Review of 2005

Campaigners in Edinburgh (picture Make Poverty History)

By Richard Laming

2005 will be remembered as a bad year for federalism. There have been bad years before and there no doubt will be bad years again, so there is no reason to despair. It is simply necessary to be realistic. Perhaps we should bear in mind the motto of José-Maria Quiroga, chief censor for the Spanish republic: Exaggerated optimism assists the enemy.

A federal UK

After the failure of the referendum in the north east in November 2004, the plans for developing regional government in England got nowhere. That hasn’t stopped the government from floating new ideas, though, for abolishing county councils and regionalising the police force. The police example is a good one: it doesn’t appear to be wanted by the police themselves, nor is there a meaningful body to provide democratic oversight and scrutiny. This is a regionalisation to suit Whitehall rather than a regionalisation to suit the regions. Thinking back, this was one of the main criticisms of the north east assembly proposal, too. The government is showing some of the right instincts but not enough of them.

The House of Lords remains unreformed. The government fended off questions before the general election in May by saying “wait for the manifesto” but, when the manifesto came, it was silent on the subject. There is to be a renewed effort in this parliament. The New Politics Network has smartly observed that new Tory leader David Cameron voted for a predominantly elected upper chamber when it came to a free vote last time, so there is reason to be hopeful.

Reform of global institutions

The special 60th anniversary session of the United Nations came and went without any agreement on a reformed Security Council. The bids by several emerging powers such as India and Brazil for permanent seats did not get enough support. The notion that countries such as Germany and Japan were also in this “emerging power” category shows how archaic the Security Council really is, but the ongoing interplay of national interests left no-one able to champion a fairer and more rational system overall.

A better place to look for progress in the UN is the notion of the “responsibility to protect”. A report from the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change was published in December 2004, just outside the time period under review, but the debate lasted all year and is still not concluded. The idea that national sovereignty should not be a bar in principle to humanitarian interventions in the event of gross abuses of human rights may be shocking to some people, but not to readers of the Federal Union website.

The development of the global system is going to come in small steps, and a change to the relationship between countries is the next place to take them. Once the UN starts taking meaningful decisions again, then we can come back to the question of how these decisions are taken.

Turning to the G8 process, it is clear that Poverty is not yet History. The commitments announced at the Gleneagles summit did not necessarily provide new resources for development – debt write-offs are to be paid for by cuts in aid – and the WTO negotiations in Hong Kong did not make the hoped-for breakthrough. The fact remains that, in the division between countries that are rich and powerful and countries that weak and poor, it is the disparity in power which matters more. Countries are poor because they are weak, not weak because they are poor. Redistributing decision-making power in the WTO and the global financial institutions would make far more difference than a small increase in aid.

The European constitution

I have left the question of Europe until last to give me more time to think about what to write. The picture is more unclear than perhaps for any time in the past fifty years. The constitutional treaty has come to a halt after the two No votes in France and the Netherlands, but it is uncertain what will come next. Maybe there are some small amendments to the treaty which will make it acceptable in the two countries which have rejected it so far, without weakening its support elsewhere. Personally, I doubt this. I think that something more far-reaching and profound needs to be done.

Rather than simply admiring ourselves in the mirror, the period of reflection should be used for a relaunch of the debate about the whole purpose and future of the European Union. The momentum bequeathed to European integration by the experience of war has now expired. Something has to be found to replace it. A European diet of “more of the same” will not do.

Evidence of this stagnation is all around. The budget deal agreed last month takes no difficult or important decisions; it merely postpones them. In the circumstances, I am sure that this is the best that could be done, but that merely underlines the need to change the circumstances.

The same is true of the negotiations with Turkey. The decision has been taken in principle to start negotiations at some unspecified time in the future without the committed objective of securing Turkish membership of the EU. That hardly amounts to a great stride forward, but again nothing better was attainable.

But despite this picture of stasis, there are things going on in Europe. There is now the possibility of a gas shortage because of the dispute between Russia and the Ukraine. H5N1, the bird flu virus, makes its slow and ominous approach towards our shores. The economy obstinately refuses to grow and create new jobs. These are the reasons why we need something other than “more of the same”.

This article was written by Richard Laming, Director of Federal Union, who 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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