Free trade or environment

by Serge HalimiFree trade or environment↑

https://mondediplo.com on July 2019

Europe’s Greens revived the old debate on the political positioning of their movement when they won 10% of seats in the new European Parliament. Is it leftwing, as most of its alliances to date suggest? Or is it neoliberal, given that several of its former leaders, including Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Pascal Canfin and Pascal Durand, have since joined forces with Emmanuel Macron, and that some coalitions in Germany include rightwing parties as well as the Greens?

At first glance, neoliberalism and ecology seem like an odd match. In 2003 Milton Friedman, the father of neoliberalism, said, ‘The environment is a greatly overstated problem … We cause pollution just by breathing. We can’t close all the factories on the grounds that it will stop CO2 emissions. We might as well go and hang ourselves right away’ (1). A decade earlier, Gary Becker, another winner of the Nobel for economics and outspoken critic of what is now called ‘punitive ecology’, wrote that labour legislation and environmental protection were now excessive in most developed countries. He hoped that free trade would curb some of the excesses by forcing everyone to stay competitive with imports from developing countries (2).

It’s understandable therefore that fears for the future of the planet have rehabilitated the long-reviled concept of ‘protectionism’. In France, during a campaign debate in the run-up to the European election, the leaders of the Socialist and Green electoral lists even called for ‘protectionism at the borders of the European Union’ in almost the same terms as Marine Le Pen (3). One can imagine the likely outcome of such a change of course, given that free trade is the EU’s historical founding principle, as well as the economic engine of Germany, its biggest economy.

Everyone knows that the now universal praise for local production and local consumption and on-site waste processing is incompatible with a production and trade model based on ‘value chains’, with a steady to-and-fro of container ships on which a product or its components will ‘cross the Pacific three or even four times before showing up on retail shelves’ (4).

There will be plenty of opportunities in the next few weeks for the Greens to follow up their rejection of an environmentally destructive free-trade model with practical action. MEPs are due to ratify — or let’s hope reject — free trade deals with four Latin American countries, including Brazil and Argentina (the EU-Mercosur agreement), and with Canada (CETA) and Tunisia (ALECA). It will then be clear whether or not a ‘green tide’ is really sweeping Europe.

Serge HalimiSerge Halimi is president and editorial director of Le Monde diplomatique.Translated by Charles Goulden