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North-South integration in Ireland

Fixing the institutions

Rory O’Donnell

One of the striking things about the Belfast agreement is that, to any one who knows the European Union, one immediately recognises that it was written by people who also know the EU and have worked its systems quite intensively.

Making institutions interdependent and interlocking is very similar to the way the union was designed. Placing a heavy emphasis on consensus and agreement — indeed unanimity — is another feature of the European model of institutional policy co-ordination. Defining areas of international co-operation under the legitimacy of national parliaments, and indeed drawing on the legitimacy of national governments and executives, is something the EU has done very skilfully from the start.

So our ambitions for the agreement also echo Europe. They concern building practical co-operation piece by piece, widening the sphere of co-ordination as we go along. The idea that such co-operation gradually becomes natural, and reaches a level where conflict is inconceivable, is an old ambition also borrowed from the European experience. And, ultimately, it is the ambition to achieve co-operation which goes beyond lowest-common-denominator bargaining and really helps to solve problems.

Yet the institutional structures envisaged by the agreement differ significantly from those in the EU. Some of what one might see as the dynamic elements of the European model aren’t there: there is no equivalent of the European Commission or the European Court of Justice. Nor is there any concrete statement of ambition, as was spelt out in the Treaty of Rome.

It is widely accepted that the commission was designed to be the engine of European integration. Retrospectively, we can also see that the court was key at certain points in the story. We are inclined to see the European process as dependent on the very ambitious initial statement in the founding treaty. But it would be too negative to be disheartened by the absence of these elements in the agreement, for two reasons.

First, one of the features of the European story has been how it has changed from the initial design, which was often called the ‘tandem model’ — the Council of Ministers and the commission comprising the two parts. It didn’t quite work out like that: there was an enormous elaboration of the council.

This initially happened in a negative way after the Luxembourg compromise, which entrenched the national veto in the 60s with an associated retreat from ambition. The strengthened council spawned a very complicated substructure of committees and working groups. It had been previously envisaged these would only exist inside the commission but they were replicated around the council.

This locked the national officials into recurrent negotiations on numerous issues (and, indeed, the commission then developed committees for consultation with tbe national interests). This elaboration of the council — well beyond what was imagined in the Treaty of Rome — certainly had a negative effect in the 70s, when Europe stalled.

But when Europe relaunched itself, in the 80s and 90s, this complex system of inter-governmental negotiation around the council wasn’t dismantled or circumvented; rather, when the engine started to move again it was built upon. In particular, the half-yearly meetings of the European Council (the council of prime ministers) emerged as a key source of legitimacy — not dealing with anything in much detail but setting frameworks which every six months would give legitimacy to what was done by ministers and officials in the meantime.

Secondly, to this dense inter-governmental system the relaunch of Europe added social actors. The commission co-opted business and the unions, first of all, to the internal-market project and then it co-opted the wider social movements: the environmental movements, women’s groups, regional groups, unemployed groups and so on. This even more complex structure has delivered really quite remarkable progress in policy co-operation and integration in the past 10-12 years.

Thus, despite the peculiar elaboration of the council, negotiation in the union has moved beyond a wooden insistence on unanimity, towards persuasion. Unanimity is still there — in many respects it remains a fall-back — but the process has moved towards persuading reluctant parties to go along with various pieces of policy co-ordination. This has worked very well, in many different spheres.

The implications of this for the North-South Ministerial Council are not yet clear. But, shadowing the European experience, there is a hint that, if certain things are done right, quite a lot could happen — even without a commission or court.

A condition, however, is that political legitimacy, as delivered by ministers, is combined with delegation to experts. One of the reasons why Europe works is that the council delegates its work to people who know what they are talking about. This is a very important feature and I concur with Dominic Murray in this regard.

One should not underestimate the extent to which professional and even social attachment develops in expert organisations with responsibilities such as food safety — one of the areas to be the subject of a north-south implementation body. People working in these spheres are drawn into values — in this case values of good food safety — which, when they are placed in a cross-border context, to some degree override the tendency to bargain for a ‘national’ interest.

This has been very striking with the European environmental agencies. Where one might have expected all the national agencies to allow their own companies to cheat on environmental directives, in fact they look to other environmental institutions and seek a high reputation for environmental standards. That esteem around professional standards and organisation, that attachment to values and goals, does help to drive genuine, productive co-operation.

The experience of local partnerships in the republic, and of district partnerships in the north, in handling delegated authority also offers a positive basis for policy delegation on a north-south axis. For the spirit and essence of the partnership process, when it works, is problem-solving — problem-solving as opposed to pure bargaining.

No one quite knows what the conditions are for turning raw bargaining into problem-solving. But framing the agenda to avoid zero-sum items, institutional design and, obviously, attitudes all matter to some degree.

The problem-solving model has implications for the way groups relate to each other but, perhaps more interestingly and more surprisingly, it also has implications for the internal organisation of groups. In the republic, keeping to a problem-solving mode in the National Economic and Social Council or the National Economic and Social Forum has very often tested organisations internally — how they work, how democratic or representative, how consultative or inclusive, or indeed how genuine they are as organisations. They are exposed and tested by this process, and there are forms of internal organisation which are very helpful to problem-solving outcomes — and ones that are less so.

North-south policy co-operation has to be consistent with the capabilities, and limitations, of government in the way governments currently operate. One smiled at the unfortunate phrase used by the minister for foreign affairs, David Andrews, during the talks at Stormont — his suggestion that north-south bodies would be ‘not unlike a government’ — because nobody knows what a government is like nowadays.

Those who have been involved, north and south, in the partnership experiments have to watch out that conventional — but ineffectual — top-down, executive policy-making and implementation are not latched on to. This is probably less of a danger in some of the 12 areas identified for implementation bodies, or co-operation between existing departments, than in others.

For example, to take food safety again, it is interesting that the republic — under pressure from Europe — is going through a dramatic policy innovation. A long list of policy areas is being delegated to independent agencies, to new environmental agencies and a new food-safety authority. There are meanwhile new regulators in energy and telecommunications, and there are several more such developments in the pipeline.

So it seems unlikely that in, say, food safety, co-operation would revert to an in-house, state-led model, while separately both the UK and the republic were moving towards a delegated, agency-driven approach. Perhaps in some of the other areas there is more danger of old-fashioned government being seen as a possible model.

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