Great Britain in Europe. The Effects of Devolution on EU-UK Relations

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

16 Pages, Grade: 1.7

Ron Böhler (Author)


1. Introduction
`Our conception of parliamentary supremacy ... makes it difficult for us to accommodate
ourselves to structures of government, such as that of the European Union, whose raison d'être is
that of power-sharing. It will make it difficult also for us to accommodate ourselves to the
devolution of power downwards to a parliament in Edinburgh, a national assembly in Cardiff, and
an assembly in Belfast. European Union and devolution offer complementary challenges to the
profoundly unitary nature of the British state.'
(Bogdanor 1999, p.1-2)
Indeed, the Scotland Act of 1998, for instance, meant serious changes in the British political
system and the bureucratic state whilst political competencies over various policy areas were
shifted from central government to subnational authorities. This kind of decentralisation away
from the British executive in Whitehall was `the most radical constitutional change this
country has seen since the Great Reform Act of 1832' (ibid., p.1). The United Kingdom (UK)
is therewith much influenced by a new European paradigm, referred to as multi-level
governance (MLG). In this post-national polity, the nation state does not any longer appear as
the epicentre of domestic decision-making and foreign policy representation. The old
Westminister model (WM) had served its time and was henceforth replaced by a 'quasi-federal
state, rather than a unitary state' (Bache and Flinders 2004, p.105). New actors, above all the
regional governments, gain power and may bypass London as the gatekeeper of UK European
policy formulation.
At first sight, devolution thus marks a logical step in the loss of state power as well as towards
increasing horizontal and vertical distribution of competencies and authoritative
accountability. In a complementary fashion, the Europe of member states has also become a
Europe of regions. This may has left conspicuous imprints in the political and administrative
landscape of EU member states and changed the coordination of policy processes between the
supranational, national, regional and local levels. As a matter of fact, fears among academics
and politicians grew that this substantial transition would raise adaptational problems to the
UK and ultimately weaken the British voice in Brussels (Bulmer et al. 2002, pp.29-32). Quite
the contrary, so will be argued below, has decentralisation even strengthened UK European
policy by successfully downsizing structural burdens of a too long too static political system.
Devolution did not `hollow out' the state (cf. Rhodes 1994), but cleared forces that could be

pooled for key policy issues, while structural overloads, that dated back to the 1970s, were
reduced. In particular international competition urges governments to change the order of
priorities and focus on important policy areas while disregarding minor issues (Keating 1996).
Moreover, Whitehall still kept exclusive rights over British EU relations and took the role of
an overly powerful gatekeeper for domestic ambitions arising from devolved regions. The
links between London and Edinburgh remained asymmetrical and Scotland´s bargaining
power and links with the EU are altogether too weak to seriously challenge the British
negotiating line in Brussels.
Building upon the MLG approach, this paper seeks to analyse the impact of Scottish
devolution on the British government´s strategic position in relation with Europe. The first
section will therefore detail the concept of multi-level governance and the domestic impact of
EU politics. This perspective is supplemented by theoretical considerations about devolution
and its implications for the British Westminster system. Afterwards, an analysis of Scottish
rights and obligations as a devolved polity shall shed light on de facto alterations that came
along with the 1998 Scotland Act. The paper restricts itself to the purely structural
adaptations. A discussion, why devolution towards Edinburgh has led to a win-win-outcome
for Whitehall, will complete the argumentation.
2. The British State & European Union Governance
In the view of many observers, the national embeddedness in the European policy-making
structure has weakened national authorities by shifting relative action capacities and
competencies both upwards the European supra-national level as well as downwards to local
government agencies. This phenomenon has been labelled multi-level governance and was
generally defined as 'the dispersion of authoritative decision making across multiple territorial
levels' (Hooghe and Marks 2001, p.xi). It is indispensable to mention that MLG is not a
regional integration theory, but a concept to describe and explain the processes forming a
vertically as well as horizontally intertwined European Union polity between European,
national and subnational levels. Notwithstanding, it is directed against strands of European
integration theories such as intergovernmentalism and also denies its state-centric assumption
that EU member countries still constitute autonomous actors within the European framework.
Intergovernmentalists see national governments as gatekeepers of domestically bargained

policies, which are then unitarily represented on the European stage (Moravcsik 1993). From
that perspective, state sovereignty is preserved or even reinforced for the reason that national
governments decide the range and depth of integration processes as long as they are beneficial
to their own preferences. In contrast, MLG presumes exactly the opposite: '[C]ollective
decision-making among states involves a significant loss of control for individual state
executives' (Marks et al. 1996, p.346). Gains for one member state are most likely losses for
Furthermore, national governments do not enjoy the sacrosanct exclusivity in relation to
Brussels any more. MLG neglects governments as the linchpins of EU policy-making and
stresses the interconnectedness of all territorial levels instead (ibid.). Subnational actors may
still try to lobby their national government to gain direct and firm influence in Brussels, but
they can also build up own links with EU actors. Such multi-layered policy networks are for
instance reflected in the Committee of the Regions (CoR) that was established with the
Maastricht Treaty in 1993 (Art. 198) to give regional and local representatives a voice in
Europe. Further channels run through the Council of Ministers, the European Commission,
Brussels-based agencies as well as transnational networks with other regions all over Europe
(Hooghe and Marks 2001, p.81-92). Against this background, EU membership may
increasingly jeopardise formerly effective national administrations and forces member states
to reallocate state capacities just as economic and political integration deepens. Marks sees
MLG as the consequence of a 'centrifugal process in which decision-making is spun away
from member states in two directions' (1993, p.401-402), namely to the supranational and the
subnational level.
British public policy was for centuries determined by an overall dominant and highly
centralised executive, composed of the Prime Minister, ministers, and the civil service. Based
on the traditional conviction that `leaders know best' (Rhodes 1997, p.3), decision-making
procedures were conducted in a strictly hierarchical fashion, under narrow top-down control
mechanisms and with clearly assigned accountability through elections (Bache and Flinders
2004, p.99-100). Although ministers were responsible to the House of Commons and the
House of Lords, based on collective responsibility among all members of the UK cabinet, the
souvereign parliament at Westminster appeared as a `policy-ratifying rather than a policy-
making body' (Norton 1984, p.175). The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom started
working not until 2009 and is ­ compared to ther countries such as the US or Germany ­

limited in its options for judicial review. The classic organising perspective of the unitary
Westminster model (WM) has for a long time defined mainstream perceptions of the British
state (cf. Rhodes 1997, pp.5-7), but became outdated in the early 1990s at the latest and was
subsequently subject to substantial changes and adaptations to external as well as internal
pressures. Nowadays, Britain's new multi-level polity features multiplied strands of
accountability and a heterarchical order based on steering instead of governmental control
(Bache and Flinders 2004, p.100).
As in every other EU member state, though the degree varies, EU membership had lasting
effects on British policy-making structures. Two prima facie opposing developments are
symptomatic of these substantial transformations: a progressive Europeanisation of British
governmental structures, on the one hand, and rising demands from British regions to gain
sovereignty along territorial lines, on the other. Both can be identified as symptoms of a
solidifying European multi-level polity. Europeanisation is hereinafter understood as an
`incremental process re-orienting the direction and shape of politics to the degree that EC
political and economic dynamics become part of the organizational logic of national politics
and policy-making' (Ladrech 1994, p.69). Theoretically, domestic adaptation occurs when
there is a certain degree of institutional 'misfit' between the supranational and the national
level. To put it in a nutshell: the 'lower the compatibility between European and domestic
processes, policies, and institutions, the higher the adaptational pressure' (Börzel and Risse
2000, p.5). Still, administrative and procedural adjustments seldom arise suddenly, but are
rather marginal and gradual. UK membership in the European Union from 1973 onwards has
had lasting impacts upon the British regulatory state and the public sector, although changes
in the post-accession era were kept to a minimum and hallmarked by social learning processes
on how to 'play the European game' (Pollitt 1984, p.114). At the very latest from the 1990s
onwards, a perceptible structural Europeanisation of the British government and
administrative bodies became manifest (Wallace 1996; Smith 2003; Bulmer and Burch 2000).
European integration has particularly 'strengthened the horizontal dimension through its
promotion of partnership governance,
which has become embedded in domestic practices across an
increasing number of policy fields' (Bache 2005, p.7). Such cross-agency and intersectoral connections
become evident in public-private partnerships and multilateral collaborations to create, for
instance, Health and Education Action Zones (for an overview and discussion of British
horizontal governance, see Glendinning et al. 2002).

The emergence of policy networks and power shifts do not at leatst occur as a corollary of
concerns among political scientists, who from the mid-1970s onwards saw the modern
Western European state getting into trouble. Michel Crozier in his 1975 report on
governability among Western European countries identified an idiosyncratic vulnerability of
their political systems due to a rising complexity related to economic growth, social shifts and
political demands and an administrative lack of capacity to absorb these challenges.
Particularly referring to Great Britain as paradigmatic symbol of this development, he
illustrated that European nations 'have to carry through a basic mutation in their model of
government and their mode of social control while facing at the same time a crisis from
within and a crisis from without' (Crozier et al. 1975, p.53). His assertion, that European
states are about to become ungovernable, proved nevertheless ill-founded. As Rose had
pointed out correctly, to term this condition of ineffective government with 'ungovernability'
is an oxymoron as no sovereign state can survive without a government (1979). In Britain
admittedly, the conviction persisted that such changes of the regulatory state causes a looming
`hollow state' (Rhodes 1994; Gray 2000), which would no longer be able to provide public
services and above that cannot be held directly accountable. This perspective dovetails with
other authors who assume that MLG may overload national policy-making procedures (Benz
and Eberlein 1999). Devolution is not necessarily an integral part of these additional burdens
as shifting `governmental responsibilities to regional assemblies [...] would reduce the
pressure on central government and on Parliament' (Norton 1984, p.229). In the case of the
UK, decentralisation sought to counterbalance adaptational pressures.
Although a European
impact on British domestic governmental institutions may have been less visible for some time, they
are not less evident.
In addition to relinquish political power in many policy fields upwards to
the European level, in the late 1990s the UK also delegated competencies downwards to
regional authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Therefore, it could be interpreted
as 'a bringing of Britain into the European regional mainstream' (Todd 2003, p.62; cf. Bulmer
et al., p.4) This process of devolution means a `transfer to a subordinate elected body, on a
geographical basis, of functions at present exercised by ministers and Parliament' (Bogdanor
1999, p.2; italic by source). In the case of Britain, devolution has historically been seen as
quite the contrary of normative expectations about a well-functioning state order and, thus,
collided with practical considerations and day-to-day politics (O`Neill 2004, p.5-9). Yet, the
1998 devolution marked, up to the present, the climax of nationalistic demands from UK
regions that can be traced back to the endeavours of Prime Minister William Gladstone in
1886 to decentralise the British state (Keating 1998). Decentralisation also may ensure a
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Great Britain in Europe. The Effects of Devolution on EU-UK Relations
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Ron Böhler (Author), 2011, Great Britain in Europe. The Effects of Devolution on EU-UK Relations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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