Federalism in 2003 – a review

Lord Irvine, in his robes as Lord Chancellor

British politics has gone through some severe shocks in the past 12 months, faced with constitutional upheavals at home and abroad. As 2004 opens, we look at what effect those changes will have on the future of some key federalist issues.

Reform in the UK

2003 saw Scotland and Wales hold their second national elections, which turned out to be fought more on national than on UK issues. Regional government in England inched closer following consultations by the government on where referendums might be held, across the country, and London’s congestion charge showed that regional diversity can foster policy innovation.

Proposals for reform of the House of Lords have stalled, with no sign of any further progress towards elections and still less towards giving a role of protecting the national and regional diversity of the UK within Westminster.

Most significantly of all, perhaps, the government attempted to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor. The significance of this is that it did not succeed. Having billed Derry Irvine as the last Lord Chancellor, it was then forced to admit that Charles Falconer would take it on until the necessary legal measures could be introduced. The lesson here is that the constitution cannot be amended simply by issuing a press release. As we shall see, this is a lesson not limited to the UK alone.

For 2004: Mayor of London Ken Livingstone is set to return to the Labour party, which will connect the forthcoming mayoral election most closely with the national scene. On the minus side, this development says more about national politics – Labour wants a victory – than it does about the government of London.

There may well be referendums to set up regional assemblies in three regions of England. The government’s half-hearted approach to this risks seeing very low turnouts in those crucially important votes.

A European constitution

In the year 2003, Britain did not join the euro. It will not join in 2004 either, nor probably for several years after that. The government’s announcement on 9 June that its infamous five tests had not been met surprised nobody, and there appears to be no obvious means by which this position might be now be changed.

The European constitutional convention published its draft constitution for Europe. The subsequent IGC collapsed at a summit in Brussels, under the watchful eye of Silvio Berlusconi. Europe needs better leadership than this.

And European pretensions to a common foreign policy fell apart altogether over the issue of Iraq. The British hoped to unite Europe around support for the Americans: the French hoped to unite Europe around support for the procedures of the United Nations. In the end, Europe united around neither proposal and the Americans fought the war they had been planning for all along.

Creating a common foreign policy is harder than it looks. The decision-making methods in the draft constitution – unanimity for deciding policies, Qualified Majority Voting for implementing them – are essentially the same as were introduced in the Maastricht Treaty when there were only 12 member states. An EU of 25 will find this decision-making system hard going.

Furthermore, Europe is yet to reach a clear understanding of what its foreign policy is for. The single market was based on a common understanding of the nature of a social market; the single currency depends on an agreed set of objectives for the European Central Bank, namely that price stability comes before interventionism. European foreign policy needs to be based on objectives that have yet to made explicit, and it will not be effective until they are.

For 2004: What will happen to the draft European constitution? Will anyone have the courage and determination to pick up the pieces and assemble a new proposal? After all the criticisms levelled at the Nice treaty, it is absurd to suppose that concluding this process is not a priority, but where will the leadership come from? Without it, those member states that are committed to developing federalism in Europe will have to start thinking about routes towards that objective other than that of a Europe of 25.

One bright spot in the gloom is the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament. If the political parties seize their chance, they can nominate candidates for president of the Commission (one of the first tasks of the new Parliament will be to ratify a nomination for this post). Done well, this process could add a new and important personal element to the election campaign, raising public interest and extending voter choice.

Global institutions

The global agenda in 2003 was dominated by two institutional failures. In March, the UN Security Council was effectively by-passed in the rush to war in Iraq. President Bush has promised the UN a “vital role” in the reconstruction effort, although quite what that role will be is still unclear. In September, the WTO talks in Cancun collapsed without agreement in the face of an unprecedented show of strength by some of the world’s poorer countries. Perhaps the next round of negotiations will not be so weighted in favour of the rich minority.

On the plus side, the WTO’s dispute settlement system finally brought an end to the threatened trade war over steel between the US and the EU, although there remain outstanding trade disputes that might yet still escalate. The sudden spread of the SARS virus showed the need for greater international coordination in the field of healthcare. The WHO, though, is neither accountable nor effective enough at the present time.

For 2004: The Americans still have to make it clear how they will reflect the concerns of the wider world in the administration and reconstruction of Iraq. Unless they do so, their actions will look more and more like those of an imperial power which the rest of the world can hardly be expected to love.

The European Commission has promised to bring forward some proposals for reform of the WTO. Will this be the moment at which it draws on its own institutional and political heritage to push for greater democracy and accountability in international affairs, or will it be merely another attempt to advance European and national interests to the detriment of the world’s poor? During 2004, time will surely tell.

This article was contributed by Richard Laming, a member of the Executive Committee of Federal Union. He may be contacted at richard@richardlaming.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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