June 8, 2023 - 10:45am

Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, has this morning announced her intention to stand down from Parliament at the next election. In her resignation letter, Lucas cited several of what she believed to be her achievements, including securing a debate on drug law reform and a Natural History GCSE.

In the last few years, Lucas was known as one of the staunchest opponents of Brexit. She was a leading figure in the “People’s Vote” campaign, an effort to avoid implementing the Leave vote of the 2016 referendum.

Yet, earlier in her political career, Lucas had been doubtful about British membership in the EU. Her stance should not come as a surprise given that the British Left was historically Eurosceptic. The Greens, too, had previously opposed Britain’s membership of the EU. Their 1987 manifesto stated opposition to British membership of the Common Market and the Treaty of Rome. In 2016, the Green peer Jenny Jones was one of the “Green Leaves” to have campaigned for Brexit. Before entering the UK Parliament, Lucas was part of that same Eurosceptic tradition.

In 1999, the Greens won their first two seats in the European Parliament. They had stood on an anti-euro platform and positioned themselves as an alternative for Left-of-centre voters who had grown disillusioned with Labour’s fulsome embrace of the EU that decade. According to one contemporary newspaper, “The Greens acknowledge that in an election in which the Euro-sceptics polled well, this must have contributed to their success.”

One of those MEPs was Caroline Lucas. She had established her Eurosceptic bona fides by opposing the Maastricht Treaty and the European Single Market. She reflected:

The goal of the Maastricht Treaty is unacceptable because it aims to maximise growth via a Single Market that creates job insecurity and the destruction of local communities. This has been made worse by the struggle to reach the EMU’s “convergence criteria” as well as by an undemocratic, centralised political process.
- Caroline Lucas

These words come from Lucas’s contribution to a 1999 pamphlet entitled Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Euro But Were Afraid to Ask a Tory, organised by a group led by the Eurosceptic Labour MP Frank Field.

Lucas’s article, “The Green Case Against the Euro”, was prescient. In predicting that a “single currency will increase regional disparities, add to unemployment across Europe, and undermine local economies,” Lucas warned that the ECB was an undemocratic institution that would have an outsize influence on member states.

Her concerns stretched beyond monetary union. She voiced fears over the EU’s tendency to centralise and erode national barriers, warning that “the rush to a Single Market […] is corroding the social, employment, and environmental structure of our continent.” She even noted how EU freedom of movement would have a depressionary effect on wages.

In the 2000s, as an MEP, Lucas campaigned against the treaties, such as the Treaty of Nice, which accelerated these trends of European integration. She stood alongside Tony Benn and other Left-wing critics, raising concerns about the EU’s undemocratic and pro-capitalist structures. “The idea that this process can possibly meet the needs of over 350 million Europeans is fundamentally flawed. The needs of each region in Europe differ too greatly and their economies, environment, cultures and history are far too diverse,” Lucas proclaimed.

By the time she was elected an MP in 2010, she had changed her tune. In 2016 and thereafter, Lucas campaigned to keep Britain permanently tied to these structures about which she had so stridently warned. 

Her conversion was no doubt influenced by her strongly pro-EU constituency, but there was a deeper reason, too. In recent years, many erstwhile Left-wing critics of the EU have come to see the EU’s insulation from national democratic electorates as a feature, not a flaw. If social justice could not be achieved through national elections, then the EU single market’s regulatory framework might provide a useful alternative.

For Lucas, her previous fears about the effect of freedom of movement on the wages of workers and the EU’s democratic structures subsided. These were a price worth paying for a capitalist Europe, but with some concessions to environmentalism.

Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.