A lesson in democracy for the whole world!
The first and by far the most important message resulting from the Scottish vote is the unequivocal demonstration that fundamental decisions affecting millions of citizens can be achieved democratically without degenerating in violence or creating paralysing dissent. It is hardly surprising if we owe this salutary reminder to the United Kingdom.
As to the results of the vote, they should be analysed following two separate angles of approach: first from a British vantage point and second from a European one.
Viewed domestically, it has appeared right from the announcement of the result, that the fundamental problems that need to be addressed concern less the content of the new powers to be devolved to Scotland but rather the constitutional reform that must be tasked with restructuring the United Kingdom on a unequivocally “federalist” pattern.
The transfer of new powers that is about to be negotiated with the Scots will necessarily involve the devolution of similar powers to Wales, Northern Ireland and crucially to England itself. This implies a reorganisation of the way the Westminster Parliament operates with serious implications for the political balance within the UK: structurally, Scotland is dominated by the Labour party who send 40 MPs to London; the Scottish Conservatives, on the other hand, only send one MP while the party is largely dominant in England which, as a whole, accounts for 80% of total membership. If significant power is devolved to the “federated entities”, there is a strong likelihood of entrenched conservative domination in England for the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, the process has been initiated and is irrevocable. One should hope, now that the immediate danger of an implosion of the UK has been averted, that the population will show the same degree of democratic maturity when the consequences of the greater autonomy of the various constituent parts of the UK come into effect.
On the European front there will be no doubt an audible sigh of relief - particularly in certain countries such as Spain, Belgium and Italy who are subject to their own separatist demands - that one will not have to deal under pressure with the questions relating to the session of a part of a Member State, a subject that is totally ignored by the treaty. It would, however, be a considerable mistake not to take full advantage of this welcome respite to address this matter serenely right from the start of the new European legislature.
A few key principles could form the basis for a specific procedure: for instance, the admission of the “new Member” (the seceding entity) would be quasi automatic provided that the population is in favour and that the candidate is prepared to abide by the whole of the “acquis communautaire”, foregoing the benefit of any derogations or opt outs that may have been granted to the Member from which it secedes. The adoption of Treaty modifications stemming from the split and affecting both entities (Votes in the Council, number of MEPs, budgetary contributions, etc.) could be subject to a simplified procedure requiring only a qualified majority in both the European Council and Parliament in order to avoid the use of an unwarranted blocking veto.
Finally, one should also analyse the reciprocal consequences engendered by the reforms that are due to be implemented. It appears absolutely necessary to settle within the framework of the devolution negotiations the case where one of the federal entities was in a minority in a vote concerning the UK’s “joint” membership of the EU. This is no hypothetical question as it could happen as a result of the referendum promised by David Cameron in 2017 if the conservatives win the next general election. The relative weight of the political parties referred to above underscores the relevance of this matter. It would, indeed, seem to be totally unacceptable if a majority vote for “Brexit” in England could force Scotland out of the EU if they chose to remain inside. This crucial aspect raises the question whether the union of Scotland to the UK is indeed set in stone for at least one generation, as both Prime Ministers seem to indicate in their post result speeches.
On the European front, the amendments to the treaty intended to clarify the legal situation in the event of future secessions should envisage that no Member could impose the loss of European citizenship on any minority expressing the wish to retain membership if it proved its ability to meet all the necessary requirements as an independent Member State.
In conclusion, if the referendum result is clearly unchallengeable and enshrines Scotland firmly within the UK, the constitutional and legal consequences that are being generated constitute a formidable challenge both for the UK and the EU. In particular, one might hope that the “federalist” trend that is emerging within the United Kingdom will lead it to adopt a coherent posture in Europe that more compatible with the aspirations of a “federalist” European Union.
Brussels, 19th September 2014,
Paul N. Goldschmidt
Director, European Commission (ret.); Member of the Steering Committee of the Thomas More Institute.
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