Research projects

A Family of Nations? Brexit, Devolution and the Union

The project, led by Professor Nicola McEwen examines the impact of Brexit on relationships between the four nations/territories of the UK. Devolution was designed and developed within the context of the EU, and EU membership has been important in easing territorial relationships within the UK. The Brexit process is straining these relationships and could mark a turning point in the system of multi-level government in the UK.

Politicians often use the family as a metaphor when discussing territorial relationships. This project will draw upon ideas developed by sociologists to study relationships within families as a way of understanding and explaining dynamics in the relationships between governments and territories across the UK. The project aims to identify new tensions, opportunities and constraints. It examines the evolution of formal engagement and decision making between the UK and the devolved governments, but it tests the idea that these are conditioned by more informal interactions and the culture surrounding these. This includes the perceptions key players have about their role and the role of others, and the attitudes and behaviour they display. Relationships are studied in three sets of discussions provoked by Brexit: the UK's approach to EU negotiations; the negotiation and implementation of new trade deals; and the future of the UK 'internal market', which aims to avoid distortions in trade and competition once the UK is no longer subject to EU laws.

Between Two Unions: The Constitutional Future of the Islands after Brexit

This project, funded by an ESRC Large Grant, examines the inter-relationship between UK withdrawal from the European Union and political, economic and social relations between the constituent territories of the United Kingdom and also with Ireland.

Brexit risks disrupting constitutional settlements within the UK, and has destabilized the UK’s relationship with Ireland. Its implementation reignites questions about the locus of power and sovereignty within the UK. Divergent possible constitutional paths include the recentralization and a reassertion of central state sovereignty, the weakening and potential disintegration of the United Kingdom state, or further devolution and asymmetry.

The project explores these issues against the backdrop of the negotiations intended to lead to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and the design and implementation of a new constitutional settlement and new UK-EU relationship. We focus on four dimensions: institutional relationships and changes in the powers of institutions; constitutional principles and the degree to which they are clarified and shared; the economic union, including rules for policing the UK single market and the distribution of public expenditure; and social welfare and the variation of citizen entitlements across the islands, including mutual recognition and portability.


The Islands and Unions Network

This is a consortium of scholars, led by CCC, the Institute for British and Irish Studies in Dublin and the Research Institute for Irish and Scottish Studies in Aberdeen, focusing on the concept and practice of union and on relationships among the peoples of ‘these islands’.

A union is not a specific constitutional form but a general set of principles. It does not fit into the rigid taxonomies that constitutional lawyers and political scientists sometimes use to classify forms of government. Unions may or may not be federations and federations may or may not be unions. There are well-grounded traditions of union, which have been articulated against more unitary or symmetrical-federal readings of the state in the United Kingdom, Spain and Canada but the issue is of wider resonance. There are debates about the nature of the European Union and its relationship not only to state but also to sub-state and trans-state entities.

We can explore the dimensions and meanings of unions across the project but some staring points are the following ideas.

  • Union is a principle of political order cutting across legal, constitutional categories.
  • Sovereignty is not concentrated in one place or institution but dispersed.
  • There does not have to be a single and unitary people or demos.
  • There does not have to be a strong shared culture, in the various meanings of that term.
  • There is a tradition of negotiated order or pactism among constituent territories.
  • There are historic rights pertaining to territories but these are not frozen in time.
  • Unions may be asymmetrical.
  • There is no necessary telos or common destiny but constitutional arrangements are worked out over time.
  • There may be written constitutional documents but there are also unwritten conventions, understandings, so that the black letter law does not exhaust constitutional reasoning.

We are organising a series of seminars around these themes. Following initial meetings in Dublin, there was a seminar in Aberdeen September 2018, focused on historical themes. There were two panels at the Political Studies Association of Ireland in October 2018. A conference on Canada as a union took place in Edinburgh in December 2018. A meeting was held in Belfast in October 2019 and further meetings are planned for 2020 in Aberdeen and Belfast..


Borders, Sovereignty and Self-Determination in Contemporary Europe

This project, funded by the Diplomatic Council of Catalonia, is a collaboration between CCC, IBEI (Barcelona) and Leuven Centre on Global Governance. The directors are Jacint Jordana, Michael Keating, Axel Marx and Jan Wouters.

The current political construction of the European Union (EU or Union) is challenged on several fronts. An important element in these challenges is the (re-)definition of borders within, as well as around the EU. The external borders of the Union are becoming increasingly differentiated. Brexit and the new relationship of the United Kingdom with the EU will mean more external differentiation. Within the EU, borders have increasingly become porous because of sustained economic integration: indeed, the very notion of the internal market is defined in the EU Treaties as “an area without internal frontiers where the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured…”. On the other hand, European integration proceeds at different paces, generating a variety of constellations between EU Member States, which result in new types of internal borders for specific purposes between the latter. The Euro area and the Schengen zone spring to mind.  Borders are also challenged within several Member States. The question of self-determination is a lively one in Europe, not only withing the Member States but also for the EU. In recent years, many movements for self-government have increasingly placed their demands in a broader European rather than a purely State context. For some, the Union has lowered the threshold and costs of independence, while for others Europe provides a set of opportunities which make formal independence less important.

This project takes these two transformative processes – the simultaneous blurring and re-establishment of borders across Member States and the resurgence of self-determination processes within Member States – as a starting point. Both challenge the traditional ‘Westphalian’ conceptions of sovereignty to which EU Member States are attached. The contributions to the project first aim to offer a better understanding of these transformative processes and the structural conditions which drive them. They also interrogate the implications of these processes and aim to contribute to a debate on how to respond to these transformations.

A book derived from the project was published by Routledge in January 2019.



CCC is a partner in this project funded by the EU Horizon 2020 programme and led by Aberystwyth University.

It aims to formulate new integrative policy mechanisms to enable European, national and regional government agencies to more effectively address territorial inequalities within the European Union. It responds to evidence that spatial inequalities within the EU are increasing, contrary to the principle of territorial cohesion embedded as a third dimension of the European Social Model in the Treaty of Lisbon, and is particularly timely in examining the geographically differentiated impacts of the post-2008 economic crisis and the adoption of austerity policies. IMAJINE uniquely proposes to address the problem of territorial inequalities through an inter-disciplinary and multi-scalar approach that integrates perspectives from economics, human geography, political science and sociology and combines macro-scale econometric analysis and the generation and analysis of new quantitative survey data with regionally-focused qualitative empirical case study research in 11 EU member states; delivered by a multi-disciplinary and multi-national consortium. As such the research builds on the conceptual and methodological state of the art in several disciplines and advances conceptual understanding and the empirical knowledge base by producing new primary data, applying new analytical tests to secondary data and integrating the results along with insights from relational geographical theory and the concept of spatial justice. In particular, the centrality of spatial justice emphasizes the political as well as economic dimensions of territorial inequalities, and IMAJINE will move beyond existing knowledge by considering relationships between measured and perceived inequalities, models of multi-level policy-making and public service delivery, and support for territorial autonomy movements. IMAJINE will further translate these scientific insights into policy applications through participatory scenario building exercises with governance and civil society stakeholders.


Integrating Diversity in the European Union

CCC is a partner in this project, led by the European University Institute (Florence) and funded by the EU Horizon 2020 programme. The larger project examines differentiated integration. The CCC part examines external differentiation, the selective participation of neigbouring countries in EU institutions and policies. Within this there is a particular focus on Brexit and the potential for differentiated participation by the UK nations in European policies and programmes.


Previous CCC projects

  • The Constitutional Future of Scotland and the UK

The CCC was originally established as part of the ESRC Future of the UK and Scotland programme in the buildup to the Scottish independence referendum. Its first year was spent examining the implications of independence. Researchers investigated currency union, cross-border relations, EU membership, defence and strategic alliances, political behaviour and public attitudes towards independence and other constitutional options, and political economy and the broader economics of independence.

Following that referendum, our core research examined the process and proposals for a new devolution settlement for Scotland, English votes for English laws and its implications, UK territorial finance and UK intergovernmental relations in light of ongoing constitutional change, and the territorial dimension of the EU referendum.

  • A Changing UK in a Changing Europe

Michael Keating’s fellowship analysed these the UK’s relationship to Europe in the buildup to David Cameron’s proposed renegotiation and the subsequent events leading to the 2016 Brexit referendum. It explored options for change within the UK and Europe, drawing on comparative experience. It engaged stakeholders and the general public in the debate on the UK and Europe. Dissemination took place through regular briefings and was posted on the ESRC UK in a Changing Europe website as well as this one. As well as engaging with governments and parliaments, Michael took the opportunity to address public meetings around the UK.

  • Between autonomy and interdependence: Scottish independence and intergovernmental co-ordination

Nicola McEwen’s fellowship investigated the claim, made by those urging a Yes vote in the run-up to the Scottish Independence Referendum, that an independent Scotland would maintain close ties to the other nations of the British Isles. These ties would be between governments as well as between people and business. The research took a focused look at two policy areas - social security and energy. Following a Yes vote, overlaps would have remained in these areas as a result of the shared labour market, shared energy market, the free movement of people, goods and business across the British Isles, and the legacy of shared service provision over many decades. The research made a contribution to academic study and be conveyed to broader audiences in a wide variety of public events, media contributions and seminars with key stakeholders in the fields of social security and energy.

  • The impact of multi-level policymaking on the UK energy system 

This UKERC project examined current and future energy policy and multi-level policymaking and its impact on 'energy systems'. As the meanings of policy, policymaking, the 'policy process' and 'system' are not clear, an initial aim will be to turn this complex field of study into something simple enough to understand and engage with. Focusing on 'multi-level policymaking' - which can encompass concepts such as multi-level governance and intergovernmental relations - we reflect the fact that the responsibility for policies relevant to energy are often Europeanised, devolved and shared between several levels of government. Brexit will also have a major affect on energy and non-energy policies, and prompt the UK and devolved governments to initiate new relationships, but we need more clarity on the dynamics of current arrangements before we can talk sensibly about the future. 

  • The Repatriation of Competences: Implications for Devolution 

Although the Brexit referendum was an exercise in UK democracy, and this project is focused primarily on internal UK dynamics, both Brexit and its effects are of considerable interest internationally. The Brexit process is being followed closely in other member states and may set precedents elsewhere. The scope for regions within states to have a differentiated relationship the European Union may affect political demands and responses both in current and prospective member states. The repercussions of Brexit for the territorial and constitutional future of the UK could affect the UK's status and relations internationally, as well as creating precedents and potential spillover into other European states facing challenges from strong autonomy and independence movements. More broadly, the possibility of a differentiated Brexit, in addition to the highly asymmetric constitution of the United Kingdom, stretches the meaning of statehood and sovereignty and provides a test of theories of state transformation, multi-level governance, sovereignty and spatial rescaling.