Federal reforms in Austria: is now the time to overcome gridlock?

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The promise of ‘change’ was key for the Austrian Christian Democrats’ landslide victory in last year’s general elections. Recent sub-state polls, however, have perpetuated the influence of incumbent governors – and their power to veto the new government’s plans to reform Austria’s federal system. Patrick Utz analyses the links between current electoral dynamics, the country’s corporatist heritage and the potential for federal reforms in Austria.

When in October 2017 the Christian Democrat ÖVP and their 31-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, won their first federal elections in 15 years, they did so based on the promise of profound ‘change’. This vaguely defined agenda first materialised when Kurz formed a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which brought the long-standing ‘Grand Coalition’ between Social Democrats (SPÖ) and Christian Democrats to an end.

A central element of the new coalition agreement is an administrative reform, which may have far-reaching implications for the country’s federal structure. Unsurprisingly for a state that has been described as a ‘federation without federalism’, the promised reforms will most probably lead to further centralisation at the expense of the nine constituent Länder. Rather than the direction of change, the puzzling question about Kurz’s plans is whether they will occur in the first place.

Deadlock through informal vetoes

Austria’s peculiar system of cooperative federalism, along with the country’s strong corporatist tradition has long been immune to noteworthy changes. In spite of the Länder’s very limited self-rule and quasi-negligible formal mechanisms of shared-rule at the centre, regional political elites have long been able to have their say in federal decision-making. The most visible mechanism of these informal forms of regional interference is the ‘Conference of Governors’: a regular gathering of the nine Länder’s heads of government with no legal status but with very effective veto powers concerning federal legislation. Subtler forms of political influence, particularly through party-internal channels, might have been an even more powerful tool in the hands of regional elites. Continue reading

Clause 11: the Schleswig-Holstein question of the EU Withdrawal Bill

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Today, the House of Lords will continue its scrutiny of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill by discussing Clause 11, which provides that the power to amend retained EU law in areas currently devolved to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast would transfer from Brussels to Westminster, rather than to the relevant devolved body. Jim Gallagher discusses how the UK and Scottish governments are at odds over this issue and offers some potential solutions to a dispute that has now been referred to the UK Supreme Court. 

The current dispute between the Scottish and UK governments is increasingly coming to resemble the Schleswig-Holstein question, in that almost no-one really understands this technical, legal issue, but it has produced some apocalyptic rhetoric. Nicola Sturgeon has said it could ‘demolish’ devolution. Having competing pieces of legislation seeking to preserve EU law after Brexit is said to be a ‘constitutional crisis’. This hyperbole favours alliteration over analysis, but there are some real constitutional issues at stake here, obscured by political noise and intergovernmental argument.

The nub of the argument is quite simple: both sides agree Holyrood’s powers will increase after Brexit, but disagree about when and how. Both governments do have a point. The UK government, overwhelmed by Brexit, want to keep control of some Brussels policies until orderly replacements are settled. The Scottish government stands on the principle that anything affecting Holyrood’s powers requires its specific consent. Reasonable people could do a deal here. The Welsh government already have, and the issue is now being debated in the House of Lords at Report stage of the Brexit Bill. It is worth taking stock of why it matters.

‘Taking back control’ – To Edinburgh, Cardiff and (maybe) Belfast

Back in July 2016, once the first shock of the referendum result was over, I pointed out that Brexit should increase devolved powers, and so in a sense make the UK more federal in nature. Powers ‘taken back’ from Brussels should be distributed amongst the various legislatures of the UK according to the allocation made in the devolution settlements. This will make the devolved administrations more powerful in two ways. Obviously, they will no longer be constrained by EU law, so there would be no more EU law challenges on Scotland’s minimum alcohol pricing. Less obviously, since most EU competences deal with things managed better over large areas, they will work more smoothly at a UK level than as a four nations patchwork. Hence the (shared) desire for ‘UK frameworks’. Given devolution of the policy issues, the devolved administrations will have an effective veto, or at least a strong influence, over these frameworks. During one debate in the House of Lords, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean called that ‘the tail wagging the dog’. Continue reading

The Good Friday Agreement at 20: what’s next for Northern Ireland?

Alan_Rialto2 (1)Yesterday, in the first of two blogs on the Good Friday Agreement, Alan Whysall discussed where the Agreement had gone wrong and the benefits it has brought Northern Ireland since it was signed in April 1998. In this post, Alan looks at the future of the Agreement, a document he was involved in negotiating and implementing during his time as a civil servant at the Northern Ireland Office.

As conflict with the EU mounted over the Northern Ireland issue, some pro-Brexit voices in Great Britain began to argue that the Good Friday Agreement (‘the Agreement’) had ‘run its course’. They proposed no alternatives, however, for a position that broke a 20 year consensus in mainstream British politics.

Few in Northern Ireland, beyond established ultras, have gone so far. But some, predominantly unionists, argue in the short term for direct rule; some for changes to the mechanisms of the Agreement. There is also increasing talk of a border poll opening the way to a united Ireland.

Direct rule

Some see direct rule from Westminster as a good government safety net that Northern Ireland can fall back on, as in the past. From one perspective, it is remarkable that has not happened. Extraordinarily, no one has been in charge of government for over a year, as though having government is discretionary. The civil service carries out the administration on the basis of established policy, in a legal quagmire.

Nonetheless the British government has resisted the temptation to reinstate full-blown direct rule. This is understandable, as its own role would be seriously contested, given its dependence on the DUP for a Commons majority; so would the role the Agreement foresees for the Irish government. Most damagingly, it might be seen as the end of efforts to revive the institutions, unleash further negativity and probably drive the best people from politics. Direct rule, once turned on, is hard to turn off.

The present situation cannot endure indefinitely. At some point, much more government will have to be done. Continue reading

The Good Friday Agreement at 20: what went wrong?

Alan_Rialto2 (1)The Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement) is 20 years old today, but recent events in Northern Ireland have shown that power-sharing has proven a difficult exercise. Alan Whysall, who was involved in the negotiations that led to the Agreement as well as its implementation, examines what has gone wrong since the Agreement was signed. A second blog, to be published tomorrow, will discuss what can be done to get the Agreement back on track.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, (‘the Agreement’),  but the system of power-sharing government it established in Northern Ireland has not functioned for over a year. It was widely seen in Britain, as elsewhere, as a significant act of statesmanship, supported by both main parties. But it now appears at risk, as the Irish border becomes a critical issue in the Brexit negotiations.

What has gone wrong?

The Agreement was a political construct to underwrite the ending of a conflict and address the divided politics of a divided society. Progress in those three areas – conflict, politics and society – is interlinked. There was a hope that the division would reduce. In society it has, to some degree, though the progress is now in danger; in politics, less so.

The Agreement covered a wide range of matters besides devolved power-sharing government, but the main focus has been on that issue. The institutions were troubled from the start. Power-sharing government was not established until late 1999. Dogged by unionist reluctance to be in government with Sinn Féin while the IRA continued in being, it collapsed in late 2002. Five years’ direct rule followed, during which the IRA declared its war over and decommissioned weapons, and political negotiations culminated in the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 (with minor changes to the Agreement institutions). Re-established in 2007, the institutions functioned for 10 years.

Sinn Féin pulled out of the Executive in January 2017 citing lack of ‘respect’ from the DUP, essentially around Irish identity. Its key demand became an Irish Language Act, much debated though little defined by either proposers or opponents. Political negotiations appeared to be leading to agreement in February this year, when the DUP abruptly pulled out, its base apparently unhappy at the prospect of the (rather modest) language legislation proposed in the draft text.

DUP figures now speak of restored devolution being impossible this year; no further negotiations are in prospect. The new Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, has brought forward legislation at Westminster on the Northern Ireland budget.

Since last January, opinion in Northern Ireland is much polarised; the rhetoric of the parties, and to some degree the print media, has plunged into a partisan downward spiral. The spirit of partnership that was once to the fore in politics, and at times won votes, is withering, with few vocal proponents in the political realm. Continue reading

Monitor 68: A constitution in flux

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, was published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past four months, a period that has seen the EU (Withdrawal) Bill pass from the Commons to the Lords; the failure of talks in Northern Ireland; and a significant government reshuffle. Abroad, Ireland is considering a permanent constitutional change and Japan has seen a constitutional first as its current emperor confirmed he is to abdicate. This post is the opening article from Monitor 68. The full edition can be found on our website. 

The UK is experiencing a period of deep constitutional uncertainty. In at least four key areas, structures of power and governance are in flux. Screenshot_20180308.210141 (1)

The first of these, of course, is the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the European Union, to which the Brexit negotiations will shortly turn. The degree to which the UK continues to pool its sovereignty with other European countries depends on the form of that relationship: how far, and on what issues, the UK continues to adhere to EU rules, align closely with them, or follow its own separate path. Theresa May set out her most detailed proposals yet in a speech at Mansion House on 2 March, advocating close alignment outside the structures of the EU Single Market and Customs Union. On 7 March, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, published draft guidelines for the EU’s position. As before, this emphasises ‘that the four freedoms of the Single Market are indivisible and that there can be no “cherry picking.”’ What deal will emerge from the negotiations is entirely unclear.

The government’s preferred path will face stiff resistance in parliament too. In late February Jeremy Corbyn signalled that Labour wants a UK–EU customs union (an issue also central to the conclusions reached by the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit). Consequently the government now risks defeat on an amendment to the Trade Bill pursuing the same objective, tabled by Conservative backbencher Anna Soubry. Beyond that, an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill passed in the House of Commons in December guarantees that the deal between the UK and the EU agreed through the Brexit negotiations will need to be endorsed by an Act of Parliament in the UK. Brexit’s opponents are increasingly vocal and organised, and occupy a strong position in Westminster. The odds remain that Brexit will happen, but that isn’t guaranteed. Continue reading

What an English Parliament might look like – and the challenges of giving it proper consideration

meg_russell (1)Jack.000Constitution Unit researchers have been working on a detailed project on Options for an English Parliament, whose final report has just been published. In this post, report authors Meg Russell and Jack Sheldon reflect on the key design questions associated with the two main models for an English Parliament, and how proposals for such a body relate to wider political questions about the UK’s territorial future.

The idea of an English Parliament has a long history, but has been particularly actively lobbied for over the 20 years since the creation of devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Originally an idea mostly taken up by politicians on the right, the proposal has recently begun attracting greater interest also from those on the political left. Supporters seek closer equity with the existing devolved areas, including more explicit representation of English interests, accountability for England-wide policy-making, the airing of English ‘voice’, and a forum where English identity can flourish. Yet some serious concerns have also been raised about the prospect of an English Parliament, most centrally fears that an elected body representing 85% of the UK population would become too dominant, stoking territorial tensions and destabilising the UK Union itself.

Starting with these aspirations and concerns, we have examined the available evidence from UK and overseas experience to explore the options for an English Parliament – on a Nuffield Foundation-funded project, which has just produced its final report. This sought neither to advocate for or against establishment of an English Parliament, but to tease out the kind of design decisions needed, and their likely implications. We identified that two primary models have been proposed for an English Parliament – which we call the separately elected and dual mandate models – and focus our analysis primarily on these. Proponents of both have set out relatively little detail about what in practice would be involved. But if an English Parliament is to be viable, some kind of blueprint is clearly required. We hope that our analysis will help to illuminate this debate, and provide useful insights for both supporters and sceptics of the idea of an English Parliament. Our conclusions relate not just to the institution itself, but to the knock-on effects it could have on UK-wide institutions and on UK territorial politics as a whole.

Continue reading

Devolution, Brexit, and the prospect of a new constitutional settlement for the four countries of the UK

 

bigpic (1)Over the next 12 months the UK’s national and devolved institutions will be taking decisions that will rank amongst the most significant political events in Britain’s post-war history. In an attempt to contribute to the debate on the role of devolved bodies in the Brexit process, the Welsh Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee has produced a report on the subject. In this blog its Chair, Mick Antoniw AM, offers his personal view on the government’s current approach to Brexit and calls for a constitutional reordering of the UK once Britain leaves the EU.

Leaving the EU has turned out to be more than a mere decision to leave a Europe-wide economic and social bloc and has brought into sharp focus the future role and status of the UK in the world. What do we represent and how are we perceived? How much influence in world economic and political affairs do we really have? These questions, however, go even deeper in that they also call into question the very purpose, long-term future and stability of the UK as a country. 

For almost 50 years, since the passing of the European Communities Act, the answers to these questions have been masked by our membership of a European project that with economic and technological globalisation has been developing into a political and social union based on its collective economic strength. 

The Social Chapter, the central role of the European Court of Justice, the developing role of the European Investment Bank and the development of the EU as a trading bloc in its own right created a legal as well as an economic framework for an expanding Europe. Within this context the UK’s increasingly dysfunctional and conflicting internal constitutional arrangements have been masked and constrained by the broader EU constitutional framework and jurisdiction. 

Pandora’s Box has now been opened. British nationalism’s nakedness has been revealed and our political and constitutional nudity is now there for all to see, exposed by the absence of any clear post-Brexit plan. Now that Article 50 has been triggered, the countdown to leaving the UK has begun and on 29 March 2019 we will be out of the EU, ready or not.  Continue reading