Could a Celtic Union work?

(Title Image: BhzSamTheRipper via Wikipedia under the GNU Free Documentation Licence)

Towards the beginning of January, Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) addressed the Irish International & European Affairs Institute.

Not only did he call for the Welsh Government to open a consulate in Dublin (after the Irish announced their intention to re-open a consulate in Cardiff), he said this – taken from a piece on Nation.Cymru:

“The Left cannot afford any longer to allow the Right, increasingly the far Right, to have a monopoly on English pride and patriotism.

 

“If Brexit takes place, there is likely to be an acceleration of moves in these directions. And, who knows there could be scope as well for much greater co-operation between the Celtic nations, even the formation of some kind of Celtic union.

 

“It will be composed of four nations, different to be sure, just as family members are different, different in size certainly, but treated equally, and enhancing their shared sovereignty through a partnership of equals and respect.

 

“…..Such a Celtic collaboration could ultimately involve the Northern Ireland Government when it is re-established. It could establish, for example, a Celtic Development Bank for joint infrastructure investment projects in energy, transport, and communications. This could look, for example, at financing the Tidal Lagoon project in Swansea Bay (linked to the Wales-Ireland interconnector) or the Celtic Sea Bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland.”
– Adam Price AM

The idea of some form of Celtic Union has long been on the fringes of nationalist debate in all of the respective nations, though the establishment of formal supra-national cultural and political alliances between nations of a similar kinship has clear precedent: the Commonwealth, the British-Irish Council (which Adam Price referred to), the Nordic Council, Visegrád Group, Craiova Group, and Baltic Assembly.

How deep could a “Celtic Union” go? What would be the advantages and disadvantage of closer political co-operation between the Celtic nations? Is it desirable or feasible?

A Political Union

 

Could the Celtic nations forma confederation like Switzerland? (Pic: Walters-Storyk Design Group)

A “hard” union would presumably exist as a confederation – a voluntary union of sovereign nation-states – between Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The Isle of Man would presumably be a candidate for inclusion too. Cornwall and Brittany could be added as future members if they can attain a measure of self-government – but that’s unlikely as things currently stand.

A five-nation state would, based on 2017 figures, have a population of around 15.3million, a gross value added of around £494billion and a GVA-per-head of around £32,450 (which compares favourably to the UK). Taking into account territorial waters, it would be a significant regional power that could go toe-to-toe with some of the mid-sized European states like the Netherlands.

Each nation would presumably retain their own parliament and would be self-governing in domestic affairs (health, education, criminal justice etc.). A system of common citizenship with distinct nationalities could develop (i.e. a Welsh nationality, but citizenship of the Celtic Union) and this would come with complete freedom of movement and capital between all of the members.

However, a formal political union would require decisions to be taken at a union-wide level in policy areas such as defence, currency & monetary policy, state aid rules, regulations and trade, nationality/immigration, the constitution and foreign affairs (the union would probably have a single seat at the UN, for example).

This would require a single union-wide parliament/government and a single head of state/executive (though this could be a collective leadership as in Switzerland). You would assume the political parties in the respective nations would remain separate, but work together in formal political alliances (similarly to the European Parliament).

In addition, unless the Republic of Ireland decides differently, all of this would probably mean (re)joining the EU and euro (with likely Scottish support) and possible hard borders with England for Wales, the Isle of Man and Scotland.

All of the Celtic nations face a common set of problems that don’t necessarily apply to England as a whole or in the same way: how to make the most of renewable energy resources, rural productivity and depopulation, offshore tax (mainly affecting Ireland and the Isle of Man), Sectarianism (in Northern Ireland and Scotland), the protection of Celtic languages and de-industrialisation.

A political union would provide more opportunities for formal working between the Celtic nations on issues like energy, agriculture, regional development, broadcasting, banking and protection of culture.

For all the positives, there would be some obvious drawbacks.

Firstly, there are the political and cultural differences. I doubt Northern Ireland’s unionist community would be happy in any union other than a one with a protestant English monarch as its head; they won’t want a republic by stealth and there would probably be an expectation that the “Celtic Union” joins the Commonwealth. Far from providing a permanent solution to the border issue, it would probably drag up old tensions if unionists felt trapped “in the wrong union”.

Also, while there would be broad support for remaining in the EU across the entirety of the potential Union, Wales (and Cornwall) voted Leave, the Isle of Man is already outside of the EU and fiercely protects its sovereignty and, again, it would be a bugbear with more hardline Ulster unionists who were mostly pro-Leave.

Secondly, I doubt there’s any real support for a “hard” political union. Before getting into a position to consider it as an option, every single member (with the exception of Northern Irish unionists) will have spent centuries trying to achieve or maintain a measure of sovereignty from London. I’m willing to bet support for a Celtic Union is pretty low across the board, even if it has the potential to be a far more balanced union than the UK ever has been and ever will be.

Thirdly, there are all the “smaller” issues. Would there be a single Celtic Union national football team and league? Would there be a pan-Celtic broadcaster and welfare system? If so, how would that work? Would the Republic of Ireland and Scotland grow resentful at having to (almost certainly) subsidise Ulster and Wales via a Celtic equivalent of the Barnett Formula? Would a Celtic Union be neutral (as Ireland) or seek to join NATO and become a regional military power?

An Informal Union (a Celtic version of the Nordic Council)

 

(Pic: Nordic Council)

This seems to be what Adam Price was getting at – an informal supra-national council which meets on a regular basis to discuss issues common to all members. There would presumably be a Council of Ministers and Parliamentary Assembly made up of members from the respective legislatures.

All of these already exist via the British-Irish Council and British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly – both of which were set up under the Good Friday Agreement. However, with the UK Government seemingly willing to throw the Agreement under a bus (on our behalf and without our say so) to satisfy hard Brexiteers, a “Celtic Council” would be a natural successor.

Not only would it form the basis for inter-parliamentary co-operation (though not coercion) on areas of common interest, it could lay the institutional groundwork for the establishment of limited pan-Celtic organisations such as, as Adam Price said, a development bank.

Other possibilities might include a film/arts council, a language unit, tourism bodies, transport bodies (to improve cross-border links), some form of university and college exchange programme, scientific and research co-operation and bodies relating to exploiting and making the most of renewable energy (particularly marine energy) – basically many of the things Wales is about to lose by leaving the EU but on a smaller scale and without the baggage of a formal political union.

As far as I’m concerned, the Scottish Parliament, Senedd and Dail should stick two fingers up at Westminster and start working towards this regardless of what happens on Brexit.

The UK Government and UK Parliament might grumble that it would encroach their constitutional right to dictate foreign policy for the whole UK, but as Liz Saville Roberts MP and Delyth Jewell AM have recently pointed out, Wales can no longer have any confidence the UK Government and UK Parliament will adequately represent Welsh interests going forward.

Even as a nationalist, I’d never thought I’d say that – if there’s one thing you can say in the UK’s defence it’s that governance has always been level-headed and the civil service one of the best in the world – but it’s a plain reality now. The UK is becoming something of an ungovernable global laughing stock (compared to the other mainstream democracies) while the Senedd offers a relative semblance of sanity and stability….again, something I never thought I’d say.

Conclusions

I don’t see the point of rushing headlong into another political union just as (hypothetical for the moment) we will have waited hundreds of years to get out of one we were brought into by force and, for the time being, support remaining part of.

The attraction of a Celtic political union is the fact all of the members would be a similar size, but it would likely be dominated by the Republic of Ireland and Scotland as they would carry the greater economic and political clout. Wales would be a passenger again; perhaps in a more important role, though it’s a struggle to think of what niche we would fulfil other than our manufacturing capacity, our potential for renewable energy and acting as a convenient land bridge between Ireland and England.

I do, however, think Adam Price (and the late Steffan Lewis) were spot on about the potential for greater co-operation between the Celtic nations; maybe not a political union, but as a sign to the rest of Europe that not all of the UK shares its latent hostility towards multilateralism, even if we have different ideas on how deep that co-operation should go.

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