Bursting the Bubble

How the UK and Scotland could pave the way for the EU: the West Lothian Question at the European level

24 September 2014 | by
Wikimedia Commons

Beyond its expected impact on other European separatists movements, last week’s referendum in Scotland and its “No” victory did shift the debate from the issue of a newly independent Scottish state to the details of a new move towards a deepened devolution of powers from the Westminster Parliament to the Edinburgh one. However, the British Government linked this promise to the one of bringing changes in England as well. This strategic decision reopened the old debate of the “West Lothian Question”, an institutional issue whose principle could also be applied… to the European Parliament. The United Kingdom’s future might be in fact be a constitutional laboratory for the European Union itself.

Renewed linking of Scottish devolution with the old West Lothian Question

“We have heard the voice of Scotland and now the millions of voices of England must be heard.” By these words, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to implement a constitutional reform that should, according to the statement of his Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, “ […] now deliver on time and in full [a] radical package of newly devolved powers to Scotland”. Simultaneously however, Cameron framed this new devolution development by associating it with the promise of what could be summarised as “English votes for English laws”, the so-called “West Lothian Question”.

 

The West Lothian Question: an old Rubik’s cube

This issue is actually a constitutional one: how can multinational states meet demands for autonomy while attempting to remain unitary? (Cf. Michael Keating’s works related to asymmetric government 1, 2). In the case of the United Kingdom, this intense debate already crystallised in the 1970s, when Tam Dalyell, Member of the Westminster Parliament from the Scottish constituency of West Lothian challenged the existing asymmetric devolution of powers in the UK by asking peers;

“For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on British politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”.

In substance, England being the only nation of the United Kingdom that does not yet have its own regional parliament, it is only subject to laws adopted by the Westminster Parliament, which means that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs are also enabled to vote on matters that affect only England. The reciprocate does not stand true due to the fact that English MPs cannot decide over Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish matters since these are discussed in their respective regional parliaments.

 

Potential remedies

As soon as 1886, British Prime Minister W.E. Gladstone had already thought of a way to solve this question, by excluding the (Irish) MPs from Westminster since they were soon to form their own regional parliament. However, he ultimately backtracked on this idea. (Cf. Irish Home Rule movement). Nowadays, the Conservative party rather, put forward the idea of limiting Scottish MPs’ voting rights in the Parliament at Westminster as a gesture to protect the interests of English voters, although it is yet unclear if such a plan would receive the support of the Liberal Democrats or the Labour party. Another proposal has come from Sir William McKay who conceived a system that would foresee Parliaments’ committees dealing with parliamentary bill impacting only England composed only of English MPs. Their decisions would have to ultimately be adopted by a double majority of both English MPs and of the Commons as a whole. Finally, a last idea, for the time being, would be to provide England with its own regional English parliament so that every UK nation could reach the same degree of autonomy in case it wished to have it.

 

The Eurozone as the European equivalent of the West Lothian Question

Actually, this situation can be found back at the European level very easily when looking at the political models and frameworks. If one replaces Scotland, Wales as well as Northern Ireland with the 10 non-Eurozone Member States, and England with the 18 Eurozone countries, one can create a European controversy focusing on the fact that the EU’s current legislative process allows MEPs elected in non-Eurozone Member States to take part in the votes for legislative acts that concern only the Eurozone.

As the case of the European Banking Union demonstrates, these financial and economic issues are indeed very sensitive ones. For example, in the case that the EP would be able to reject a piece of vital importance for the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) legislation, with the negative vote of the non-Eurozone MEPs potentially playing the determinant role in reaching this outcome, tensions would likely arise and may lead to a split of the European Parliament. This scenario is not that far from reality concerning topics such as the EMU area; where the powerful interests of the City, the financial district of London, that which is championed by the British government and its traditional “hands off” approach have already clashed with the impetus for a strengthened regulation inside the Eurozone when dealing, amongst many, with capital requirements, banks’ supervision or bankers’ bonus cap.

As Fasone predicts it, in the years to come, the composition and the balance between national delegations within the Committee of Economic and Financial Affairs of the EP will be leaning to the capital, as this committee will become the centre of the activity of the Parliament on the economic governance. This led some commentators to sharply criticise the attribution of the Economic and Financial Affairs Committee’s Chair to MEP Sharon Bowles (UK, ALDE), who was elected in a non-Eurozone country, a situation that ended with the nomination of the Italian MEP Roberto Gualtieri (S&D, IT) for the new parliamentary term.

Potential evolution(s) at the European level.

Exactly as with the British case, several scenarios for dealing with this issue can already be envisaged at the European level; these range from changing nothing to setting-up a completely new independent parliament dedicated to the Eurozone.

 

Keeping the unitarian European Parliament

The European Parliament considers itself as the Parliament of the Euro. This position is seconded by the European Commission when stating “the EP is the only parliament for the EU and hence for the euro”. This first position could thus be interpreted as discarding the whole debate on the West Lothian question as irrelevant. It would thus strongly oppose the setting up of an independent Parliament for the Eurozone and advocate that the European Parliament should continue to act as a unitary, uniting and integrating body, and do this for at least three arguments or reasons.

First, the MEPs are supposed, according to article 10(2) and 14(2) TEU, to represent the citizens as a whole at the Union level and not represent solely the Member States. Indeed, this characteristic allows the EP to base its functioning along denationalised European political groups. Moreover, article 20 TFEU grants the EU citizens (active and passive) voting rights to the European Parliament elections based on their country of residency, not their nationality. A citizen can thus vote and be elected in a country other than that of his origin or nationality and equally he can also be elected thanks to the vote of citizens who do not share his/her nationality. Reintroducing a form of discrimination based on nationally would thus be a regression, regarding the aims and values the EP is defending (Cf. Fasone’s work 1).

Second, since the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) is a common good shared by and affecting all Member States and given that the pre-in countries (those under the obligation to join without fulfilling the requirements yet) are still expected to join the EMU when able to do so, these member states should be expected to contribute to the debates on the functioning of the Economic and Monetary Union, especially through the intervention of their MEPs.

And third, even when the dispositions currently governing the enhanced cooperation procedure explicitly takes into account the differences between Member States that are in and those that remain out of the cooperation, when counting the votes in the Council (Cf. Art.20 (3) TEU, Art. 330 TFEU)these differences do not enforce a corresponding discrimination in voting within the European Parliament.

 

Modifying the European Parliament’s internal architecture

Several actors have made various proposals with variations among them, but two main ideas are dominating this area of reforming the European Parliament from the inside. The first main proposal would be the creation of a sub-committee inside the European Parliament dedicated to the Eurozone. Some commentators, such as Yves Bertoncini from  Notre Europe and the Jacques Delors Institute advocated for it, gathering MEPs from the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, from the Committee of Employment and Social Affairs as well as from the Budget Committee, without establishing any discrimination based on nationality. German MP Manuel Sarrazin also put forward additional features around this idea, proposing to enable the sub-committee to make decisions on Eurozone related matters on behalf of the EP’s Plenary, as the sub-committee would fulfil the role of the EP’s interlocutor towards other actors. Others, like Thierry Chopin & Jean-François Jamet from the Schuman Foundation, agree with the idea of a sub-committee but would restrict its membership to only those MEPs elected in Eurozone Member States.

The second potential development would be to suspend the voting rights of non Eurozone MEPs. Supported by the Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, but also the Future of Europe Group (also known as the Westervelle Group), and some representatives from the German Government, this model proposes to restrict voting rights on Eurozone matters only to MEPs coming from countries belonging to the Eurozone. However, the implementation of this idea could destabilise the internal cohesion of the European Parliament, with majorities varying from area to area. Furthermore, the internal cohesion of the European political parties themselves would be put at risk too, which could have some repercussions on policy areas other than the EMU.

 

Creating an Independent Eurozone Parliament

Finally, this third potential model would solve the equation by proposing a new foundation of the European Union based on its current “core”, the Eurozone, and by introducing a new category of “Associate Member” for the non-Eurozone members, which, like the UK, are not wanting to be part of a deeply integrated project. This way, the Eurozone would form its own ‘Parliament’ gathering only MEPs from the Eurozone Member States and responsible for all EMU related matters, while still allowing the original European Parliament to remain the place to discuss projects including both the core and associate members, such as the Energy Union or the Single Market.

 

The United Kingdom and the European Union: Same fight!

In conclusion, the propositions made at the European level do mirror those from the British case. But as a modification of the European treaties has not been put on the agenda, and granted that the Eurozone’s variation of the West Lothian Question has so far managed to stay under the radar of the European decision-makers, it is likely that the United Kingdom will find itself in a position of bringing a solution to its own internal debate before the EU deals with its own Eurozone’s representativeness issue. The UK could then serve as a constitutional laboratory for the EU to observe the effects that the solution implemented brings to such a complex question. Who knows what the European Union could learn from the United Kingdom?

What do you think?