The Single Market as a global beacon: a view from the past – and across the Channel


When we look across the world, we see that social and environmental standards are far higher in the EU than in any other national or regional economy. It didn’t have to go that way, but our political power, skill and determination has turned the Single Market into a force for good. We should celebrate that achievement before moving on to consider the next 30 years.


I am honoured to have been asked to contribute an essay to this collection. I have accepted because I have two perspectives that may be useful: the first, because sadly I now have a view from outside the Single Market; the second, because I have been an observer of the EU and its Single Market for many years.

The Single Market has existed for exactly half my life, and when it was founded, I would have been firmly in the camp of seeing it as ’Europe of the bosses’. In 1993, British Greens were sceptical about the value of a vast and powerful market. We felt that it worked in opposition to our support for local economies and that it would enable the burgeoning power of the multinational corporations that could be free to ignore democratic power and the wishes of citizens.

But in the past 30 years, Greens in the European Parliament have been stunningly effective in colonising that market and harnessing the democratic power of the EU to effectively constrain corporate power. They managed to regulate markets so that the European economy works more powerfully in the interests of a healthy environment and contented citizens more than we could have imagined without the Single Market being in place. When we look across the world, we see that social and environmental standards are far higher in the EU than in any other national or regional economy. It didn’t have to go that way, but our political power, skill and determination has turned the Single Market into a force for good. We should celebrate that achievement before moving on to consider the next 30 years.

Existing legislation provides signposts for the future

I’m going to consider the future in terms of three pieces of EU legislation I particularly value and use them as blueprints for what we might work for as Greens.

The first is the EU Conflict Minerals Regulation that came into force on 1 January 2021 and requires that EU manufacturers of electronic goods have to monitor their supply chains for four named minerals to ensure they only import them from responsible and conflict-free sources. These minerals are crucial inputs of the electronic products that will dominate our future, and this legislation puts European values into practice by blocking the import of raw materials whose extraction has fostered conflict.

This is what I would consider a very low bar, but we could follow the same principle further. Given what we are learning about the Chinese labour-camp system, it seems fairly clear that ‘made in China’ products being sold across the Single Market may have been made by modern-day slaves. We need to develop more legislation to ban from our markets products that breach the standards we would expect. Otherwise, we are guilty of benefiting as consumers from a global production system that resembles a covert modernised version of the colonial past of which we are so ashamed.

Objection to Chinese imports is not a preserve of the left, and we must clearly distinguish our commitment to global standards from far right appeals to economic nationalism. Requiring environmental and social standards equivalent to our own for goods on sale in our market may result in the reshoring of production and better conditions for European workers matched by higher prices for consumers. However, our political objective is the protection of people and planet, not the mobilisation of grievance or appeals to nationalism. What we are protecting is not our domestic producers but our values.

This brings me to the second piece of legislation that I think may signal the way forward: the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism. The EU prides itself on being a global leader on climate. This can enable us to develop the clean and green economy of the future, but it can also sometimes mean our producers facing higher prices – especially for energy – and becoming uncompetitive. The purpose of the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism is to impose a tax on imports equivalent to any increased cost of production incurred to ensure we are meeting our climate commitments.

Of course, what is vitally important here is that the tariffs imposed are actually matched by carbon reductions rather than allowing further carbon leakage in the flawed Emissions Trading System. But if it can be made balanced and watertight, this ability to keep our high standards without making European producers uncompetitive could help to use the Single Market as a lever to improve other environmental and social standards in the globalised economy.

The third example I would like to consider is the Mercosur trade deal, which is a test of whether the EU is genuinely committed to climate action and human rights. The deal between the largest Latin American economies and the EU was reached, in principle, in 2019. It is a vast deal[1] covering 780 million people and trade valued at more than €40bn. It is also extremely sensitive to environmental concerns, with the Brazilian president encouraging the accelerated destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the murder of the indigenous people whose home it is at the precise moment that the deal was being signed off. It was negotiated without a sustainability impact assessment or binding commitments on climate, environment and human rights.

As Greens, we have all seen many trade deals that include warm words about women’s rights, indigenous rights, habitat protection and a wealth of other noble ambitions. But this content is always included in parts of the treaty that are not legally enforceable. Rather than a force for good in the world, EU trade policy has too often enabled unscrupulous corporations across the globe to exploit people and destroy habitats to provide cheap goods for European consumers.

The future of the Single Market must be linked more closely to the trade policy of the EU. The stalling of the Mercosur deal (still unratified at time of writing)[2] indicates that Member State governments and their citizens are beginning to reject the idea of trade at any price, and this is a positive sign of how EU trade policy may become better aligned with the highest ambitions of the Single Market, as I believe it should.

A view from outside

It would be inexcusable for me not to address the issue that is so central to my perspective on the EU Single Market: what life is like outside it. There is no question that the oligarchs who drove Brexit were keen to avoid exactly the sorts of legislative protections that are enshrined in the acquis governing the European Single Market. Whether we are thinking about risky financial products, climate-busting fossil fuel expansion or exploitative labour relations, it was clear that when Brexiteers talked about freedom, what they really meant was the freedom to exploit people and planet without the legal restrictions that Greens and others have introduced into the Single Market over the past 30 years.

The UK has paid a considerable price for leaving the Single Market. The massive hole in our national finances is of a similar dimension to the economic shrinkage that was predicted as we raised trade barriers with the vast EU market that previously received 44% of our exports,[3] making the EU by far our largest trading partner.[4]

As I write this article, the UK government is bringing to Parliament its reckless Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill,[5] which will introduce sunset clauses for more than 2,400 EU laws that were transferred into UK law before Brexit. This will mean a whole framework of legislation will automatically cease to have force at the end of 2023, whether they have been replaced with domestic legislation or not. This means whole areas of our national life, from the quality of our air and water to our right not to be exploited at work, could vanish in a puff of smoke. This is the way the Singapore-on-Thames of Rees-Moggs’s fantasy becomes a reckless and damaging reality. It also seems likely to breach the level-playing-field commitments of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

Although portrayed as laws written by ‘unelected bureaucrats’, the laws that are being thrown on the bonfire were EU laws, with UK MEPs (like me) and UK ministers being involved in their negotiation. Given that our membership lasted 47 years, the legal framework that we Brits still live within is largely EU legislation, stretching from the Working Time Directive to the Habitats Directive, with laws to protect us at work and maintain the quality of our air and water. These are only a tiny number of examples of the acquis that is at the heart of the Single Market. Losing this is a horrifying prospect – as is no longer being part of the law-making structures of the EU that continue to improve European lives.

Envisioning and building the future

Thirty years ago, we were close to the apex of confidence in market capitalism and liberal democracy. The past decade has demonstrated that power is shifting away from the humane values that have characterised the European project. We are in a defensive posture, with countries such as China and Russia blatantly traducing human and civil rights and challenging the order the Single Market represents as some kind of post-colonial imposition.

The EU can and must stand as a beacon for the values of strong human and civil rights, environmental protection, and social standards that European citizens have campaigned for over centuries. To do this, it must ensure that we share those values with our trading partners by making them legally enforceable in our trade deals. Just as we are abandoning Russian oil and gas, we should abandon trade with oppressive and authoritarian regimes. We can do this by requiring equal competition so that countries that do not match European standards will face import tariffs – not just climate standards but standards of employment rights and environmental protection too.

The Single Market is strong when it unifies the power of 450 million of the world’s richest consumers. If the Single Market did not exist, we might conclude that it would be necessary to invent it. Corporate power needs to be directed in the interest of citizens and the other creatures we share the planet with. How to achieve that in a world where economic power is drifting towards state-owned and oligarch-owned corporations is the challenge for the next 30 years.