In the current crisis I think it’s time to review the case for sovereignty in the EU, not least given Mrs May’s comment that an option now is “no Brexit”. Time to return to sanity and shared sovereignty of membership! Note that this is a mild update of a post I wrote prior to the referendum, just to show these suggestions are not “new discoveries” but were evident all along…
Sovereignty was one of the key arguments in the EU referendum debate. “Take back control” said the leavers. Unelected bureaucrats have to be stopped from writing all our laws. We want sovereignty and democracy and these can only be achieved by Brexit. But this is a highly challengeable contention. Let me explain:
The regulations proposed by Brussels are mostly necessary for ensuring free trade within the Single Market. In the absence of harmonisation, countries typically set up non-tariff barriers to protect their own economic sectors, which due to the EU common regulation is prevented. Worth adding that the UK is well known for “gold plating” proposals from Brussels, i.e. going beyond what was envisaged in directives.
The EU is a group of sovereign states who agree to share certain powers peacefully. (The peace that the EU has generated contrasts with centuries of war that preceded 1945.) The Commission can only propose laws these have to be agreed democratically by the EU parliament (elected on proportion of votes) and the council of ministers who are our own governments – and where the UK was very rarely outvoted (2% of cases where there is qualified majority voting – and in vital areas member states have a veto). Commissioners are also to my knowledge chosen by national governments. The EU only affects 15% of our laws, as mentioned mostly to do with the Single Market.
And of course if we look at democracy and sovereignty in the UK, it’s highly imperfect. There is an army of unelected bureaucrats called the civil service, not to mention the unelected House of Lords and the hereditary Monarchy, and the fact governments are often elected on well below 50% of the votes in the first past the post system.
Meanwhile the UK has been far from a powerless bystander in EU developments, we drove the Single Market, and the inclusion of the Eastern states emerging from tyranny – and more recently effective sanctions against Iran and Russia, and the EU support for combating Ebola in West Africa. Lead not leave would seem to be the best way forward.
Leaders of the leave campaign are clearly of the opinion that EU membership is incompatible with British sovereignty. For them, being sovereign is like being pregnant—you either are or you aren’t. Yet increasingly real sovereignty is relative. A country that refuses outright to pool authority is one that has no control over cross border pollution, standards of financial regulation, consumer and trade norms to which its exporters and importers are bound, the cleanliness of its seas.
Britain is subject to some 700 international treaties involving multilateral submissions to multilateral compromises. Its membership of the UN, the WTO, NATO, the COP climate talks, the IMF, the World Bank, nuclear test ban treaties and accords on energy, water, maritime law and air traffic all require Britain to tolerate the sort of trade-offs that Eurosceptics find distasteful: influence in exchange for standardisation, laws and rules set mostly by foreigners not elected by Britons.
If sovereignty is the absence of mutual interference, the most sovereign country in the world is North Korea.
Norway and Switzerland are weak arguments for Brexit. Leaders of leave believe these countries are quite dramatically more “sovereign” than Britain. But in practice, and as we are finding out, they must subject themselves to vast numbers of EU rules over which they have no say in order to access the Single Market (as well as making sizeable contributions and accepting free movement of labour).
Consider the EU trade-off: let foreigners have some influence over your country of 64m and in return receive quite a lot of influence over a union of 743m. When Eurosceptics only mention the first half of this bargain, they imply that Britain is too weak to take advantage of the second. Which is odd, as the national strengths they otherwise celebrate give the country a tremendous ability to do so. And this is all to say nothing of the tremendous economic damage that Brexit will wreak, not least in a no-deal case.
So let us lead and not leave.