Who speaks for Britain?

Maria Damanaki, European fisheries commissioner

There is a seminar to be held next week in London to discuss the nature of the European Union in the light of the ideas of the late historian Alan Milward, who argued that the EU was saving its member states rather than destroying them.  This is taken to be a rebuke both to the eurosceptics who fear that Europe is taking over and also to the federalists who want Europe to take over (I am caricaturing the federalist position, of course).

It is an interesting approach to understanding European integration, placing emphasis on the continuing role of national governments both within the institutions and outside them, sceptical of the wider claims about the role and mission of the supranational institutions such as the Commission and the Parliament.

As with all such theories, it is not a matter of whether it is true or false – both of these are unproveable – but whether it is useful: does it explain or predict events and outcomes that other theories cannot?

To test the usefulness of the theory, let us look at the invitation list for the High Level Meeting on banning discards being held today in Brussels.  The European Commission wants to change the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy to reduce its environmental impact whilst still protecting, as far as possible, its control of fishing quotas and also the incomes of the people working on the fishing boats.  The invite list includes one representative of each member state, only.  Alan Milward would approve.

But in the UK, there is not one fishing policy but two.  Not only does the government in London have a policy, so does the Scottish government in Edinburgh.  Fishing policy is a devolved matter; Scotland and the rest of the UK might have different ways of dealing with fishing.

But how can the Scottish policy be represented in Brussels if the Scottish government is not there?  The UK government might in fact oppose the Scottish policy, so cannot be asked to speak on its behalf.  The development of multi-level government within the member states renders inadequate the attempts to represent those member states solely through their governments.  

But there’s more.  Not only does multi-level government have this impact on the EU, the process of European integration itself encourages moves towards multi-level government.  By breaking apart the moral claim of the member state governments to exercise the sole authority over their citizens, it becomes conceivable that regions can acquire more political authority, too.  Perhaps, given the fact that the single market eliminates some of the difference between member states in the field of commercial regulation, regions are actually encouraged to accentuate their differences.

The development of the EU is making Europe safe for regions, as well as for its nations.  But that means that the member state basis of the European Union needs to be updated and the invitation list for meetings at the European Commission should be extended accordingly.

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