Brexit and the Climate Crisis
On a warm Tuesday afternoon in May, Daze Aghaji walks through the doors of a light and airy pub on a busy southeast London high street. “The opportunity literally just came up. I don’t even remember what day it was. I think it was a Wednesday,” she tells me of her decision to stand for election as an MEP. “It was an amazing opportunity to shape politics, even just a tiny little bit ... So I was like ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’”
In two days time, polling stations will open for the 2019 European Parliament election. It will be the fourth major vote in the UK in as many years. But this is an election that was never supposed to take place – not here, anyway. After voters returned a slim majority in favour of leaving the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum, the deadline for the UK’s departure was set: 29 March 2019 would be “Brexit day”. But with Theresa May’s proposed EU Withdrawal Agreement having failed to win the backing of a majority of MPs at Westminster – and thus unable to be passed into law – the deadline for Brexit had to be pushed back. As a result, the UK is now taking part in an election for the future of a European Union it will soon leave. Even though the tenure of any British MEPs will in all likelihood be short, campaigning began on all sides – with Brexit taking centre-stage.
But Daze is unlike most of the other candidates. At nineteen, she would become the youngest sitting MEP if elected – and would have to figure out how to balance her commitments in Brussels and Strasbourg with finishing off her degree at Goldsmiths, University of London (she has made the time to meet for an interview between finishing an exam and heading to the park with some friends to celebrate). And perhaps most unusually, Brexit doesn’t really figure in her election campaign. “OK, Brexit is important ... and we do really need to hash it out and create solutions,” she concedes. “But even if we solve Brexit, we’re still going to be living on a dying planet.” As Daze sees it, Brexit is a political crisis; the climate crisis is an existential one.
Daze is one of nine “Climate Emergency Independents”. Their careers range from finance to theatre to anthropology, and they count an ‘80s DJ among them. Although they are standing as independents, all share a connection with the Extinction Rebellion movement which brought much of central London to a standstill a few weeks earlier. True to this spirit, their campaign has been far from conventional. Among other stunts, they held a press conference stood knee-deep in the River Thames to draw attention to the rising risk of flooding as a result of climate change. They are not politicians, and none has stood for election before. But they don’t see this as an obstacle. “We are such an unconventional group, and that was the whole point,” Daze explains. “We’re meant to represent ordinary people, because we are ordinary people.”
The climate emergency is a global problem, albeit one that currently disproportionately affects the Global South. But Daze’s interest is personal, too. She grew up in Tottenham in North London, sharing a one-bedroom flat with her mum, dad, and brother. “I literally grew up in poverty in the UK,” she tells me, “but then my mum got the opportunity to own a restaurant, and from there, that’s how we became like the new middle class.” Daze was sent to boarding school in Skegness, a seaside town on England’s east coast with a wide sandy beach, a pier, and fairground rides. On a clear day, you can see the wind farm which sits just over five kilometres offshore. “You can actually smell the air quality difference ... it’s one of the things that people who don’t leave London don’t realise – it really is that bad.” When she returned to London, her asthma came back. “Why didn’t I have asthma for the six years I was primarily in Lincolnshire? You know what I mean? We need to make those connections.”
I suggest to Daze that for most voters this election is really about Brexit – either a chance to demonstrate that the national mood has shifted towards Remain, or an opportunity to double down on the referendum result and deliver a firm message to Westminster that nothing has changed. “That’s a problem!” she says immediately. “We haven’t suffered yet so we don’t see it as important to act now,” Daze argues. “We think of environmentalism too much as a single issue, and it’s not a single issue. It’s connected to so many other issues ... Climate breakdown is going to affect everything.”
But so far, political action in the UK has been slow. As Daze sees it, the issue is time. “Career politicians basically live to be re-elected,” she says, and Brexit is the issue of the day. “People are very emotive about it, so if you lean to one side or the other, it might lead to you being re-elected,” Daze explains. In a recent profile in The New Yorker, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that one of the difficulties progressive leaders face is that “smart reforms” often only deliver in the longer term, and their benefits are not obviously – or immediately – visible to voters. The climate crisis falls into this trap. Politicians need to take action today in order to avert a crisis that may not be fully felt in the UK for another twenty years, by which time many of them will no longer be in office. “There’s not going to be any accountability until then,” Daze says. And in twenty years, it may be too late.