Europe of the Regions? Subsidiarity, Democracy, and Scotland in Europe

March 18, 1996

Subsidiarity, democratic deficit, monetary union, common foreign policy, Europe of the Regions: Christopher Harvie identifies "an element of wishful thinking in these beguiling concepts." (65) Certainly, the European Union has no shortage of catch-phrases and ambitious programs. A united Europe has been a dream spanning the centuries, from Charlemagne, to Napoleon, to Hitler. In 1951, a French civil servant, Jean Monnet, got the ball rolling with what came to be known as the Schuman Plan. It resulted in the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, encompassing Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Luxembourg, France, and Germany. Six years later, the Treaty of Rome added the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Association, creating what came to be known as the European Community (EC). Today, the EC has become the 15-member European Union(EU), thanks to the Single European Act of 1986, and is pushing forward to greater integration, and expansion. Or is it? Either way, would it be such a great thing?

Rhetoric is pleasant, and inspires support, but reality may not always be in tune. There are some who have offered Europe as the means towards Scotland's salvation, providing a home following independence. Others embrace the concept of the 'Europe of the Regions' to offer Scotland a chance at greater sovereignty. In order to grapple effectively with the issues governing Scotland and Europe, one must explore several points: regional policy within the EU; the European Parliament and elections to it; the views of Scotland's main political parties on Europe and the EU; and the prospects for the future.

Europe for the Regions?

Two separate groups of policies must be examined in this section, those of regional representation, and those of regional aid. Article 198a of the Maastricht treaty provided for a Committee of the Regions (COR). The committee has powers of a mostly advisory and consultative nature, but certainly has the ear of the Parliament and the Commission. The COR's 222 members may be appointed by the Council, but they are "completely independent in the performance of their duties, in the general interests of the Community." ("Directorate" 3) It is the COR that most often deals with issues directly pertaining to EU citizens. In some cases, the COR has the power to bring cases before the European Court of Justice where subsidiarity principles have been violated.

Regional representation is also managed through lobbying groups. The most important for Scotland is Scotland Europa, which has taken on a de facto role of representation for Scotland in Brussels. It is composed of numerous Scottish businesses, universities, and regional and local councils. It's broad backing by these various parts of Scottish society have helped it to attain its legitimacy, in concert with the UKREP.

By the 1970's, economic disparities were becoming evident within the EC. Certain regions were chronically underdeveloped, or coping poorly with economic and industrial change. In response, the Treaty of Rome received the addition of the objective of 'economic and social cohesion', the desire to reduce disparities. In furtherance of this goal, the EC Structural Funds were implemented: these were the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), European Social Fund, European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund.

For this discussion the most important is the ERDF. It was conceived by British officials originally as an EC trade-off for the high payments Britain was making when it entered the Community. Ironically, once it was introduced, British governments waited a long time before paying it any attention.

Most of Scotland falls under one of three criteria for aid: (1) a region with per capita GDP less than 75% of the EU average; (2) areas suffering industrial decline; (3) underdeveloped rural areas with a high concentration of agriculture. (Europe 4) All of Northern Ireland, and parts of rural England also qualify, but the UK's regions receive very little funding. This has been primarily due to a lack of lobbying on their behalf by the UK government.

European Parliament

Direct elections to the European Parliament, rather than government appointments, were enshrined in the original Treaty of Rome. It was not until 1974 that the heads of the EC nations again pledged themselves to them in principle. In September 1976, the Council of Ministers decreed that each nation should pass legislation allowing for elections to be held by the spring of 1978.

Callaghan's Labour government went along with it grudgingly, and slowly, mostly so as not to disturb the party's unity. Even so, the Labour conference was 2:1 against direct elections, and it caused much wrangling. Following the pact with the Liberals, Callaghan agreed to support proportional representation in the European elections, but the House of Commons subsequently denied him PR voting. As a result, the majoritarian, first-past-the-post system was adopted. Due to all the difficulties, the election schedule was postponed a year.

So, every five years, EU citizens have been able to vote for representatives to the European Parliament. The two difficulties surrounding the topic are how much the Parliament matters, and the importance of the elections in the UK to the Parliament.

The Parliament is problematic. While it offers a multivariant voice for the EU, it has little real power. It is subject to the wants of the Council of Ministers and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Commission. The Council is composed of the heads of state of each of the member countries. The Commission is comprised of appointees of the state governments. Together, they hold most of the EU's power.

As well, it is as subject to the cries of a 'democratic deficit' as the other arms of the EU. Most MEPs are little known at home, and due to the amount of time spent in Strasbourg, are very much out of touch with their constituents. Likewise, their constituents are ill-informed of European issues, beyond whatever domestic ones may coincide. Although Parliamentary sessions are public, unlike the private horse-trading of issues in the Council of Ministers, (Martin 81) they are given little attention by the citizenry at large.

This 'democratic deficit', combined with their timing in the middle of government terms of office, results in the low status of elections to the Parliament in the UK. Because the Parliament is known to have little authority, and citizens remain generally uninformed of it, European elections remain second-tier in the UK. First-tier elections are those with "a role in electing or confirming a government in office," mainly a general election. (Lynch 45) Second-tier elections do not make or break the government. They serve as an outlet for displeasure with the regime, and allow for tactical voting and abstentions. Second-tier elections include European elections, by-elections, and regional and local elections.

There is also room for the emergence of fringe parties. The Green party made its first breakthrough in the UK in the 1989 elections. They have never had much support, however, and quickly returned to the fringe of politics.

European elections have tended to be run by the parties on national domestic issues rather than European ones. This was not an arbitrary decision: the parties that avoided focus on Europe tended to do better than those that did not. The Liberal Democrats are the best example. Their policy of fully-embracing the EU has not won them much in the elections. Also, the parties tend not to take the elections that seriously. The lack of much local party activity has been blamed for the poor turnouts. (Denver 60)

The Conservatives

The Conservative regime has shown itself to be rather skeptical of the EU and intractable when it comes to the EU's progress. This is due to the powerful force within the party of 'Euro-skeptics.' Primarily back-benchers, these MPs have fought against expanding the powers of the EU, especially Economic and Monetary Union. Since Prime Minister John Major is just barely hanging on to a majority in the House of Commons, it has been necessary to coddle this faction in order to maintain their support.

This has been a problem for all UK governments since the Second World War: how close to be to Europe. While the EC was being developed without British participation, its avoidance was rationalized in three main arguments. First of all, Britain had more global interests and had to focus on its position as a major power. Second of all, Britain had to remain close to the United States, and not jeopardize the Anglo-American 'Special Relationship.' Finally, as head of the Commonwealth, it had more duties to leadership, as well as greater ties of trade, as opposed to Europe. As these arguments fell to dust, both in reality and in perception, Britain moved into the EC. After several attempts, Britain acceded to the European Community officially at the start of 1973. This occurred under the governance of Edward Heath, and the Conservative party.

When Wilson called the 1975 referendum on EC membership, the Tories were primarily in favor. Despite the necessity of Heath acquiring the support of the Liberals in order to defeat his own party's right wing and their attempts to prevent accession, by 1975 only eight MPs were still opposed to the EC.

When the Tories returned to power in 1979, Thatcher swung towards a more pugnacious approach to the EC. She fought for mostly petty monetary concessions, as well as attempting to check its expansion at any turn.

The Tories still refuse to sign the 1985 European Charter of Local Self-Government. The Charter represents the beginning of EU-wide local democracy, as well as an articulation of Maastricht's concept of `subsidiarity.' (Taylor 74-5) The government has attempted to assert its own view of subsidiarity by returning as much power as possible from Brussels, not to the regions, but to Downing St.

In the 1994 elections to the European Parliament, the Conservatives made an attempt merely to hold on to what position they held. What little support they had in Scotland was certainly not boosted by their campaign. The manifesto never mentioned Scotland once, except to deride the SNP; this was chaulked up to its generality, but many took notice of the omission. It came as some surprise, since the Scottish Secretary a year or so before had been focusing on Scotland in particular and the Scottish Office and Scotland's roles in the EU. (Lynch 51) The Tories, as expected, won no Scottish seats, and received 14.5% of the Scottish vote. (Denver 63)

The Tory regime has consistently been either hostile to or disinterested in the EU. Most importantly for Scotland, the Tories are opposed to any greater definition of 'subsidiarity,' as pertaining to devolution of power from London.


Tony Blair's Labour party is generally pro-Europe, and tends to favor integrating initiatives. As well, they are enthusiastic about expanding the notion of `subsidiarity,' with the offering of devolution to a Scottish Parliament in the least. However, Labour's policy was once as publicly torn as the Conservative Party's is now, however.

PM Harold Wilson had to constantly fight off those opposed to the EC within his party, which proved difficult considering that they controlled much of the party. In the 1975 referendum on membership in the EC, Wilson withdrew the whip, and let his MPs take whichever side they wanted. The idea was to allow for a decisive test of national opinion, without destroying the party. Even cabinet MPs were allowed to argue publicly. Despite winning the referendum, Labour remained just as badly divided. These divisions coincided often with the shift in Labour's general politics: farther left. It was the radicals and extremists who tended to be anti-EC in the referendum, and Labour was no exception.

Following the fall of Callaghan's government, Labour remained generally anti-European, a policy of opposition to the new Tory regime which seemed friendly to the EC. The party's swing to the extreme left included advocating leaving the EC as a whole. As Thatcher's truer colors came to the fore, Labour started to adapt and change into the rather pro-EU party one sees today.

Much of the swings back and forth were due to the perception of the EC's ideology. In the 1960's and 1970's, while Labour continued to shape a socialistic state, Europe appeared to be a threat to that socialism, as a bastion of free-marketeerism. With socialism in retreat in the UK in the 1980's, the left began to look favorably upon the EC as the Community turned more socialist. In particular, the Social Charter was seen as a major step, which the UK failed to ratify.

Whereas Callaghan was opposed to direct elections to the European Parliament, Labour now benefits from them. In 1994, Labour won six of the eight seats for Scotland, earning 42.5% of the overall Scottish vote. (Denver 63) Labour campaigned on domestic issues of opposition to the government, and tried to avoid the air of impotence surrounding its Scottish majority in the House of Commons.

The Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats are the most pro-European of the major parties. They are committed to Economic and Monetary Union, including the single currency, as well as a more federal Europe. In line with their hopes for the a reformed federal UK, they favor a grander definition of `subsidiarity,' and also favor greater democratic reforms for the EU at the same time as they wish to integrate it.

This policy has tended to be a liability. In the 1994 European elections, they had to ease off on the rhetoric, and focus on more domestic issues. In particular, in Scotland, support for federalism was not mentioned, replaced by decentralization and subsidiarity. (Lynch 55) This helped little, raising its portion of the Scottish vote from 4% in 1989 to 7% in 1994. (Denver 63)

The Scottish National Party

The SNP is a proponent of the European Union as much as the rest, but due to particular interests. It believes that the EU will provide for a smooth transition to independence once the SNP wins it. Their policy of 'Scotland in Europe' counters much of the anxieties often felt about independence. The SNP thinks that an independent Scotland will be able to rely on the EU to support it and ease its way into nationhood in Europe. The policy eases fears of drastic change. As well, it insulates Scotland from English discrimination once independence is achieved.

The SNP in the post-war era tended to be hostile to Europe. In 1967, the party warned that once independent, Scotland might not honor the UK's European treaty obligations. At the party conference of June 1968, the policy was clarified further. The SNP said that "an independent Scotland could not remain a member of NATO" and "would demand the removal of all foreign military bases in Scotland." (Scott, A. 17) In American eyes, this presented a serious threat to the whole Western Alliance, since Scotland was the staging ground for much of NATO's air power, as well as its early warning listening stations. As a result, both British Intelligence, and the CIA, kept a close watch over SNP and other nationalist activities.

This policy continued until the mid-1970's. Despite heavy campaigning on behalf of the no side, Scotland voted yes in the 1975 referendum, by 60%. Following the referendum, while some in the party insisted that an newly independent Scotland would have another referendum on EC membership, the party in general moved towards support of the EC. As a result of the first direct elections to the European Parliament, the SNP sent one MEP (Minister of the European Parliament).

In the 1994 European election campaign, the SNP sought to show the Scottish electorate the high cost of the Union with England as opposed to the one with Europe. After the disastrous performance in the 1992 general election, where their excessive optimism resulted in a whopping three seats, the SNP were seeking to regain their position. The SNP not only retained the seat in the Highlands and Islands, but won North East Scotland from Labour. the SNP was second place in the elections overall, with 32.6% of the vote. (Denver 63)

In the 1980's, with the 'Scotland in Europe' campaign, the SNP broadened its appeal, to many who would have been wary of their old-style separatism. Jim Sillars wrote many papers trying to redefine the SNP as an internationalist-nationalist party, encompassing more loftier goals than simple independence. (Marr 192)

The Future

The United Kingdom is in a curious position as "the last large-scale centralized state in Europe." (Harvie 73) As the EU becomes more integrated, it will become even more important to rectify the 'democratic deficit.' In the UK, the "balance of power in local communities" has shifted "in favor of unaccountable quangoes and other agencies which have no direct representative function." (Taylor 82) Increased subsidiarity will not help unless democratic control is expanded, and Thatcher's bunch have turned local government into a laughing stock.

Regional aid is helpful, but is in scant supply. Regional representation is much more important, but is also poor to non-existent. The EC is "dominated by a sclerotic decision-making process," and there is a

continuing transfer of power from the National to the Community level without the concomitant strengthening of democracy at that level. (Martin 81-2)

Recognizing this, the SNP policy of 'Scotland in Europe' is delegitimized. What the Scots need to work for is what most EU citizens should be working towards: greater democratic governance of an ever-integrating EU. Without this, David Martin notes that Scotland's position within the EU would be little better than that of a "neutered" independent small state within the EU. (83)

The SNP argues in return that a "small voice" is better than "no voice at all," which is what Scotland has now, with the UK government in charge. (Scott, P. 44) Other small nation-states have found within the EU a way to better provide security "for their national identity" and to give them more control over events than they would have outside of it. (47) What the SNP fails to note is that Scotland is already a part of the EU, albeit via the UK.

In conclusion, it would make more sense to work for greater democratic control across the board, rather than simply for independence. Independence will not necessarily mean greater democracy for the Scots, and the EU is not a "quick escape route." (Lindsay 89) A European Parliament with far broader powers, and greater democratic accountability, could do much more for Scotland than mere independence.

Works Cited

Denver, David. "The 1994 European Elections in Scotland." Scottish Affairs . no. 9 Autumn 1994 (59-67)
"Directorate for Press and Communication" Brussels: Committee of the Regions, 1995.
Marr, Andrew. The Battle for Scotland . London: Penguin Group, 1992.
Martin, David. "The Democratic Deficit." Ed. Owen Dudly Edwards. A Claim of Right for Scotland. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1988. (79-85)
Europe at the Service of Regional Development . Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 1995.
Harvie, Christopher. The Rise of Regional Europe . London: Routledge, 1994.
Lindsay, Isobel. "The SNP and the Lure of Europe." Ed. Tom Gallagher. Nationalism in the Nineties . Edinburgh: Polygon, 1991.
Lynch, Peter. "The 1994 European Elections in Scotland: Campaigns and Strategies." Scottish Affairs . no. 9 Autumn 1994 (45-58)
Scott, Andrew Murray and Iain Macleay. Britain's Secret War: Tartan Terrorism and the Anglo-American State . Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing Company, 1990.
Scott, Paul H. Scotland in Europe: Dialogue With a Sceptical Friend . Edinburgh: Canongate Press, 1992.
Taylor, Keith. "European Union: The Challenge for Local and Regional Government." Political Quarterly . vol. 66 no. 1 Jan-Mar 1995 (74-83)

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