Tuesday, 2 July 2019

What's the purpose of a confederation?

There is nothing particularly new in the idea of a ‘Britannic Confederation’ as outlined by Plaid’s leader, Adam Price, last week.  In one form or another, the idea has been around for a very long time – I seem to remember Gwynfor Evans using the same term in the 1960s and 1970s.  It is clear that, whatever paths the different nations of these islands choose, their shared geography and history make it natural and desirable that close economic co-operation should continue.  And as Adam has pointed out, the Benelux model is an interesting one to study.
But – and there’s always at least one ‘but’ – the idea is not without its problems.  Whilst it’s true that Luxembourg is much smaller than either Belgium or the Netherlands, there is not, amongst those three countries, anything like the same disparity in size as exists between the countries of the UK.  One of the biggest obstacles to any form of federal or confederal structure in the UK is that one component – England – accounts for 85% of the population, and an even higher proportion of GDP.  Recognising that fact in voting power in any supranational structure leads to dominance; but failure to recognise it means England having to accept more or less ‘equal’ status with very much smaller nations.  The former looks undesirable from a Welsh perspective and the latter unachievable.
It’s true, of course, (assuming that that not insignificant obstacle could be overcome) that whether the UK is or is not a member state of the EU makes no difference at all to the practicability of a Britannic Confederation, and I understand (and agree with) Adam’s assertion that “…it will be made much more pressing and necessary if Britain were to leave”.  That does, though, highlight what I see as the two biggest problems with the proposal. 
The first is that such a unit can only be entirely in or entirely out of the EU; it cannot have some members in and others out.  A Britannic Confederation of the sort under discussion simply would not work if Scotland (to choose a country not quite at random) were to pursue continued EU membership whilst EnglandandWales chose not to.  It limits our future freedom of choice.  And the second goes to the heart of my concern about Brexit from an independentista perspective: outside the EU, the Welsh economy, it seems to me, is likely to be bound ever more tightly to the English economy and will, in practice, have to follow the same rules and regulations.  Some sort of Confederation (depending on how the population disparity is resolved and which decisions are taken where) might give us a marginally greater role in setting those rules and regulations than simply having a handful of MPs in the Westminster parliament, but the real decisions will still be made by the dominant ‘partner’, and there is a danger that such a confederation reinforces rather than weakens that.  It's a very poor substitute for a Welsh seat at the EU table.
There’s another reason for my agreement with Adam’s contention that the need is more pressing outside the EU - or rather for me agreeing with the corollary, namely that it’s less pressing within the EU.  As a member state of the EU, Wales would have its place and voice alongside the other countries of the current UK, creating a different context in which to maintain close co-operation.  Just as I wonder whether Benelux would ever have been created if it hadn’t predated the EEC, so I also wonder what purpose a Britannic Confederation would serve if all the countries of the UK were full independent member states of the EU.  Why would we need to invent such a structure in that context?  It strikes me as adding a wholly unnecessary extra level of government into the mix.
That, though, supposes that my definition of ‘necessary’ is shared by others, and brings me to the real question about why such a proposition is being put forward at all.  Is it driven (as superficially appears to be the case) by economics and the desire for close co-operation, or is it driven by a political imperative to make the end of the UK look somehow less final?  Is it a way of taking decisions which, for whatever reason, ‘need’ to be taken collectively for a particular geographical area, or is it an attempt to provide a comforting level of continuity by arguing that there is a purpose to a UK level of government after all?  I can’t help but suspect that the driver is more a political nervousness about independence than a real conviction that the UK simply needs to be reimagined.


CapM said...

I don't think there is any form of confederation of equals that England would sign up to.
Any confederation of non-equals requires Scotland to sign up to it and given the level of support for independence why would it. Was Adam Price trying to sell them the idea?
Englandandwales as a confederation. I would be interested to know who thinks that that proposal would be taken seriously and by whom.

Maybe in Cymru the idea of a "confederation" would serve in a similar way to the idea of "Brexit". Members of the Welsh electorate would imagine their personal form of confederation and under the umbrella of "confederation" there would be enough voters to support independence. It follows that "independence" would naturally have as many imagined forms as "confederation".
Brexit provides the template for constitutional change. What could possibly go wrong.

Michael Haggett said...

I share your opinion that there was something "not quite right" about Adam's speech (for others reading this, the full transcript is here). But it's harder to put my finger on exactly what is wrong with it.

It's worth noting that Adam specifically says that the future, Benelux-like, relationship he describes is specifically post-independence. But I would be willing to bet that a large number of his audience thought that he was in fact describing some half-way stage that wasn't quite full independence. That seems to be what Lee Felton thinks, in his article for Ein Gwlad.

To me, it seems that a lot of people are bound to ask, "Why would we need to go all the way to full independence if we could have this model instead?" To be frank, I think it quite likely that this WAS the point that Adam was making in his speech, and the bit about it being "post-independence" was only added in a later draft. It doesn't seem to fit naturally with the rest of the speech.

I would note that both Benelux, in 1944, and the Nordic Council, in 1952, were set up long after the countries concerned had become independent. It is not as if Norway, when it became independent from Sweden following a peaceful, democratic referendum in 1905, did so on the basic that Norway could or would only become independent if it was within some alternative over-arching formal relationship structure between Norway and Sweden. Nor Belgium, when it became separate from the Netherlands in 1830 ... although in rather less democratic circumstances.

On that basis, I would say that the lesson of history must be that independence comes first, and that Adam is doing neither himself, his party, nor the cause of Welsh independence any favours by putting the cart before the horse in this way. It's confusing the issue.


One small point relating specifically to what John has said. I don't really agree that any British equivalent unit could only be entirely in or entirely out of the EU. The Nordic Council includes members who are both in and outside the EU.

John Dixon said...


I'm not an expert here, and am open to correction, but I didn't think that the Nordic Council was as far advanced as the Benelux arrangement; the former, I thought, was about 'economic
co-operation' whereas the latter is about 'economic union'? Definitions are always a difficult area, of course; especially when being translated into multiple languages. But I think there's an important distinction there. Perhaps I should have referred to membership of the single market rather than the EU as such; the possibility that a state could be a member of two 'economic unions' which overlap but where some states are only members of one strikes me as being 'chellenging' to say the least; and, ultimately, isn't that what gives rise to the problem with the EU-UK border across Ireland?

Gwyn Jones said...

To Michael Haggett,
The Norwegian/Sweden divorce was not really peace full. The cause used for separation was the appointment of consuls in various foreign ports.The merchant navy was almost all Norwegian but the consuls were almost all Swedish. Norway traded with the world but Sweden traded with Germany.
After a plebiscite in 1905 the Norwegian Army was moved to the frontier to face off the Swedish forces. The Swedish king wisely renounced his claim to Norway and a real shooting war was avoided.
As the late Phil Williams said in one Plaid conference you have have to have at least a threat of violence.
Gwyn Jones