Soft Brexit-hard Brexit: where should green business stand?

Business Green

Published: 13th September 2016

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There are many times in a political life when principles collide and you find yourself with unexpected allies. The referendum campaign presented many examples of such conundrums and I was surprised to find myself suggesting that the loss of jobs in the automotive and finance sectors might persuade people to vote to remain in the EU.

As a Green I am no big fan of either sector but I know that what we are looking for is a transition to a Green economy not an economic tragedy. On this basis, I see it as my job as a South West MEP to protect the jobs of the 3,400 of my constituents who work at the Honda plant in Swindon.

It seems that we need Japanese multinationals to pour some cold water on the ‘Rule Britannia’ rhetoric of the three leading ‘hard’ Brexiteers – Johnson, Davis and Fox – and to point out who is actually providing jobs to British workers. The tone of a 15-page report the Japanese government presented ahead of the G20 summit was one of sorrow rather than anger.

However, the solid votes for Brexit in Sunderland and Swindon, where Japanese car companies Nissan and Honda support thousands of skilled, high-powered jobs, must have felt like a slap in the face.

As the Japanese argued, they invested in plants and people based on the UK’s continued membership of the single market. If we were to leave this market, we would not only undermine the chance of future investment but ultimately see plant closures. If cars made in the UK faced tariffs when sold elsewhere in the EU, of course Japanese companies are going to look to move to other parts of Europe. This risk to the 140,000 who work in Japanese factories is much more significant than the sentiment-based economic data that we have been rowing over thus far.

There is also an important environmental angle here. The UK government is falling behind on its commitments to switch the UK’s car fleet to electric vehicles.  Meanwhile, Japanese companies have led the field globally in developing and selling electric plug-in vehicles. While Sunderland will remain iconic in the history of the referendum as the bell-weather that indicated England would vote to leave the EU, it is also where the 100 per cent electric Nissan leaf car is manufactured for the EU market.

As Greens we have many other reasons to argue for our continued membership of the single market, not least the strong regulation of energy efficiency standards, pollution, and environmental protection which, as a small but effective group in the European Parliament, Green MEPs have been influential in devising over several decades. But for those advocating a ‘hard Brexit’ this is problematic since the closest arrangement to the single market that does not include full EU membership – often called the Norway model – would mean precisely what many who voted Brexit most feared; we would have to follow EU laws we had no part in making.

Of course I would rather we had national or social ownership and public or cooperative control of key infrastructure like railways, electricity generating capacity, and broadband networks. We can but hope that Theresa May’s call for a new industrial strategy turns into a fully-fledged industrial policy, including financial support for key sectors.

Top of my list would be manufacture of the hardware we need for the vital transition to a low-carbon economy, beginning with the turbines we need for both offshore wind and tidal lagoons. But to make such a transition requires a robust economy to start with, and that clearly means keeping our place inside the single market.