May 8, 2015
The new Tory government resulting from the UK general election will surely face many challenges, but two will overshadow all others: redefining the UK’s position in the European Union and Scotland’s position in the UK. Both will deeply affect the future of the UK, its role in the world and possibly its own existence as we know it today. Oddly enough, federalism, so often misunderstood and misrepresented in the British political debate, is at the core of both issues.
Europe may have been just a sideline issue in the last few weeks of the electoral campaign, but Cameron’s promise of a referendum by 2017 will come back to haunt him. Cameron’s EU policy is paved with contradictions. He has promised to renegotiate the EU’s treaties and then call a referendum on the UK’s membership of a reformed EU in 2017. At the same time, he has never clearly spelled out his demands. Even leaving aside the time required for preparing an extensive revision of the EU treaties, the other EU member states have little appetite for starting (let alone completing) a revision of the treaties in the next two years, certainly not before the French presidential elections in Spring 2017. If Cameron wants to honour his electoral pledge, a 2017 referendum will be an in-out referendum on the UK membership of the EU as it is today, with a higher chance of a Brexit.
This is a pity, because a revision of the treaties is in the interest of all parties. The majority of the British political class (who really knows about the citizens?) wants a looser relationship with a less intrusive EU. On the other hand, the Eurozone needs to integrate further, economically and politically, if it wants the euro area to be sustainable and prosper. Serious steps in this direction will need a revision of the treaties, sooner rather than later. Likewise a revision of the treaties is unavoidable if the EU wants to be serious about tackling any of the major challenges it is facing, from immigration to energy and security and defence. Should the leaders of the key Eurozone countries have more courage and a clearer vision of the type of polity the Eurozone should become, they would cooperate with Cameron to reach that “fair deal” often mentioned by the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker. This could relax the terms of UK’s membership in the EU in exchange for a reform of the treaties that enables the Eurozone to proceed with its federal integration (as recently proposed by Guy Verhofstadt, group leader for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) in the European Parliament).
Federalism is also the answer to redefining Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom. After the sweeping victory of the Scottish National Party, an answer to the demands of the Scotts for more autonomy and self-government can’t really be deferred any longer. Persisting with Westminster’s centralism would only reinforce Scotland’s nationalist and pro-independence forces. Again, a “fair deal” with Scotland could see the UK developing into a (quasi) federal state, with a Scottish parliament having fiscal and political authority and an English parliament legislating on English-only matters. Tory MP Boris Johnson’s comment this morning backing “a grown-up conversation on a federal UK” is an encouraging sign.
Without treaty revision and a new settlement for Scotland, by 2017 Cameron could be facing an EU in-out referendum with a higher chance of a Brexit. If that happens and it becomes the final straw for Scotland, the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom could then be forced to watch as a little England drifts away from the continent into very uncertain seas. Meanwhile a smaller and weaker EU would be still pondering about its future. A federal UK in a European Union with a federal Eurozone at its core would be a better outcome for everybody.Paolo Vacca