Brexit and the Pressures of Devolution (4/28)     Print

By Konstantin Veit, Washington, DC
 
According to a draft text of European Council summit minutes seen by The Guardian newspaper, at this weekend’s first Brexit summit, the EU 27 will consider including Northern Ireland in the bloc, pending Irish unification. “The European Council acknowledges that, in accordance with international law, the entire territory of such a united Ireland would thus be part of the European Union (in the event of Irish unification).” For Dublin, which has been pressing for the inclusion of the so-called “GDR clause,” a reference to the integration of the former East Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall, this is a clear victory.
 
However, it is sure to raise hackles in the UK, which is already contending with a renewed vigor of centrifugal forces in Scotland. Substantial majorities in both Scotland and Northern Ireland opposed Brexit and see Brexit as reason to reconsider being locked into the current structure.
 
The UK consists of the four “countries”:  England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This currently united state is administered by a complex system of power devolution, which is why the British constituents are sometimes referred to as “countries within a country.” 
 
The system of devolution – a process of transferring powers from the Parliament of the UK to the assemblies and executives of the separate states -- is only 19 years old. In 1998, the UK parliament passed the Scotland Act, the Wales Act and the Northern Ireland Act which established the three devolved legislatures. The legislation came after referenda on devolution were successfully held in all three units of the Kingdom. Increasing nationalism in Wales and Scotland, and efforts towards sustainable peace in Ireland were the main drivers which led to the granting of more autonomy to the devolved units. Since the original devolution acts, new legislation devolved further powers to the constituents, most recently through the Scotland Act 2016 and Wales Act 2017.
 
Currently, each of the three units has its own government and executive, and a unicameral legislature with devolved powers.  England is the only state without its own executive or legislative, but it is ruled and legislated for directly by the UK’s Westminster parliament.  As a result, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs vote on matters that only affect England.  European Affairs discussed this matter after the first Scottish referendum.
 
Devolution is applied in different ways in each territory, with the Scottish Government and Parliament having the broadest self-government powers: it is the only constituent with its own legal system and considerable powers over tax policy. Powers given to all three states include education, health and environment policy (full list of devolved powers here). Westminster keeps ‘reserved powers’ in the areas of defense and national security, foreign and immigration policy, and almost all tax legislation.
 
In theory, the UK Parliament could abolish the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales or the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, such a step would be hardly viable in political terms. 
 
Given that devolution in Northern Ireland also builds on an international agreement between the UK and Ireland (Good Friday Agreement), interference with devolution to Belfast would be even more difficult. However, if the political parties of the North are unable or unwilling to form a government, the British government is legally authorized to take back direct control of Northern Ireland. This is something London wants to avoid, but which looms ahead these days: To date, Northern Irish parties failed to broker a new power-sharing agreement in the wake of snap elections on March 2. Britain’s Northern Ireland Minister Brokenshire now extended the time for negotiations until early May, otherwise another snap election could be called or London takes back government functions for the North. 
 
The system of power devolution makes Brexit negotiations more difficult for London: Scotland, for example, can continue to use the threat of a second independence referendum as negotiating tool with London. Some Northern Irish political groups also cherish hopes for independence from London and reunification of Ireland. Wales does not have considerable separatist efforts, but Cardiff wants to benefit from whatever concessions London is going to make to Scotland, and from the process of repatriating powers which had been transferred to Brussels. Nevertheless, Westminster is unlikely to give its constituents a too decisive role in the Brexit negotiations, or to make any moves that would jeopardize the country's territorial integrity, a Stratfor analysis says: “As a result, in the coming years secessionist pressures could become hard to contain in the United Kingdom.” 
 
Konstantin Veit is an Editorial Assistant at the European Institute.