"Some sort of referendum now appears inevitable, whether triggered by treaty change or because of manifesto commitments". Photograph: Getty Images.
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Only a referendum can solve Britain's European impasse

A public vote offers the best prospect of responding to democratic alienation from the union, and establishing a secure platform for the UK's engagement in its future.

Eurosceptic sentiment has risen sharply in the UK, in common with pan-European trends. The proximate cause has been immigration. Membership of the EU is blamed for the unexpectedly large wave of inward migration that followed the opening up of UK labour markets to citizens of those former communist countries in eastern Europe that have joined the union since 2004.

But the British have always been ambivalent at best about the European project, a tepid attitude that is not satisfactorily explained by recourse to the legacies of the British Empire and the UK's Atlanticism. These traditional accounts of the country’s European exceptionalism ignore more important post-war political and economic factors.

The first of these has to do with sovereign power. For most of the twentieth century, the United Kingdom was an unambiguously unitary state in which executive power was strong and relatively untrammelled. It has never had a written constitution and a constitutional court with codified powers of judicial review. Multi-party government is also rare. Unlike many of its continental partners, therefore, the state has not historically been structured as a series of constraints, checks and balances.

It has prized parliamentary sovereignty over the construction of a Rechtsstaat. Critically, it did not share in the post-war endeavour to promote European cooperation on the basis of what the political theorist Jan-Wener Muller describes as "delegated powers to unelected democratic institutions and to supra-national bodies in order to lock-in liberal democratic arrangements and prevent any backsliding towards authoritarianism."

Where the founder of the European Union consciously sought to tie down the nation state in an interlocking series of internal and external constraints, in the UK, the primacy of parliament and concomitantly powerful executive government remained the lodestar of political identity. In consequence, the pooling of sovereignty in the European Union since the 1970s has been experienced as a process of loss and subjection, particularly amongst sections of the political elite.

Britain’s post-war economic history also does much to explain its Euroscepticism. The decision to join the Common Market in 1973 was a product of declinist sentiment as much as anything else: a view that Britain’s endemic economic weaknesses could only be reversed if it embraced the European social market model. Pro-Europeans in both of the major political parties saw Europe as a means of overcoming Britain’s persistent failure to secure stable class compromise and to coordinate relations between labour and capital in the national economic interest. The collapse of this project in the 1970s amid the turmoil of stagflation and class conflict, and the subsequent neo-liberal reshaping of Britain’s political economy by the Thatcher government, dealt a fatal blow to Europeanism on the right of British politics.

Today, the few remaining pro-Europeans in the Conservative Party are all grandees, slowly shuffling off the stage of history, having long since given way to the Eurosceptics who now dominate their party. Mainstream conservatives are either now dismissive and disdainful of Europe, or actively hostile to it. They are flanked by an increasingly popular, populist and bellicose Ukip, whose name belies the English nationalism at the core of its identity, fed by discontent at the state of England’s two unions, Europe and the United Kingdom.

For its part, the Labour Party followed the reverse trajectory after the 1970s, abandoning its "socialism in one nation" stance to embrace Jacques Delors’s social union in the late 1980s. New Labour then governed in a pragmatic pro-European register after 1997, but maintained a largely liberal market economy and did not need the EU to prosecute its egalitarianism, which rested on the tax and spend apparatus of the national state.

Hence it left Britain after its period of government without deeply embedded structural and political interests in the European project beyond those of the single market, and few anchors for pro-European sentiment.

Consequently, there are limited political and economic resources in contemporary Britain available to those who wish to deepen its European ties. Foreign-owned companies exporting to the single market are a major source of pro-European commitment, as are most large corporates, the trade unions and significant sections of the City. But they are likely to do no more than defend the existing settlement between the UK and Europe, not advance it.

The same is true of the Labour Party, whose space for political manoeuvre is constrained by public opinion and institutionalised Eurosceptisicm in the conservative press. The only way out of this impasse is for Britain to hold a referendum on its membership of the union. That is a matter of regret to many pro-Europeans, as it will bring uncertainty and may deter investment in the UK. But some sort of referendum now appears inevitable, whether triggered by treaty change or because of manifesto commitments entered into by the political parties ahead of the general election in 2015. A referendum will not forever settle Britain’s role in Europe, but it offers the best prospect of responding to democratic alienation from the union, and establishing a secure platform for the UK's engagement in its future.

A full version of this essay appears in Shaping a Different Europe edited by Ernst Hillebrand & Anne Maria Kellner

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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