The Leave campaign say that their aim is to regain sovereignty from “Brussels”, to “take back control”. It’s a potent message to a voting population that feels remote from Westminster, disempowered and dispossessed. The sense of the loss of sovereignty seems starkly clear when people seem unable to limit changes that seem to flow from a remote institution that seems to lack accountability. Yet what is the strength of this argument?
Parliamentary sovereignty and shared sovereignty
At one level, Britain has not lost sovereignty. The mere fact that Parliament can hold a referendum and choose to leave the EU shows that it holds ultimate sovereignty over its own affairs. Constitutionally Parliament is sovereign. No Parliament can bind its successor and so the European Communities Act (1972) can be repealed. However Britain has agreed to abide by legislation passed by the European Council of Heads of national governments and co-agreed with the European Parliament and to enfore directives and regulations issued by the European Council/Parliament or delegated to the European Commission. Judgements issued by the Eurpean Court of Justice are enforced in the British legal system.
These competencies are ones exercised in the areas of government that belong with the EU. Thus there are others areas of government left with nation states such as the UK. These include financial policy (eg. budgeting, tax collection, spending), defence, foreign affairs, education, health, employment, welfare, etc. Thus the UK has full control over its armed forces, can negotiate treaties, declare war and peace, run its own schools, have its own health service, and provide for the welfare of its citizens.
The key point is that sovereignty is shared. The UK has voluntarily agreed to pool its sovereignty with other EU members for the common good of the whole. Fundamentally what is shared enhances the benefit for the community as a whole.
The EU retains important democratic elements, despite the seeming power of its Commission. Member states appoint the Commissioners. Their heads of government sit in the European Council, which jointly with the Parliament makes laws. It elects MEP’s to the European Parliament which is the other legislative body. The issue has been often that the UK has been so disengaged from the EU that it does not participate as fully as it could and thus does not get the full sense of involvement that might be available.
The EU is a quasi-federal system, some say more a confederation, and because it has evolved rather than been set up as a fully-fledged participative body right away, has retained some of the unwieldiness retained from the limited bady it was at the beginning. From the Brussels perspective, it is its weakness, not its strength that is most striking.
Where national wishes can be subordinate to EU ones and where there are opt-outs
National preferences can find themselves bumping into EU-wide requirements and thus the former can’t have it all its own way. For example, the UK like other members has to agree to and enforce a Common Agricultural Policy, a Common Fisheries Policy, free movement of peoples (with rights to work and live in other member states), contribution to the EU budget, a limited common taxation systems (VAT – although still part of a national government income), and so on.
There are areas however where Britain has been able to opt out, the most important being membership of the common currency, the eurozone. Thus the UK still retains its own currency, the pound. Another is the passport-free area, the Schengen agreement. The UK can require people travelling from other countries to produce passports and can refuse entry if those people don’t fit the EU agreed requirements for inter-state travel.
In a slightly different area, Britain enjoys a EU budget rebate. As a high net payer into the EU budget, since it has a small agricultural sector, it gets a substantial portion of it back.
It is often forgotten that while in the pooling of sovereignty a lot seems to be given away, a lot also flows back. An example of this is the EU regional development fund, which has benefitted more deprived areas of the UK, eg Cornwall, Wales, Northern Ireland, the North-West, etc.. It is also a member of a very large and very lucrative single market, the most wealthy in the world.
Sovereignty and power
In the debate of sovereignty, a lot is made of what sovereignty has been lost. Yet this can miss the far more tangible and practical issue of power, the ability to influence others and exercise one’s will. Many argue that Britain has gained power through EU membership since through its ability to secure agreed action on a policy it has the weight and prestige of the EU behind it, which it woud lack if it was not a member. An example of this would be the support of the EU for British foreign policy initiatives. The UK has been an important link with actions involving NATO and involving the US as a major British ally.
It is also argued that in today’s multi-polar world dominated by big power blocs, the UK gains by being a member of the wealthiest power bloc, the EU, and the negotiations and agreements it has been able to secure. On its own, as Obama has said, it would instead be “at the back of the queue”.