In the past months, we have witnessed the tides turning against dictators and in favour of democracy as the Arab Spring gathered momentum. What unites the people of the Arab states is a desire for self-determination, freedom and dignity.
This desire was also seen in South Sudan where its people voted emphatically in favour of independence, becoming the United Nation’s 193rd member state on 14 July. Palestinians will take their bid for statehood directly to the UN this month, potentially becoming its 194th member. 2011 is officially the UN year of forests but what has clearly taken root globally is the call for self-determination, whether from people oppressed by dictatorial regimes or from sub-state nations seeking statehood.
In Europe this desire is no less strongly felt. In Wales, of course, we voted by a large majority to give the National Assembly law-making powers within its twenty devolved areas of competence. Polls now show that people want more powers for the Assembly. Whereas in 1997 it was a struggle to win the referendum on devolution, the difficulty now is satisfying the electorate’s demands for greater Welsh freedom.
Future of the Union Special
Tomorrow: John Osmond looks at the devolution dilemmas that will confront Wales depending on what Scotland does.
And we are not alone. In fact we are very much a part of the Europe-wide trend towards greater autonomy for stateless nations. Plaid Cymru is a member of the European Free Alliance (EFA), a European political party. Its members also include Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA).
As EFA group president, I closely follow developments in other countries. We support the progress towards autonomy made in Catalunya, yet its people confront particular obstacles to statehood. The Spanish Constitution does not permit any part of the state to secede. Its Constitutional Court prevents Catalunya even describing itself as a nation in its Statute of Autonomy. For us, the lack of such constraints is one of the few advantages of the UK not having a constitution.
To bypass these obstacles, Catalan civil society took the unprecedented step of holding unofficial referenda on independence across its municipalities between 2009 and 2011. I was asked to observe this democratic process and was pleased to see that an overwhelming majority of respondents voted in favour.
The political stasis of the Belgian state has been simmering for decades and reached boiling point last year. In the 2010 Belgian federal elections the N-VA emerged as the largest party in the state and refused to capitulate to the usual demands from economically poorer Wallonia. Flanders and Wallonia have been growing apart for decades but the inability to form a new Belgian government for well over a year after the elections is a sign that it may be the time for their relationship to come to an end. An interim agreement seems likely, but in the medium term it seems difficult to imagine that Belgium will not, as the N-VA says, “evaporate”.
In the UK, Plaid’s sister party, the SNP, won a sweeping victory in the Scottish parliamentary elections. There is now no obstacle to the SNP holding a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future. The Scots may now be only one vote away from taking their place on the world stage as an independent state. I recognise that this referendum poses many questions for Wales, not least what our position would be in the United Kingdom if Scotland were not a part of it. Would we be happy to live in a residual United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland while seeing Scotland forge ahead? I have no doubt that Scottish independence will give a huge boost to the national movement here.
It is, of course, my conviction that as a state we would be more prosperous and a more desirable country to live in. The report I commissioned from Adam Price & Ben Levinger and published in July The Flotilla Effect – Europe’s small economies through the eye of the storm confirms this. As part of the United Kingdom we continue to get poorer under both Labour and the Conservatives. We must take responsibility for our own economy and for our own future. We have the resources to do that. We just need the power.
Flanders, Catalunya, Scotland, Wales and other ‘sub-state’ nations will become what has traditionally been called ‘independent’ by a new political process we call “internal enlargement”. Legally, we will become member-states of the European Union with, of course, seats in the United Nations. People will be familiar with the ‘external enlargement’ of the EU, expanding its external borders as existing states join. That is what happened with the UK in 1973. The largest act of external enlargement was the accession of ten states in 2004.
Internal enlargement happens when existing member states – in this case Belgium, Spain and the UK – reconstitute themselves as more than one state and their new, component parts apply to (re-) join the EU. Of course, the rumps of the former states will also have to reapply. The term was coined by Prof. Torbjörn Larsson in 2002 and developed with gusto by the late Prof. Sir Neil MacCormick MEP (SNP) in his submissions to the European Constitutional Convention (2001-2003). One of my first acts as President of the EFA group in 2009 was to raise the issue directly with Hermann van Rompuy, the President of the EU Council, who declared he “liked the name and concept”.
Plaid Cymru’s constitutional goals have moved with the times. The ‘gold standard’ from the 1920s onwards was Dominion Status. Self Government and Full National Status were the buzz words towards the end of the 20th Century. Now, we clearly proclaim our aim as Independence in Europe. Constitutional changes across the European Union have opened up a new passage for Wales, this time as part of a growing flotilla of nations.