Open Europe Blog

In the UK, Scottish MPs can vote on English matters (such as the English NHS and education etc.) where, because they are devolved to the Edinburgh parliament, English MPs have no say on specific Scottish matters. This has been labelled the “West Lothian Question”. Solving it is has been a perennial subject for debate, going way back to debates on Irish home rule in the 19th century right through to Scottish devolution. As yet it remains unanswered.

With a multi-tier Europe becoming more of a reality every day, in wake of further Eurozone integration, the EU is now facing its own West Lothian question. If some countries don’t take part in say, more fiscal integration or if some countries – such as the UK – wish to devolve some EU powers back to the national level, how would the EU’s voting system take that into account?

European Parliament President Martin Schulz said yesterday for instance in an interview with Die Welt, that:

“it can’t be the case that individual member states pull out of the common [policy] areas, but believe that they can continue to co-decide on legislation. That’s the case for negotiations in the Council, but also in the Commission and for us in the Parliament. The withdrawal of Great Britain raises the second big question apart from the euro question: how do we deal with this now from a legislative perspective? With Schengen, it was already the case that London doesn’t take part but was allowed to co-decide on legislation. We must make this systematic. When Cameron starts picking what he prefers from current Treaty law, we must consider which consequences this has for us as an institution. Whoever doesn’t take part in certain policies, should no longer take part in the legislative process. When you withdraw, you need to withdraw completely.”

And he is also quoted by DPA as saying:

“The euro is the currency of the union. The parliament of the union is the European Parliament. Thus the parliament of the euro is the European Parliament. We have 27 EU member states and two, namely Denmark and the UK, said we won’t go along with the euro. All other states are required to introduce the euro sooner or later. Therefore we need a ‘27 minus’ approach on EP decisions on Eurozone-specific issues”.

Schultz has asked the West Lothian question
– but does he have the answer?

Schultz seems to be arguing for the eurozone votes for Eurozone laws. He makes a good point, but how would this work? Well, Britain has some experience of assessing the relative merits of limiting MPs to voting on different laws. In essence the problems that have been thrown up are these:

Problem in UK: How do you ascertain what is a ‘eurozone’ law is when something might effect both parts? 19th Century British PM William Gladstone, for instance, concluded that: “it passed the wit of man to frame any distinct, thorough-going, universal severance between the one class of subject and the other.”

Not a problem in EU: In the UK these problems remain due to the imprecise nature of UK governance. However, in the EU all legislation is based on treaty articles and EU competences, so deciding who votes on what should be far easier, though if the line between the banking union and the single market, for example, gets blurred this could suddenly become problematic.

Problem in the UK: English votes for English laws in the UK raised the prospect of a UK government unable to govern England because, it may not in fact command a majority of English MPs (only an ‘overall’ majority) creating constitutional chaos (think posts such as the Home Secretary).

Not a problem in EU: In an EU context allowing differing governments to get on with their business would probably suit the UK just fine, as would limiting MEPs’ power over UK affairs (though we acknowledge the risk of eurozone caucusing etc).

In principle, there’s no reason why variable geometry in the EU voting system can not be made to work – in fact, it could be an important component of a reformed EU, in areas such as the CAP, JHA and social and employment laws, as per the model we’ve outlined below. When these are up for discussion a UK MEP would simply not vote.

Politically, it would need to be managed very carefully. Some euro-outs, such as Sweden, will probably oppose such a differentiated approach. But it would be fair democratically and, as Europe moves towards a multi-tier model, perhaps something the EU will eventually get used to.

Will eurozone votes for eurozone laws catch on in a multi tier EU?

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