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The eurozone’s ‘West Lothian question’?

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While the talk of Westminster is the debate on a referendum on the EU, a 33 year-old British constitutional conundrum is finding a new parallel at EU level.

The ‘West Lothian Question’ is a long-running debate about whether MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be allowed to vote in Westminster on legislation that affects only England. Now, in the midst of the euro crisis, one senior French Socialist Member of the European Parliament is posing a similar question about the voting rights of non-eurozone MEPs.

Pervenche Berès, a former Chair of the European Parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee, has suggested that the Parliament establish a sub-committee where only MEPs from countries that are part of the single currency can vote. MEPs from the eight member states that are not yet part of the eurozone – including the UK – would be left on the sidelines.

A 33 year-old British constitutional conundrum is finding a new parallel at EU level

Such talk will be seen as almost heretical by some in the European Parliament, where deputies sit in pan-European political groups – and Ms Berès is aware that her proposal is controversial. The plan drives a wedge between two unwritten principles that have long guided the Parliament: that it speaks for European citizens en masse, not national interests; and that MEPs are the counterbalance to the power of member state governments.

However, Ms Berès’s proposals seem to be based on the notion that, in this case, the first principle may be damaging the Parliament’s ability to abide by the second. She told, an EU news website, that the current crisis needs a middle way between coordinated national policies and an EU-led solution.

Andrew Duff, a federalist British Liberal Democrat MEP, disagrees with the idea of splitting MEPs on the basis of nationality. The Parliament’s (usually staunchly communautaire) constitutional affairs committee, which will discuss the idea on Monday, is likely to agree.

Nevertheless, the debate is a useful one.

For the EU, it raises questions about how to manage the future, as the eurozone countries seem set to accelerate away from the rest with deeper economic and fiscal integration. How does the Parliament manage this development – especially given that all non-eurozone countries (bar the UK and, for the moment, Denmark) are obliged to join the euro when there is sufficient economic ‘convergence’? If you are committed to joining a club, shouldn’t you have a say in its rules?

Representative democracy is not always neat

More fundamentally, there is the question of the role of parliaments. By their nature, they discuss many issues that affect all those represented, and some that affect only a few. The question of where to draw the internal line will always be difficult. Would you deny representatives of inland areas a say in maritime or fisheries policy, for example? Should Maltese MEPs be barred from voting on rail transport issues?

Representative democracy is not always neat. The constituents of an MEP from Szczecin will be deeply affected by what happens in the eurozone – as prospective users of the single currency, and due to their proximity to Germany. The residents of Coldstream and Gretna may rely on English schools or hospitals, or cross the border for work. While their representatives are still members of a parliament covering the whole of the EU or the UK, I would argue that they should have an equal say.

A commission in the UK will soon study the West Lothian question once again. If it finds a neat solution, be sure to let Brussels know…

This article first appeared on Burson-Marsteller’s Policy Periscope blog