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The devolved political institutions should have a say in Britain’s EU future

This past week, the Scottish Government published a paper outlining its priorities for EU reform. Naturally, considering the pro-independence position of the Scottish National Party (SNP), it makes a number of references to how an independent Scotland would interact with the European Union. However, arguments on independence aside, the paper is noteworthy for its compelling level of detail on EU affairs. It serves as a reminder that, even within in the UK’s present constitutional arrangements, the devolved executive and legislative institutions have both interests in Britain’s EU policy and capacity to participate in shaping it.

The Edinburgh paper highlights a number of differences between the UK and Scottish governments on the EU – and it was undoubtedly designed to do so. First off, the Scottish Government makes it clear that it believes EU reform can be delivered without major treaty change. It disagrees with the proposed renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership and it does not support the potential subsequent referendum.

These views set the SNP against, mainly, the Conservatives (the respective first and distant third largest parties in the Scottish Parliament). All the same, rather than a simple party contest, bringing the contrasting opinions to the fore is more likely intended to define the politics of Scotland as distinct from those of the rest of the UK (or, more to the point, of England).

The Scottish Government is not alone in its discontent. The Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive have also expressed their opposition to the prospect of leaving the EU. Depending on the results of the 2015 general election, we could witness the UK central government embarking down a path of EU renegotiation and referendum without the support of any of the devolved administrations.

Such a situation could produce dramatic ramifications for devolution in the UK. Primary devolution legislation from the UK Parliament makes clear that constitutional arrangements remain a competence reserved to the centre. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how the legitimacy of devolved government could be sustained if vitally important decisions on EU membership are taken without consensus between the UK government and the devolved administrations or indeed the UK Parliament and the devolved assemblies.

Since the UK government would be carrying out the redefinition of Britain’s EU relationship, it would bear the responsibility to take the lead in building a shared understanding with the devolved administrations on how to move forward. The UK government should ascertain their EU priorities and determine how to incorporate them into its own. It should work with the devolved administrations to achieve a common agenda in Europe. Cooperation must not be limited to executives. The UK Parliament and the devolved assemblies should also network more proactively on matters of interest, including Britain’s EU relationship.

The UK’s central and devolved governments are run by different parties, and each has their own objectives. Although they may not agree on redefining Britain’s relationship with the EU, the UK government has a responsibility to be transparent about its decisions and upfront with the devolved administrations on how it intends any reform process to function (if such a renegotiation does indeed take place).

Even though the UK government and devolved administrations don’t always take the same view of the European Union, they can still work together on a common EU agenda. Where such collaboration is not possible, transparency and openness must continue to be the norm. Devolution in the UK has historically been defined by mutual understanding and cooperation. The prospect of an EU renegotiation and referendum may be its single greatest test to date.

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How to cite this article:

Salamone, A (2014) ‘The devolved political institutions should have a say in Britain’s EU future’, Britain’s Europe (Ideas on Europe), 25 August 2014,

2 Responses to The devolved political institutions should have a say in Britain’s EU future

  1. avatar Andrew Turvey says:

    I think you’ve answered your own question:

    “devolution legislation from the UK Parliament makes clear that constitutional arrangements remain a competence reserved to the centre.”

    EU membership is a matter for the UK government and UK MPs. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have representation in Westminster and that is where the engagement belongs.

    This question is nothing to do with devolved administrations any more than it is for Nottingham City Council.

  2. avatar Tim Oliver says:

    I quite agree the devolved administrations will, and should, have some role in this. Of course, as you note, we can never overlook the politics behind the SNP inevitably disagreeing with the Conservative position. In the UK we often fail to understand that other regions in other EU states do play a role in their EU politics, the German Länder being a good example of regions that, for a variety of reasons, have often taken action – including legal action – to have their say on their state’s EU policy.

    These is one area of the UK which you’ve overlooked and which arguably has a powerful – albeit informal – influence over the direction of UK-EU relations than any other: London. While the GLA and Mayor are not ‘devolved’, they do represent more people than live in Scotland and Wales combined, and a region with a GDP that is larger than Scotland, Wales and N Ireland and is the economic heart of the UK and one of the richest regions in Europe. There could be no more vivid demonstration of the power of London – or perhaps ‘the City’ – than David Cameron wielding the UK veto to defend UK financial services based largely in London. So it should be no surprise that earlier this summer the Mayor of London published his own detailed report on EU-UK relations and options for going forward. As many pointed out, it neatly aligned the Mayor with the position of David Cameron. So, politics again. Nevertheless, it should remind us that London itself has a big stake in all of this. And London – whether as ‘the City’ or Londoners – are not as hostile to the EU as the rest of the UK and in particular England:

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