Recognition, Representation and Reform: WFI Doing Politics Differently In Europe
WFI National Committee member, Maggie Lennon (below) travelled to Brussels to represent Women for Independence at a major conference on Internal Expansion of the EU. The event was run by the Coppieters Foundation who are a European Political Foundation think tank. As well as asking questions (6 key ones), she offered solutions and discussed ideas, and the event posed many questions of its own . But just because the issue is tricky and complex isn’t a reason for not engaging fully. Below is her blog based on her main presentation.
Photo: 2019 © Delmi Álvarez
Exactly 5 years to the day when Scotland failed to win her independence from the UK I was sitting in the Catalonian official delegation offices in Brussels representing Women for Independence at a major conference on What Next for Stateless Nations Within the Shared Sovereignty of the EU? There were worse ways to spend that anniversary. The focus was primarily on Catalonia, Flanders and Scotland and WFI were there not just in recognition of the key role we played pre 2014 and since, in promoting the vison of Independence as the best way to improve the lives of women and girls in a new Scotland, but also in recognition of the work we are doing in promoting women into public life.
My job was to ask questions, pose possible solutions, consider ideas about how self-determination can fit, work and thrive within the co-determination framework that is the EU. Challenging questions were asked of me throughout the two days in response. Was self-determination a myth? Were independence movements inherently opportunistic? And that’s not to say that opportunism per se is a bad thing. And perhaps the toughest one, why would a country as inherently social democratic in nature as Scotland want to be part of this neo-liberal capitalist idea?
Now I won’t say I’m any less excited about the idea of what Europe really could become and crucially our part in it - I get quite emotional about the various institutions, I think the Belraymont Building (pictured below) is a thing of beauty (And I imagine in that, I’m in the minority) - But I will say that perhaps I’m asking more questions of it. And I’m more certain than ever, that the correct way for a Stateless Nation like Scotland to engage with the EU, is not with fawning deference but as equal partners with as much to give as to get. Much like how we should be re-thinking our relationship with the UK. And before anyone gets worked up about the jargon I’m using; no-one is disputing that Scotland IS a nation, but it is NOT a unitary state recognised as such in the world, with sovereignty over all of its powers. In as much as we are recognised through the devolved settlement, we only exist due to the approval and permission of the UK Parliament which ultimately controls our future and who could dissolve us at a moment’s notice.
While there are huge constitutional and legal impediments to the EU's direct interference in member states domestic policies and issues (or so they claim); my first ask was that the EU finds some way to officially recognise what autonomy does exist in the Stateless Nations which co-exist, not always peacefully, within Member States. After all in both a Scottish and North of Ireland context Devolution came about entirely because of the EU's insistence that it did, so you could say there is a vested interest in seeing that this thrives.
We should remember that official recognition of Stateless Nations beyond the EU does occur, if not by the executive body of the EU itself, then by individual member states. Sweden, Malta, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Bulgaria all recognise Palestine while the EU does not. Many member states have bilateral agreements with Kurdistan while the EU as a body does not. So could individual member states, for example, start developing bilateral relations with Stateless Nations which are binding?
But with recognition comes responsibility; for support and protection not least. The singular failure of the EU as a body to condemn the police crackdown of the Catalonian referendum in 2017, and the subsequent abuse of human rights, removed a great deal of the EU’s moral integrity. While the odd member state, Belgium in particular, did condemn it, the rest was silence, not least from the UK. The general view expressed was that it was an internal matter. But when any state, in or out of Europe, permits attacks on the rights of its citizens which we take for granted and which damage what we would see as our values, then that laissez-fair attitude is neither tenable nor correct.
From a Scottish point of view, I stressed my grave concerns about the EU's handling of the question about an Independent Scotland’s future relationship with the EU back in 2014.
The overall impression from individual heads of states, senior commissioners was that Scotland would have NO automatic right of membership and would need to get to the back of the queue. In fact the President of the EU Commission went further and stated that it would be extremely difficult for an Independent Scotland to ever join the EU. It really felt like the EU were campaigning for a no vote. Just why the EU thought it appropriate to allow opinion, based neither in fact nor law, to sway public opinion is beyond me. Exactly the sort of high handed attitude that causes such strong reactions against EU institutions. It was certainly far from the studied neutrality we had been told to expect.
The fact is there was, and remains, NO precedent for a member state breaking up and constituent parts wishing to remain in The EU as a new state. There is of course a precedent for states re-uniting and the new country being accepted as a member. So that will be good news for the North of Ireland once the first border poll votes for a United Ireland but it’s cold comfort for the rest of us.
But it is not acceptable that the EU hides behind no precedent. As demands for self-determination and independence grow in the EU, so I came to my second ask: that the EU have a road map, a blueprint for exactly this scenario. It must be open, clear and transparent. If for no other reason that its citizens can make informed choices about their future post secession, otherwise the democratic process of choosing that future is seriously compromised.
So when days before the vote the Unionists side campaigned heavily on the fact that the only way to guarantee to stay in the EU was to vote to remain in the UK, backed up by the careless and prejudicial remarks from across Europe, was it any wonder that it was the argument that pushed many who were unsure into voting NO? Leaving aside the irony of that position now, was it right that the confusion and fence sitting from the EU was able to influence the result? No, it clearly was not.
And Europe can’t have it both ways. On the one hand it can’t say these matters are internal matters in which the EU will have no comment or influence and on the other be seen to directly influence the result by some ill-judged legally incompetent statements and opinions. And while there has been a softening of that negative opinion towards Scotland within the last few weeks, we are no closer to knowing exactly what the EU thinks about our aspirations to be an independent member of the EU. And I suspect their fine words are linked to the fact that, chances are by the time we ask again, we will no longer be a part of a Member State, breaking and challenging the EU loyalty code.
Stateless Nations, independence movements, cries for self-determination are growing for a number of reasons. Dissatisfaction with the old order of things; too much centralised power; feelings that National Governments do not represent distinct groups in society and underpinning it all of course, some form of Nationalism.
Considering the past 100 years of European history and the very raison d’ etre for the creation of what has become the EU, it is understandable that there is nervousness about the rise of Nationalism in its borders. But the EU, has to understand that there is more than one form of Nationalism and be able to recognise it. Not every country which wishes to run its own affairs is driven by the Nationalism that is narrow minded, inward looking, anti migrant and therefore most likely anti EU.
There is the Civic nationalism of Scotland, outward looking and inclusive committed to social justice. In its simplest Brexit terms, it is the difference between the pro EU position of Scottish nationalism, its supporters and its leaders and the anti-migration, English exceptionalism, empire mythologizing of English nationalism and its leaders. Maybe someone can have a quiet work with Jo Swinson on the matter of differentiated Nationalisms within the UK.
Civic Nationalism is driven by the very same goals and values which has driven and must drive the EU in the future. And this is why, despite a rather cold shoulder in 2014, Scotland has kept faith with the EU; in its strong cultural and social bonds, it sees its future in Europe and in its peoples, it sees many more who think more like us that our nearest neighbour does. Can the EU really afford to alienate its fan base?
But the EU can’t pick and choose the Nationalisms and self determination movements it is prepared to engage with. If it fails to tackle right wing populism and extremism head on or fails to mitigate its worst excesses other member states may find themselves being ripped out of the EU because of narrow nationalistic views held by the dominant culture in a country as had happened in the UK.
It is imperative that we present the EU as much as a social union as an economic and political one. We must rob the extreme right of its oxygen wherever we can. And Reform is the key. And the greatest Reform may be of membership itself so the third question I posed was does everyone in the EU need to sign up to everything? The so called Multi-speed Europe, where different parts of the European Union could integrate at different levels and paces depending on the political situation in each individual country, is growing in appeal. Indeed, multi-speed Europe is currently a reality, with only a subset of EU countries being members of the Eurozone and of the Schengen area. The existence of the EFTA countries is also a form of differential integration. Differential integration would allow Stateless Nations to seek a closer integration with the EU which is not perhaps, in its first instance, full membership. And of course even current full members could opt for this sort of looser relationship therefore mitigating some of the requirements of membership which often create an anti EU feeling.
Allied to this new form, of integration needs to be a new form of engagement. As well as operating in communities of place, roughly defined by national borders, the reality of life in the 21st century is that we must start acting in communities of interest if we are to survive.
A Community of Interest is a group of people who share a common interest or passion. Its members take part in the community to exchange information, to obtain answers to shared questions or problems, to improve their understanding of a subject, which is defined not by space, but by some common bond . This approach to problem sharing is of course already well used in the EU through transnational projects and links.
So in at number four was the question, would Communities of Interest be a feasible alternative structure or contribution to dialogue? Could they be drawn from Social Europe, the third sector NGOs? They would then have a structure to bring expertise within Stateless Nations to the fore. Expertise which is often hidden from existing EU institutions due to lack of representation or formal channels of communication. It means the usual suspects no longer dominate and a community of interest, by its very nature is likely to be more diverse in thinking, politics and opinions.
Beyond Europe, Communities of Interest around indigenous peoples, for example, have had a big impact of health policy and understanding of the mental and physical health challenges that are attached by being an indigenous people. Properly resourced and managed there is tremendous opportunity for these communities to shape policy and drive change and implement reform. By putting the opportunity for change and reform into the hands of representatives of citizens groups, could some of the undemocratic accusations that drive people from the EU, towards narrow nationalism might be averted?
And for stateless nations who want to participate in the EU, who wish to contribute, offering them this way to engage. to have their voice heard, is compelling, especially if that voice is silenced normally by the representative the Member States which control them.
Hearing different voices is long overdue in the EU. At one time the Committee of the Regions offered a potential for a real democratic engagement with other legislatures not in national governments. It has been suggested that it could have acted as a Senate of sorts (a second chamber) overseeing and contributing to policy and legislation from a regions point of view; but the unwillingness of national governments to give away power meant this never happened. So my fifth question was, is now the time to change this? To push for full representation at EU and Commission level for governments and assemblies with devolved power, in decision making and negotiations where these devolved powers are crucial?
Photo: 2019 © Delmi Álvarez
Fishing has been devolved to the Scottish Government since 1999; two thirds of the fishing industry in the UK is based in Scotland; we have 60% of the waters and land over 50% of the weight. Yet our place at the EU table is taken up by a Minister from Westminster. If the EU ruled that devolved legislatures with legal competence for these areas could negotiate directly with the EU Scotland could have had her voice heard on this crucial question.
If National Governments could no longer keep Ministers of devolved powers away from decisions which will directly affect them; then some of the rancour about the EU that exists in the regions and devolved administrations, might dissipate. Introducing full recognition and engagement with devolved administrations and departments, fits the multi- speed Europe model well and in fact would make that model easier to bring about.
In the end the ultimate and final question of the two days was this: Are the requirements of a body like the EU - in terms of how it has to function, or wants to function, to meet its stated aims, compatible with giving more autonomy and a greater voice to smaller units within the EU? I believe that is. I also believe that it needs to be. The drive for greater self-determination is not going to decrease. Organisations which remain too centralised, too rigid and too averse to giving up control, history shows us, fail. Such was the fate the great Empires of the past. The EU cannot afford to play the Empire game. Not if the EU wishes to maintain its place on the world stage.
If the EU says it wants to listen, then it must also learn to say less and let others voices be heard. These other voices have a great deal to say and their legitimacy lies in the fact that what they have to say represents the wishes and aspirations of a large % of the EU's existing citizens.
No-one is denying that closer EU collaboration between National Governments and autonomous Assemblies and Parliaments is the greatest challenge facing the bloc, since its creation and expansion.
But Europe didn’t shrink from putting in place structures to try ensure that, in the future, extreme political ideologies would not rob its peoples of their freedoms and their rights again.
These extreme political ideologies are on the rise again, not from within the growing movement of self-determination - in the case of Scotland a movement that is growing in order to preserve democracy, social justice and maintain people’s rights. But instead these ideologies come often from deep within the ruling elites of Member States.
A greater move for self-determination is not the enemy of the EU; but as facing it and dealing with this movement becomes essential; as facing it and dealing with this movement has the potential to drive much needed reform- then the EU has to realise that Scotland and Stateless Nations like her, may just become Europe’s saviour.
The EU has two options which are complimentary and not exclusive. Recognise and give more of a role to Stateless Nations within Europe and do not stand in their way of seceding and becoming full member of the EU if they so choose.
Recognition, Representation and Reform was my message. And the European Union need to know that we are listening for their answer.
You can also read about what Maggie said on the Coppieters Foundation website here.