European debate takes a nosedive

Just why are Green MEPs campaigning for a ban on night flights?

Sarah David

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Topics Politics

‘Banning all night flights in Europe will save jobs’, is the bizarre claim made recently in the European Parliament. The ‘No night flights’ campaign, led by a coalition of Green MEPs with the backing of their party, was prompted by courier firm DHL’s 2004 decision to relocate its headquarters from Brussels to Leipzig, thanks largely to high-profile protests against noise pollution.

The Greens say their proposal is just a logical extension of demands made by the protesters, which would improve everybody’s quality of life. But a glance at the campaign suggests that either they are being incredibly naive, or hiding a reactionary agenda behind the spin. Either way, the no-night flights campaign reveals a worrying malaise at the heart of European politics.

‘The intention of this campaign is to protect both human health and jobs’, said a press release announcing the campaign. This is patently untrue: how would scrapping ‘more than 550,000 night flights each year’ not entail job losses?

The evidence used to back up the claim is ‘DHL’s decision to scrap 1,300 jobs in Brussels and move to Leipzig’. While the courier’s move is undeniably dreadful for the Belgian workers involved, as an argument this neatly skips the fact that the net number of European DHL employees will actually go up, as the enlarged headquarters in Germany will require more staff than were employed in Belgium.

Rather than hiding behind job stats, the Green Party could have firmly and openly declared that it believes the environmental, societal and health benefits of a total night flights ban would justify the obvious negative impacts. This would have served the dual purpose of raising the profile of the campaign, and kick starting a healthy debate. Of course, the Greens would have also had to deal with a lot of objections, and back up their campaign with more than a smart website (1). But you hope that the politicians involved had thought out their proposal before making it public, and that, having decided this was a cause worth fighting for, they believed others could be convinced they were right.

But getting the Green Party to muster any degree of evidence on the topic was difficult. When pressed, however, an MEP leading the campaign gave a taster of his worldview: ‘It’s loss of sleep versus loss of jobs – that seems to me a good enough trade off.’ Or ‘I’m quite sure that a number of the things planes are doing at night are not needed’. And ‘you have to think about a different way of organising your economy’.

Journalists present at the campaign launch press briefing seemed reluctant to take the politicians up on their strange logic. The admission above was only made at the end of a later tortuous conversation between the MEPs and one journalist (me, my on the record question during the briefing having been circumnavigated).

There are several possible explanations for the uncharacteristic charity from the other journalists present, one being that it was just before lunch and everyone was keen to get away and eat. There is also a tendency among some members of the press corps to be kinder to the Greens than they would be to, say, a socialist or conservative politician, the Green Party having spent years building up a slightly cuddly reputation campaigning on media-friendly animal welfare issues.

But the more likely explanation is that the story had been presented in such a way as to make sure nobody listening was that interested, and/or that the majority of reporters present were themselves environmentally inclined. While this may mean a pleasantly easy ride for the politicians involved, it does their policies – and politics in general – no good at all.

Calling for a total ban on night flights is actually one of the most interesting things to have emerged recently from the European Parliament (which is, admittedly, a supremely dull institution). It would have huge monetary and trade implications, a knock-on effect on countless EU sectors, and suggests a wholesale rethinking of society’s priorities. Which is more than can be said of most modern policy proposals.

But the Greens didn’t have the courage to say this. Instead they hid their (misguided but) brave political stance behind fluffy nonsense about quality of life, and misinformation on job safety.

Politicians have no right to complain that modern voters have no interest in politics, when they are doing their utmost to make everything they say apolitical. Of course we’re not going to get involved in the political debate when that debate is not opened on clear and courageous terms.

It is tragic to note that the best thing to happen in European politics for years was the election of 11 Hooray Henry UKIP politicians to the European parliament. Far-right MEPs saying that Britain should get out of the EU (2), or that women should stay in the kitchen (3), has been the only thing recently that has come close to getting people to think and worry about political issues.

We shouldn’t have to wait for fringe parties to be voted in to start talking about what we believe, and it shouldn’t only be the deliberately provocative MEPs who are brave enough to spark a response.

If the only alternative is along the lines of soporific and dubious statements such as ‘people are being denied the fundamental right of a good night’s sleep’ (4), the potential consequences are at best worrying. Politics should not be about the best way to slip knee-jerk legislation passed bored citizens. You can’t just attach an online petition to your proposal and say that’s a democratic debate (5).

But perhaps I’ve misjudged the Green Party. Perhaps it genuinely has no idea what the night flights ban would mean. After all, one suggestion that they are living in a parallel universe can be seen on the poster being used to promote the night flights ban: passenger planes (symbolising mosquitoes) are shown on the point of crashing into a tall, black skyscraper-shaped edifice (meant to be a mosquito lamp) against the open sky (6). Perhaps there is no New York on Planet Green.

(1) See NoNightFlights.org

(2) See for example 48 per cent want EU withdrawal as UKIP support hits double figures, UKIP, 16 May 2004

(3) Godfrey Bloom press briefing, July 2004

(4) Caroline Lucas MEP, 25 January 2005 press briefing

(5) See NoNightFlights.org petition

(6) See poster at NoNightFlights.org

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Topics Politics

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