Union gives strength
What Aesop did not say, but which he certainly knew, was that strength through union brings various costs with it, some less tangible than others and some remarkably high.
we asked whether the strength gained in terms of efficiency and (presumably) savings in combining local councils and thus centralising services has been worth the loss of immediate democratic control. This brings us to the European Union, the expanding powers of Brussels and the attitudes and positions being adopted by our own representatives as they dog fight over Europe.
In the long-run, the importance to Scotland is where we stand with regard to both the rest of the UK and to Brussels, and the central powers exerted by both those institutions. The concept of European unity is not new; the Romans ran a fairly unified Mediterranean system (with add-ons) where trade passed freely between its centres; this was aided by the upper classes of the disparate regions all mainly understanding Latin and being prepared to accept the benefits of Roman civilisation.
The Hapsburg Empire also unified large sections of our continent but, eventually, this also crumbled. Both Napoleon and Hitler had unifying tendencies also; thankfully, they eventually failed. The second world war precipitated matters; France and Germany had been belligerent powers since way back and the unspoken concept after the war was to intertwine their economies in such a fashion as they would have no reason to fight each other.
It made obvious sense to the other surrounding nations – Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – to follow where their powerful neighbours led and all these countries came together in the Treaty of Rome in 1957 when the European Community was formed; previously, from 1952, they had developed a European Coal and Steel Community – itself an outcrop from the 1949 Council of Europe – thereby creating a common market for these products (coincidentally products much needed for war).
Essentially this organisation – the European Community – was viewed as an integrated customs union, but it swiftly developed wider economic importance; the Treaty of Rome had already established the Atomic Energy Community and the European Court of Justice. It was still a loose association though; individual nations had a veto and the executive arm, the European Commission, was subservient to the Council of Ministers.
Even at that, the European Commission, by the fact that it was a permanent body consistently staffed, was viewed with misgiving by some and seen as a centralising force. However, on the whole, power remained outwith the centre – especially after what was termed 'the empty chair' episode when France, in a fit of Gallic pique, refused to turn up at several meetings for a while.
However, in 1979, the European Parliament, which up until then had its members appointed by the various governments, held its first elections where members were chosen by universal suffrage. This step divorced the parliament from the council and made the parliament a popularly-elected force within the community. Then the European Court of Justice delivered a ruling on what became known as the 'Cassi de Dijon' case – a case where Germany had prohibited the import of a French liqueur because it failed to meet German standards (although it met European ones). This case established the precedence of the European Court and European regulations when the importer won his right to import the drink.
The European Court had been arguing since 1963 that the member states had limited their own sovereign rights in having created an institution with its own legally binding rules. If there were a conflict of legal rights then, the court decided, the laws created by Brussels were over-riding. This, at least, had the benefit of creating uniformity in the rules of commerce – a necessary step towards the single market.
Surprisingly, the country most upset by these changes was Germany which decided, in 1993, that the German Court could rule European actions illegal; however, they also assented to the fact that the German Government had voluntarily entered into the various agreements and treaties and, as long as these were effective, European law would still be supreme: a case of having it both ways. By then, the Single European Act had been passed (in 1986). This act strengthened the role of the European Parliament in law-making and permitted a 'super majority' to pass laws rather than the need for voting to be unanimous.
Centralisation was on its way. A Scot would be subject to laws that their own government had not passed but that a remote assembly had agreed.
The single market could not operate otherwise though. By the mid 1980s, it had expanded to 12 states and obtaining unanimity would have been difficult if not impossible – and, also, the European states concerned were looking to the future when more nations would join. Had a single state veto still applied, then any one nation could keep control of any given single market – thus upsetting the mantra of free trade.
The next steps were even more momentous: Europe was changing and the Soviet Union disintegrated under the weight of its own corruption. Its new leader, Gorbachev, was, in any event, a liberal in his thinking (following Andropov) and Lech Walesa led the Poles to a new freedom. Finally, in November of 1989, the dreaded Berlin Wall came down. Europe was forever changed and the trading union formed by some of its states would be forever changed also.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Caithness