This Blog will feature opinions on European affairs by members of the Centre for European Politics. Comments are welcome in English.

British-German-EU relations: From a slippery path to going downhill?  

Comment by Dr Anja Jakobi
Since this week end, the German weekly news magazine ‘Der Spiegel’ reports about growing tensions among British and German EU politics, a report that is today discussed widely in the British media. The most important aspect in the Spiegel report is that German chancellor Merkel seems to develop first strategies regarding a possible UK exit. She does not ‘fear it’ as some English-speaking commentators translated the German phrase literally. Quite the contrary is her statement meant to show that she accepts the ‘Brexit’ as a price for Europe to pay, if Cameron insists on changing the EU treaties the way he seemed to suggest in recent weeks – foremost targeted at his idea of restricting the freedom of movement by setting a threshold on the numbers of EU migrants to Britain. A ‘point of no return’ mentioned is that the British ideas on restricting free movement seem far unrealistic to the German government. From the German perspective, Britain seems to embark on political ideas that will never find the necessary support among its European neighbours. If this course of action is sustained, rather than trying to accommodate this British position by searching for compromise, Merkel considers devoting German political and financial resources to other topics of European interest. But while Germany might be the most outspoken EU member, other countries are not more willing to align to the British version of Europe.  
The statement marks a turning point. Merkel had been a repeated supporter of British ideas, most lately related to the benefit systems in the EU, as this is an issue that also causes tensions in Germany, where benefits to migrants are high, too. Her distancing from the UK is therefore remarkable and likely to remain for a while. Also, her statement reflects less a staking for a better negotiation position in upcoming talks, nor an ultimatum on Britain. It is worth looking at the different negotiating positions here: As it is foremost Britain that tries to make other EU countries agreeing on comprehensive EU reforms, not otherwise, the German position and those of other countries are already quite strong. If they – hypothetically – would do nothing, Britain would still not be able to change the EU treaties, so it is important to have allies for the British side if it wants to reform the EU.
Far from being only focussed on this single issue, however, the Merkel statement also means that Germany starts making publicly observable moves away from Britain. Following the media reports over the last weeks in Germany, there has been increasing irritation over British politics and perceptions. Many parts of the German public would not perceive the UK as helpful in reforming Europe, but as a country eager to do ‘cherry-picking’. This resentment against perceived British ‘special treatment’ is a growing concern in parts of the German public that has the, not necessarily fully correct, perception that Germany contributes already much more to the working and financing of the EU than others do. We know this perception problem from psychology: Research has shown that in group tasks – and the EU is a gigantic group exercise – individuals tend to think that they themselves delivered a bit more than the others, independent on what their contribution actually was. In politics among states, however, this perception can have drastic consequences for the cooperation of nations.
Merkel’s statement, delivered only a short time after Barroso’s open critique of the UK government, sheds light on the fact that the relations of the UK to Germany and other EU countries are on a very slippery path. Given the general pro-European sentiment in its population, Merkel will have problems in explaining concessions to the British to her German voters, if these concessions cannot be presented as serving a common good in Europe. Even more so, Cameron’s latest political moves in Europe – from being surprised and outraged at a bill that his administration knew for weeks, to the current aim to restrict freedom of movement – has left many pro-British allies deeply alienated. From the European perspective, there seems indeed need for reform, and the British perspective has been perceived to be a valuable one for most of the time. The main means for sustained engagement and prospect of EU reform is therefore not to give up British interests or positions. Instead, more political skills and diplomatic ties are needed to find common ground on what seems doable in an existing multilateral treaty - on which the EU is based and which had been negotiated with and signed by the British - and what is not. The fact that Merkel let the press report her concerns about the UK might already denote that diplomatic language only and talks behind closed doors with the British government seem wasted political efforts to her.
Having a preference for keeping the UK in Europe, Merkel is likely to be aware that her move might play into the hand of euroscepticism in Britain. The fact that she does not seem to care too much about this could signal that she finished to consider British discussions around the ‘Brexit’ to be a European issue, ultimately declining Cameron to continue a two-level play of blaming European politics in Britain and using British euroscepticism to drive change in Europe. To be or not to be in Europe will be a British affair only, if restrictions on the freedom of movement remains the aim of British politics. Bringing the discussion back to the UK only is certainly a common ground even with euroscepticism, but it is not making it easier for Cameron.
The signal seems that Europe will deal with whatever the British decide. The EU clearly prefers to keep Britain as member, but is prepared to give up the friend. For the months to follow, more negligence toward British domestic affairs might become the default option in Europe, a move that is paradoxically caused by too much British politics in recent European discussions. Ultimately, however, such negligence drives neither change in the EU, nor does it serve British interests. The most likely solution at this point, therefore, might be negotiations over a reduction in the benefits for migrants, while not restricting the freedom of movement. This is in the interests of both countries, but whether it is enough to keep Britain in the EU is not yet decided. But for some countries, this might not be the most important point anymore.
Dr Anja Jakobi is Senior Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Royal Holloway.

 

Posted on Tuesday, November 4, 2014 at 04:26PM by Registered CommenterDr Alister Miskimmon | CommentsPost a Comment

Reducing the number of Scots MPs

In his seminal book, What’s Wrong with the British Constitution?, Iain McLean explains how, before devolution, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were over-represented in the House of Commons by around 30% compared to England. If, instead, Scottish constituencies had represented the same number of voters as English constituencies then Scotland would have had around 55 MPs rather than 72. This over-representation was a reward for not having home rule and in a small way recognised the legitimacy of the Celtic nations in terms of representation beyond population size. Following devolution, the Scots MPs were reduced from 72 to 59. Wales and Northern Ireland, with lesser devolution, retained their original over-representation.

McLean opposes English votes for English laws. Instead he suggests mitigation for the “West Lothian” question through removal of the the over-representation of the devolved countries and adoption of under-representation as devolution is further increased. Given DevoMax, Scotland should actually be under-represented by 30% and would therefore have around 39 MPs. Increased devolution short of DevoMax for Wales and Northern Ireland would see their representation fall but to a lesser extent than that of Scotland.

The 39 rather than 59 MPs from Scotland would continue to vote on English matters. Equality between MPs would be retained and the right to vote on English matters could be seen as compensation for the reduction in their numbers, a reduction that is very real when it comes to voting on UK-wide issues such as immigration.

The McLean solution is not ideal but is preferable to either English-votes-for-English-laws, about whose disadvantages I have already written. It is also preferable to the Prussian-style instability of an English Parliament. The optimal solution of equal federalism that includes regionalisation in England may not be achievable given the resistance from vested interests and the apparent lack of demand for regionalisation in England.

 

Posted on Saturday, September 20, 2014 at 09:10PM by Registered CommenterDr Giacomo Benedetto | CommentsPost a Comment

An English Parliament or Symmetrical Federalism?

As I have argued elsewhere, English votes for English laws would be impossible to implement without a written constitution and would lead to discrimination against Scots MPs. But the creation of an English Parliament also provides a poor solution to the “West Lothian Question”.

Devolution to an English Parliament, a separate institution from the House of Commons, has some attractions. It would have power to vote on domestic legislation over education, health, transport and anything else that is also devolved in Scotland. It would be the English equivalent of the Scottish Parliament. It could work but it is not ideal and here is why.

First, presumably an English-wide government in London would be established alongside the UK government that would continue to look after foreign, defence and monetary policies. Would this be popular or effective? Second, it seems that that the DevoMax on offer for Scotland will not necessarily be matched in Wales and Northern Ireland. It is difficult to see how England-wide devolution could work unless there is absolute equality in powers exercised by the devolved parliaments and governments of the four countries. Third, even with equal DevoMax across the board, and equality between English and Scots MPs at Westminster given that the separate UK-wide government would be left as the non-devolved federal shell, England would still dominate. England makes up over 80% of the population of the UK. This would be a top-heavy federation, comparable to the role of Prussia from 1871 to 1932, which maintained separate institutions from Germany. The unhappy politics of Weimar Germany were worsened by turf wars between the two governments in Berlin, particularly when the Social Democrats continued to be in the Prussian government, while in opposition at the German level. An English government could destabilise not only the UK government but also the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The remaining solution is symmetrical federalism to the existing devolved administrations and to new regional governments throughout England.  This means allowing those new administrations powers equal to those exercised by Scotland. Again this would leave the UK parliament and government with MPs who were equal and Ministers who would look after UK-wide, non-devolved powers.

We would hear that nobody in England wants regional government as we saw in the referendum over devolution in the North-East of England in 2004. That was a campaign led by John Prescott to introduce a regional government with very limited powers that was vulnerable to attack by a ‘no’ campaign focused on the ills of “useless” bureaucracy. There was no constitutional convention or engagement of citizens. If we talk of proper federalism based on DevoMax, and having engaged civil society in a proper debate, the chance to determine tax, spending, health, education, transport, police, justice, and almost everything that government does except for foreign, defence and monetary policies may be more popular – particularly since these powers would move from London without duplications. Regional identity in England varies, but there is a strong sense of identity in Yorkshire, the Midlands, London, and the South. What need to be abandoned are the regions invented by John Prescott. They are mostly too large and lack identity. Smaller counties with very strong identities like Cornwall could be regions. Micro-regions prosper in other countries, for example Ceuta (82,000 people) in Spain, Corsica (300,000 people) in France or the Aosta Valley (120,000 people) in Italy. Prescott’s regions lacked any chance of identity-formation precisely because they were too large and too few. Within England, he created only nine of them. This compares to 20 in Italy and 22 in France, which have a similar population size to the UK. In Spain, 40 million people live across 19 regions.

In each of these countries, regional government was set up without referendums but popular allegiance seemed to follow. Regionalisation in England could be accepted by a national referendum rather region-by-region if this were the will of a constitutional convention that engaged civil society and public opinion. Moving the bulk of domestic policy from a diminished Whitehall to regions or groups of counties or cities with some sense of identity could be an invigorating prospect for English democracy. Many Scots seem to approve of increased fiscal powers and ending the Barnett formula that over-rewards Scotland. Keeping money within one’s own devolved region could be remarkably popular, particularly with voters in southern England.

We cannot ignore that federalism reliant on full-scale regionalisation in England would be difficult to achieve. The Whitehall and Westminster elites would do all they can to resist and persuading public opinion could be insurmountable even with a constitutional convention of the type that took place in Scotland. In my next piece, I look at Iain McLean’s proposal for cutting the number of Scots (and perhaps Welsh and Northern Irish) MPs at Westminster.

 

Posted on Friday, September 19, 2014 at 10:36PM by Registered CommenterDr Giacomo Benedetto | Comments1 Comment

Why we should say NO to English votes for English laws

Due to the referendum on Scottish independence, the UK government has committed itself to legislation for increased devolution of powers, or DevoMax. In return, a further reduction in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster or taking away their right to vote on legislation for England is in the offing.

Because of devolution, Scotland is already disenfranchised in aspects of EU policy-making. In devolved policy areas, the Scottish government has no formal vote on the Council of the European Union, where police cooperation in Europe, agricultural, transport or environment policies are represented by UK ministers. The British (English) Secretary of State takes legislative decisions in the EU Council in precisely these areas that are already devolved.

In policy-making there are often grey areas over who has competence (see further down for my comments on shared competence). Who will decide if a law applies only to England and Wales, but not to Scotland? Will it be the Supreme Court? Without the UK acquiring a written constitution, will the Supreme Court or some other agent like the Speaker of the House of Commons adjudicate? Or will the authors of bills, whether the government or ordinary MPs, tick a box from the start to indicate that the bill will not apply in Scotland and will therefore exclude Scottish MPs from the right to vote? What if a Labour government or a Labour MP proposes a bill whose likely effect will be only on England but to make it easier to pass declares that it is an all-UK bill? What if the bill is genuinely declared to be England-only but due to its regulatory effects, it requires de-facto compliance elsewhere in the UK? Would Scottish MPs still be allowed to be UK Ministers in departments like the Foreign Office or Ministry of Defence whose policy areas are not devolved? What about the Treasury given that some taxes won't be devolved and given the Treasury's oversight of sterling? What about the Home Office, where police matters are devolved but immigration isn’t? Since the Home Office will continue to manage immigration, surely a Scottish MP should not be disqualified from becoming Home Secretary.

The “West Lothian Question” of Scots MPs voting on English matters but not having the power to vote on matters back in Scotland is a problem. Can “English votes for English MPs” be solved by a written constitution with judicial application that can be widely viewed as legitimate? In federal systems like Germany and Switzerland, the Constitutions define exclusive competences for the federal and state levels. They also list shared competences where either the federation or the state can legislate. Even a tight written constitution on this model would presumably allow shared competences, in which case Scottish MPs would still be voting on English matters and sometimes English-only MPs would be voting on matters that also affected Scotland.

English votes on English laws would be impossible to implement and adjudicate, and would undermine the equality between elected members of the House of Commons. I explore an English Parliament and symmetrical federations in a further piece. I also explore the more viable alternative to English votes on English laws here, which is to reduce the number of Scots MPs.

 

 

Posted on Friday, September 19, 2014 at 06:17PM by Registered CommenterDr Giacomo Benedetto | Comments2 Comments

How to understand Berlusconi’s win at the Appeal Court

Today’s ruling at the Appeal Court in Milan quashed Berlusconi’s conviction for underage prostitution and abuse of office.

The lower court had convicted Berlusconi to seven years of house arrest and a lifetime ban from public office for this double offence. In Italy, prostitution is illegal if the prostitute is under 18. It seems that the appeal court cleared him of the underage prostitution offence because he convinced the court that the prostitute had lied about her age and that he genuinely believed she was over 18. To a UK audience this seems incredible, since the excuse of believing that a minor was over 16 or over 18 in a sex case has never been permissible.

As for the abuse of office case, the very same underage prostitute committed a minor theft from a third party some weeks later and was arrested. From inside the police station, she called the then Prime Minister on her mobile phone. Afraid that she would spill the beans to the police, Berlusconi (as Prime Minister) telephoned the Police Chief and asked him to release the young woman because she was the grand-daughter of the President of Egypt and that her arrest would cause a diplomatic incident. (For the record, the woman in question is not related to any ruling families in the Arab World.) This was not denied at the Appeal. However, on a legal technicality he was just cleared because that charge of abuse of office only applies if the recipient of the request (the police chief) gained something from the request such as promotion or another favour in kind:

http://video.repubblica.it/rubriche/rnews/rnews-colaprico-i-giudici-hanno-creduto-a-berlusconi-su-ruby-ecco-perche-e-stato-assolto/172765/171318?ref=HREA-1

It therefore seems that the underage prostitution occurred as did the abuse of public office despite Berlusconi being cleared on legal grounds by the Court. For now, it is not totally finished, since the prosecution has the right to lodge a counter-appeal in front of Italy’s Court of Cassation. However, the case would have more time to run if the Court of Cassation found against Berlusconi because it has the power only to uphold the decision of the Appeal Court or to order a re-trial in a lower court, which would mean returning to square 1.

Posted on Friday, July 18, 2014 at 02:41PM by Registered CommenterDr Giacomo Benedetto | CommentsPost a Comment
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