Fred argues that increasing devolution in the UK heralds a new era for the European nation state. Across Europe citizens are driving for increased self-determination in stark contrast with the EU’s aims for centralized integration. Without a fundamental reduction in the EU project’s scope and devolution of governmental powers there will be ever increasing separatism and disconnection between citizens, their governments and the EU.
“For Scotland the campaign continues and the dream shall never die”
These were the emotional words of the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, who resigned after the Scottish people voted to remain in the United Kingdom by 55% to 45%. The Union stays, for now, but the governance of the United Kingdom has been fundamentally shaken and will undoubtedly continue to change. The referendum has triggered questions across the UK about self-determination and the status of Northern Irish, Welsh and English devolution. There will no doubt be a further dilution of the powers of the UK parliament in Westminster and political power in the UK will continue to fragment. Is this relevant only to the UK? Absolutely not. What is happening in the UK has enormous consequences for European policy-makers.
The UK’s increasing movement for self-determination and the fragmentation of political governance is symptomatic of what is happening across Europe. We have entered a new period of evolution for the nation state. National governments are seeing their powers be devolved and decision-making is moving closer to their citizens. A new model of democracy and governance is evolving as part of a long history of how Europeans govern themselves.
A key part of this history occurred at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century when Europe and the Middle East moved from being a collection of multi-ethnic powers through the Austrian, Ottoman, British and Hungarian empires to a group of nation states. There has of course been a significant effort, post WWII, to drive through consensual European integration where European nation states gradually subsume into a common European body politic. Many have argued that the nation state is no longer relevant because the future belong to big axis of powers such as a federal Europe with a single parliament, China and the US. I disagree. Yes the traditional nation state is gradually being rendered defunct but not because of integration, it is being rendered defunct because of what happened in Scotland. Voters and citizens of nation states are demanding ever greater localism and are increasingly rejecting the centralization of political governance.
21st Century voters and citizens appear to want decentralized, fragmented, local politics which tailors policy-making to whichever group they most identify with. In an age where everything is increasingly tailored to you why shouldn’t politics be? This desire for more self-determination has always existed but technology, globalization and free trade have certainly catalyzed this process. In the modern world national political parties are becoming increasingly irrelevant as citizens identify themselves in ever smaller groups. You can see this in Europe with the proliferation of fringe political parties on both the left and right from UKIP in the UK to The Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany to Podemos in Spain. Across Europe there are separatist movements and ever greater moves towards federalism and devolution. Whether it is the Scottish, Cornish, Catalan, Flemish or Venetian independence movements, a perfect storm of forces are gradually rendering the nation state defunct except in the case of foreign policy and defense.
This spells enormous trouble for the EU project. It is in direct tension with the attempts to integrate and create multi-national governments which have power over national governments. EU leaders were privately terrified of a ‘Yes’ vote in Scotland for this reason. If EU leaders do not face up to the increasing desire for local politics and devolution then the consensus between those who govern and those who are governed will break down.
What does this really mean? Is the EU project doomed? No. I believe that in matters of defense, foreign policy and trade the EU is critical and necessary as the clout of individual European nation states on the world stage diminishes. This is an argument which you can emotively get behind. But increasing centralization in other policy areas will only further stoke the devolutionary fire. The more we can create devolved politics which tailors policy more effectively to individuals then the greater the consensus will be for national and supra-national governments. Will this happen? probably not. Europe will continue to centralize and consolidate power to the increasing chagrin of its citizens. This will drive instability, separatism and disillusionment and may even jeopardize the whole project. We will see what happens but I sincerely hope that EU leaders look at what is happening in the UK and understand what it will take to keep the cherished European dream alive.
By Fred Spring, a student at Harvard Business School who previously received a BA in Philosophy and Russian from Oxford University and spent 9 months living in St. Petersburg and Kiev.