What would an independent Wales in the EU look like? Glyndwr Cennydd Jones writes about the potential future relationship…
Moving onwards, I had always imagined constructing an argument that would encompass the main drivers and influences of geography, history, industry, peoples and politics on our island story, whilst corralling, researching and synthesising the evidence in a manner clearly to present the case for a constitutional compromise of strategic significance.
The resulting essay, my fourth, These Isles (April 2019), is a work with which I remain pleased, viewing it as a useful contribution to the developing debate not only in Wales, but in the context of the UK as a whole. The Institute for Welsh Affairs undertook to release the text in four parts during Spring of that year, and the complete piece is accessible here.
In summary, it affirms that most states are synthetic constructs and are subject to change.
That said, unitary states face ongoing challenges in acknowledging the partial autonomy and diversity of their constituent nations, especially in cultivating and sustaining a sense of allegiance and belonging to the larger political body. The exposition frames the UK constitutional question as follows:
“With many today asserting a multicultural Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, or English character along with a form of dual nationality which embraces a British personality, it is reasonable to reconsider the nature of Westminster’s parliamentary sovereignty.
“Britishness as a concept is much older than the UK and it is unrealistic to argue that the Welsh or Scottish people… would start considering the English as fellow Europeans instead of fellow British.”
The pressing issue of our time relates to whether sovereignty, as currently understood, should be shared across these five territorially defined identities (including that of Britain) in a traditional federal arrangement, or instead assigned individually to the four nations—Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England—which in turn could delegate parts of their sovereign authority to common central institutions of a fundamentally British composition, and/or European.”
These Isles was followed by the briefing paper Constitutional Relationships and Sovereignty in these Isles (September 2019) and its infographic supplement Illustrated Constitutional Models and Exemplar Principles (September 2019).
They upheld the line of reasoning that Britishness as a concept is much older than the UK and it is unrealistic to argue that the Welsh or Scottish people, in notional independent territories, would start considering the English as fellow Europeans instead of fellow British.
Broadly speaking, British ideals and values are forged by cultural, historic and topographic influences, which usefully bridge the demands of world interdependence and the desire for increased autonomy in the nations.
The challenge is to capture these principles in a new constitutional framework which improves arrangements for self-government—through emphasising common respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, and rule of law—within an isle-wide civic societal structure typified by pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, and solidarity.
The papers, in essence, summed up the constitutional options as below, and included the more challenging scenario of an independent Wales acting exclusively within the EU, for the purposes of encouraging wider comparative conversation.
- Devolution: A sovereign Westminster delegating some sovereign authority to the devolved institutions.
- Federalism: A partially sovereign Wales sharing sovereignty within a UK Federation.
- Confederalism: A sovereign Wales pooling a few key functions within a British Confederation.
- Confederal-federalism: A sovereign Wales delegating some sovereign authority to a League-Union of the Isles.
- Independence: A sovereign Wales delegating some sovereign authority to the EU.
An independent Wales within the EU
Wales acting as a sovereign nation within the EU is, in principle, a workable model. However, a practical difficulty rests with Wales’s largest trading partner England and its uncertain relationship with Europe.
A form of isle-wide constitutional framework is essential to facilitate the necessary economic, political and social understandings, or at least an Atlantic Union, of EU nations, comprising treaties between Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland.
In June 2016, the Welsh public effectively voted against EU membership, creating some doubt about the likely political traction of a future sovereign Wales joining the EU, but there are indications the mood may be changing, if only steadily.
Hypothetically, an autonomous Wales could be underpinned internally by five regional authorities partially mirroring the geographical composition of present regional seats for Senedd elections, and constituted by the amalgamation of enclosed principal areas or unitary authorities for local government, and restructuring of other relevant bodies.
“The border between England and Wales is crossed about 130,000 times each day.”
These may cover: the health boards; police, fire and rescue authorities; and consortia for education, social services, transport, and trunk roads.
Enacting Welsh government policy, such authorities would promote economies of scale; clarity in directing long-term planning and delivery; accountability for achieving shared outcomes across geographical areas; improved governance, and increased capacity.
The potential for Wales to act unilaterally outside any European or isles-wide agreements is impossible in the era of enhanced cross-border cooperation, which demands some pooling of sovereignty within supra-national frameworks.
It has been suggested that Wales’s operational interactions with England could be addressed through a bilateral treaty of sorts, but this approach is likely to prove unsustainable, with uncertainty over collective aims resulting in a drift of capital and employment prospects towards the larger neighbour to the east.
The challenge is highlighted in the report A Constitutional Crossroads: Ways Forward for the UK (Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law 2015) which highlights that the ‘border between England and Wales is crossed about 130,000 times each day’ and that ‘48% of the Welsh population lives within 25 miles of the border with England.’
“An isle-wide constitutional model of confederal-federalism is a more suitable proposition than that of federalism, a loose confederation, or an independent Wales acting solely within the EU.”
The picture as we move into the third decade of the 21st century is more complex still.
By December 2019, having recently participated in the joint discussion article Unionism, Federalism and Nationalism with David Melding MS and Helen Mary Jones MS for the Welsh Agenda magazine, I somewhat accidently but interestingly found myself acting as a commissioner on Plaid Cymru’s constitutional Independence Commission.
Its report Towards an Independent Wales (yes, ‘towards’ had become a buzzword) was published by Y Lolfa in September 2020.
The model of a League-Union of the Isles informed much of the Commission’s explorations of confederalism and was publicly presented as an option alongside the Benelux model, proposed by Adam Price MS.
During summer 2020, I also had the pleasure of liaising with Professor Jim Gallagher on his developing thoughts for Could there be a Confederal UK? which is an important paper by a past Director General of Devolution for the UK’s Ministry of Justice.
So reflections aside, I am now actively considering the fundamental ‘nuts and bolts’ of a founding treaty that might hypothetically underpin the introduction of a League-Union of the Isles—for the purposes of promoting deeper debate in 2021.
It is timely for me to clearly state on the record why an isle-wide constitutional model of confederal-federalism is a more suitable proposition than that of federalism, a loose confederation, or an independent Wales acting solely within the EU.
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