The Paris Puzzle

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The idea of Scottish MPs having a vote on issues that do not affect them has caused political friction for 30 years, since the original debates on Scottish devolution in the late 1970s. It was dubbed the ‘West Lothian question’, due to it being raised by the then MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell [1]. The idea of representatives being able to vote on issues that do not affect their constituencies still resonates for many as a reason for the exclusion of Scottish MPs from debates and votes on ‘English’ matters, and indeed as a reason to call for a solely English parliament.

With Britain taking new steps to distance itself from the process of European integration, could British representatives in Brussels and Strasbourg soon become a new generation of Tam Dalyells? Some may say this transformation actually took place some time ago. When the Maastricht Treaty launched a number of EU-member states down the road towards the Euro, the UK and other nations decided not to go with them. Whilst the ‘Euro-group’ of finance ministers handled Eurozone governance (later formalised by the Lisbon Treaty [2]), any Euro-related legislation that needed to pass through the European Parliament could potentially be voted on by UK MEPs, and also the MEPs of a number of other non-Euro countries, such as Denmark and Sweden. Recent examples of this include the ‘sixpack’ of economic governance rules voted on towards the end of last year [3]. Indeed with parliamentary votes on measures concerning the Schengen agreement [4], to which the UK is not a signatory, and a number of other directives/regulations connected with the area of ‘Freedom, Security and Justice’ which the UK has an opt-out from, the list of potential injustices grows.

Is it possible to solve this European West Lothian Question, this ‘Paris puzzle’? Many of the British MPs who attempt to solve the West Lothian question are Conservative backbenchers [5], who would most likely cry foul if any attempt was made to exclude British MEPs/ministers from any level of EU-wide decision making, as would the government and MPs from all the main parties. Indeed, rather than moving towards a solution, the approach taken by the current British government could only exacerbate the problem. 

During the negotiations on the new EU fiscal pact, David Cameron made a point of removing Britain from the negotiations at an early stage, having failed to achieve special opt-outs for the financial services sector [6]. Debates about the meaning of the word ‘veto’ aside, 25 of the EU’s 27 member states have now agreed to the fiscal pact [7], leaving the UK in a clear and very small minority within the EU. Unfortunately, the British ‘veto’ caused much annoyance [8] amongst leaders of EU-member states and amongst EU officials, due to what they saw as unreasonable British demands for (yet another) opt-out, specifically from parts of the single market.

Now that the UK is firmly on the outside of the new fiscal arrangement, with even many of our traditional EU summit allies condemning the government’s actions [9], decisions will naturally be made without our involvement. Given that 25 nations, and especially the Eurozone, will be more integrated than Britain, it would only make sense for them to attempt to make a greater attempt to coordinate policy, in order to achieve the necessary harmonisation needed to work so closely together. This could very easily result in meetings separate from full EU summits, in which the Eurozone decide upon a common policy to put forward at the summit. Their strength in numbers gives them a majority in the Council, and they could easily utilise the existing EU legislative procedure to implement measures agreed upon in these pre-summit meetings. These measures could easily run contrary to the wishes of the British government. Whilst other countries, such as Poland [10], can negotiate their way into these meetings due to their willingness to co-operate, this option is closed to Britain due to Cameron’s demands for specific British opt-outs, and his general refusal to engage. European leaders will take a similar attitude towards Britain that many English MPs take towards Scottish MPs. They will say that because it doesn’t affect Britain the same way it affects them, Britain should not have a seat at the table. 

Eurosceptics frequently complain that British interests are not adequately represented within the EU [11]. However, their demands for more power in EU decision making processes, whilst also demanding that Britain has opt-outs in its preferred area of the single market is equivalent to Scottish MPs demanding ‘devo-max’, greater influence in the Westminster parliament than English MPs, and also threatening to disrupt agreements English MPs make about English issues. Whilst the latter situation would naturally be seen as intolerable by Conservative MPs, the former is equivalent to the negotiating stance taken by the government at the summit in December, and their actions between since then. Unfortunately, these attempts at repatriation were roundly rejected by the vast majority of European leaders in December. If David Cameron continues to be driven along this path by his backbenchers, he will reap only further isolation and unpopularity. This will give further credence to Eurosceptic claims that decisions are being made without British involvement, leading to further (inevitably unsuccessful) demands for repatriation. If this cycle of failure continues, it seems only inevitable that the UK will drift further and further away from the EU, as we further choose to exclude ourselves. Whilst I’m sure many would celebrate such an outcome, the policy David Cameron appears to be taking goes against the government’s commitment to EU membership. Whilst I applaud some of the government’s attempts to restore friendships [12], I fear it may be too little too late.

Article by Calum Young. Edited by Marc Geddes and Matthew Byatt.

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