The mood darkens as civil society is shut out of COP15

The early hope and empowerment in Copenhagen is dying as it transforms into a gathering of elite men

The past week in Copenhagen has seen temperatures and tensions rise, building up to the arrival of Barack Obama today. But it's the thousands of ordinary people who travelled to the city with the full intention of being a part of this agreement who are feeling the worst of the burn. Protests, clashes with police and arrests have escalated since Saturday's predominantly peaceful march. The mood among NGOs and campaigners is dark.

One of the factors that has defined this conference is the overwhelming civilian presence. Twenty thousand accreditations were issued to non-governmental agencies for the conference centre, and that figure doesn't touch on the numbers speaking, writing and blogging from fringe venues and events around the city.

The unprecedented scale of the non-governmental presence has had a profound effect on the spirit here. There was a sense at the beginning of the week that sheer popular will meant this summit could not fail -- or at least could not afford to. Hordes of journalists, campaigners and bloggers came, determined to break down layers of political jargon in a quest for transparency.

Thousands of ordinary people came too, wanting, like Simone Lovera, a volunteer forest campaigner and indigenous Paraguayan, "to tell the world that climate catastrophes are not the problems of tomorrow -- we are already living with it".

However, for the past three days, access to the talks has been strictly restricted and quotas have been put in place for observers. On Wednesday, Friends of the Earth was the first to fall victim to the civilian cull. FoE representatives were stopped on entry to the centre and the organisation's entire international contingent was greeted by Yvo de Boer himself, who told them organisers were acting on "intelligence" that they had been planning to disrupt talks with a mass walkout.

Dumbfounded and more than a little insulted, the group staged a sit-in in the centre's foyer. Executive director Andy Atkins reflected the mood among NGOs yesterday when he said "the Copenhagen conference is fast becoming an international shambles".

At a press conference on Wednesday evening, de Boer made a comment on the transparency of the conference. "If you ever witnessed a G8, G20 or EU summit where whole city centres are closed off, with containers and warships circling the venue, I don't believe . . . that there is anything anywhere where you have such access and transparency," he said.

This has been true until now. Ousting Connie Hedegaard from her role as conference president and replacing her with the Danish prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, was a symoblic gesture. This summit has rapidly changed from a meeting of "united nations" into an elite gathering of the world's most powerful men.

Today only 1,000 independent observers will be allowed access to the talks. As the doors closed to civil society, the hope and sense of empowerment I felt among the people on Saturday's march are beginning to feel like a sad joke.

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Leader: Labour and the Brexit debacle

The party appears to favour having its cake and eating it – yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

In the year since a narrow majority of people voted to leave the European Union, the Brexit project has not aged well. Theresa May’s appeal to the electorate to “strengthen” her hand in negotiations was humiliatingly rejected in the general election. Having repeatedly warned of a “coalition of chaos” encompassing ­Labour and the Scottish National Party, the Prime Minister has been forced to strike a panicked parliamentary deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. European leaders have been left bewildered by events in the United Kingdom.

The Brexiteers, who won the referendum on a fraudulent prospectus, have struggled to cope with the burden of responsibility. In the manner of Dr Pangloss, they maintain that the UK will flourish outside the EU and that those who suggest otherwise are too pessimistic, or even unpatriotic. Yet wishful thinking is not a strategy. Though the immediate recession forecast by the Treasury has been avoided, the cost of Brexit is already being borne in squeezed living standards (owing to the pound’s depreciation) and delayed investment decisions.

At the same time, far from disintegrating as the most ardent Leavers predicted, the EU is recovering, with a revival of the Franco-German axis under Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Donald Trump’s antics have dispelled the illusion that “the Anglosphere” can function as an alternative to the bloc. Britain has embarked on the great task of withdrawal at a time of profound national and global instability.

For all this, the Brexiteers retain an indisputable mandate. What the Brexiteers have no mandate for is their model of withdrawal. And there is a nascent majority in the House of Commons for a “soft” exit. Roughly two-thirds of voters remain supportive of Brexit but they have no desire to harm the economy in the process. A recent YouGov survey found that 58 per cent believe Britain should trade freely with the EU, even at the cost of continued free movement into Britain.

In these circumstances, Labour has profited from ambiguity. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to uphold the referendum result and to end free movement won the respect of Leavers in the election. His pro-migration rhetoric and promise of a “jobs-first” Brexit impressed Remainers, who were in the mood to give the Tories a bloody nose. Although Labour fell 64 seats short of a majority, it partly spanned a divide that had been considered unbridgeable.

Mr Corbyn’s desire to avoid the cross-party Brexit commission proposed by some commentators and MPs is understandable. As Ed Smith observes on page 22, Brexit is a metaphorical “plague” that contaminates all those who touch it, claiming one Conservative prime minister and fatally infecting another. The Tories, who inflicted an unnecessary EU referendum on the UK, must not redistribute the blame.

As the Brexit negotiations progress, however, Labour cannot maintain its opacity. While vowing to retain “the benefits of the single market and the customs union”, it has also pledged to “end” freedom of movement. Like the risible ­Boris Johnson, Labour appears to favour having its cake and eating it. Yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

The logical extension of the party’s vow to give the economy priority over immigration control is to support continued single-market membership. This is the most practical and reliable means of ensuring that Britain’s dominant services sector retains the access it requires. Membership of the customs union would ensure the same for manufacturers. Economic retreat from the EU, which accounts for 44 per cent of all UK exports, would unavoidably reduce growth and living standards.

Such an arrangement need not entail continued free movement, however. Under existing EU rules (not applied by the UK), immigrants resident for longer than three months must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed) or a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system”.

It falls to Labour, as a reinvigorated and increasingly popular opposition, to chart an alternative to the ideological Brexiteers on the Tory benches as well as in the virulent right-wing press. Is Mr Corbyn a covert Brexiteer? It does not really matter. What matters is that he leads a party of committed Europeans who have no wish to see Britain humiliated, its influence in the world reduced, and its economy damaged by the folly of the Brexit debacle. 

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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