a lot of time for their lead candidate, Alyn Smith, who has been an articulate voice for our place in the EU in recent years. But he is the lead SNP candidate. The party’s vote share would have to fall below around 10% for him to lose his seat. They are currently polling at more than 30%.
So in reality, the choice between voting SNP and voting Green is between voting for a third – or even fourth – SNP MEP, and Scotland’s first Green MEP. She would join a hopefully enlarged group of Green MEPs representing countries from Malta to Finland, and fighting for a just, democratic and welcoming Europe: and for Scotland’s place within it.
So, on Thursday, go out and vote Green. Take your loved ones to the polling station and convince them to vote Green. Write on Twitter and Facebook about why you’re voting Green. Because it’s time.