Monday, 9 February 2015
This weekend Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood indicated that she has devised a plan with Nicola Sturgeon that would mean Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could veto the UK's exit from the EU.
Effectively, the veto would mean that an English majority vote in support of an EU exit would not in itself be sufficient to guarantee a withdrawal.
There has been some criticism of the "democratic" merit of this position - some are arguing that this makes a referendum pointless, or that a simple arithmetic should be sufficient. Scots and Welsh have been represented by some as seeking to enforce their wills upon England.
This is simplistic, and such suggestions betray attitudes that fail to understand the realities currently facing the Union. There will be no more powerful case for Scottish independence than for English voters to enforce an EU withdrawal not supported by Scotland's electorate. Similarly, those who seek to present a new type of union - in which the constituent nations are a family of equals - need to be careful what signals they send out if they reject this proposal.
I for one do not believe that the majority of English people are as Euroskeptic as some would suggest. I think a referendum would result in a win for those championing continued EU membership. But it could be a close thing, and I don't blame Wood and Sturgeon for seeking to put in place safeguards to secure Welsh and Scottish interests.
I'd even go so far as to suggest this is what federalism should look like. Leaving the EU would have a significant effect on Wales and Scotland, something understood by their voters, who are much less anti-EU than certain parts of England. Why then should Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland not have the option to block change that has been rejected by their voters in a democratic referendum?
It's not really a veto that Wood is calling for, but for all UK nations to be recognised as such and for a final decision on exit only to be binding if it wins support of a majority of voters in all four countries. The situation in which England votes for exit and the others vote to remain in the EU is hypothetical, but it remains a distinct possibility. At the heart of the issue is not so much the question of EU membership, but that of a democratic marginalisation of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - one that is increasingly being felt in Scotland.
Where should the Liberal Democrats stand on this? I'd challenge a federalist, pro-European party to support a plan that I believe can further the case for federalism while taking a step towards securing continued EU membership. There will naturally be howls of opposition from Tories who fail to understand democracy in any other terms than the country with the largest population having the loudest voice. But those who value the Union need to think long and hard about the nature of that Union - and the kind of relationships between the "family" members. Do we want to create a dominant England and an increasingly resentful Scotland? Do we wish to see a "family of equals"?
Unlike David Cameron's ham-fisted approach towards the "English question" - manifesting itself in the ill-conceived English Votes for English Laws proposals - this from Plaid Cymru's leader at least recognises political reality, and also the essential truth that it is federalism (including English devolution) that will provide the answer to Cameron's conundrum.
I hope Lib Dems can support this - it would be positive to see some active promotion of the federalism we preach with such gusto.