Britain’s sovereignty chestnut

Britain’s sovereignty chestnut

Commentary



Die-hard sovereigntists may wish to preserve the Englishman’s historic right to bathe in his own sewage, or be treated in A&E by an exhausted doctor - most of us will be glad that EU membership from time to time pushes our own authorities to do the right thing.

Inevitably, it was the “let’s get out of the European Convention on Human Rights” part of Theresa May’s recent speech on Europe that caught the headlines, which is a pity, since it was otherwise a careful and well-argued statement of her reasons for supporting Britain’s membership of the EU. Her speech began with some good points on the issue of sovereignty and this was timely given that, losing the argument over the economic and security implications of a Brexit, the Leave campaign now plans to focus on just that issue, along with migration.

The essence of sovereignty, May pointed out, is “the control we have over our own affairs”. This has never been absolute. No power in history has ever achieved complete freedom of action, or ever managed to get around the need to compromise with others. And in the modern world national interests were often best secured through accepting the mutual constraints of multinational institutions.

Of course, the idea that EU membership might enhance our sovereignty and help us stay in control of our own affairs, is not one that Brexiteers will readily embrace. We would not be having the current referendum had the British people not been subjected to 40 years of conditioning, by a largely expatriate-owned press, to see “Europe” as a conspiracy to circumscribe our ancient liberties, emasculate the British Parliament, and progressively extend the reach of “faceless bureaucrats and unelected judges” into every “nook and cranny” of our national life.

No one now disputes that the EU has a tendency to come up with too many new rules. After all the president of the European Commission admitted as much himself. But what drives the Brexit campaign (apart from the migration issue) is not impatience with an over-busy bureaucracy but something much more visceral – a deep fear and loathing of “Brussels”, and its remorseless effort to absorb us into a federal super-state.

It’s strange, really, that Britons can be moved by appeals to the sovereignty of Parliament when we generally hold our parliamentarians in such low regard. But at least, we are encouraged to feel that they are our crooks and idiots; and we can throw them out after five years. Contrast that with the apparatchiks of the EU, bent like Lilliputians on subduing the British Gulliver with an ever-thickening web of legal ties.

It’s strange, really, that Britons can be moved by appeals to the sovereignty of Parliament when we generally hold our parliamentarians in such low regard.

And often in such bizarre and ridiculous ways! Much of what comes out of Europe beggars belief – be it the plan for compulsory dusting lessons for boys (the Daily Express), or the idiocy about a five kilometre housing exclusion zone around heathland to protect wildlife from marauding moggies. You wouldn’t credit it! And nor should you, given that these and myriad other tales of Brussels’s ridiculous intrusions into our national life are simply invented.

Nonetheless, it is surely indisputable that more and more of the laws we live by emanate not from Westminster (or the devolved UK legislatures) but from Brussels? Maybe not as much as 62 percent, as the Brexiteers claim. Even the House of Commons library puts the figure at 13 percent, on a basis that probably significantly understates the reality. What is this but a progressive erosion of our sovereignty?

Three points need making. First, “EU rules” are basically our rules. The Brussels bureaucrats (faceless, true – but aren’t bureaucrats always?) may propose them, but new European laws have to be approved not only by the European Parliament, but also by the member states. So the UK’s fingerprints are all over them; often, indeed, we have promoted them in the first place. In areas such as foreign policy, taxation and the budget framework we retain an absolute national veto. And elsewhere, where majority voting has come in – to avoid permanent gridlock with 28 member states now round the table – we win 87 percent of the time, and are one of the most successful countries at getting what we want out of the EU.

Second, most of the rules are there to help the single market to function smoothly, to everyone’s advantage. Why on earth should Brussels pass decrees on how much noise a lawnmower can make? Because an EU-wide standard ensures that country A cannot keep country B’s lawn-mowers out of its market by setting a marginally lower noise limit which happens to suit its own manufacturers, but would require country B to redesign their product. Not really the sort of issue to get lathered over.

Third, even where EU rules are laid down in more “political” areas such as employment and the environment, they are generally good rules we should welcome. Of course, if you are a water company that doesn’t want to stop polluting our beaches, or an employer who would prefer not to pay maternity leave, you call such rules “red tape” and claim they are suffocating the British economy. Yet the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings put the UK up at 6th place in the developed world. And, though it is always possible to find specific rules that someone somewhere will object to, regulation is at bottom the hallmark of a civilised society. It is how governments protect the rest of us from the rapaciousness and irresponsibility of the powerful few. Sometimes we in Britain have the EU to thank for taking on a challenges that our own government is shirking, such as its responsibility to get the biggest multinational companies to pay their fair share of taxes.

Most of us will be glad that EU membership from time to time pushes our own authorities to do the right thing.

Die-hard sovereigntists may wish to preserve the Englishman’s historic right to bathe in his own sewage, or be treated in A&E by an exhausted doctor. Most of us will be glad that EU membership from time to time pushes our own authorities to do the right thing.

International commitments constrain your national freedom of action. That is their point. And this is hardly new. The FCO database lists an amazing 13,000+ treaties that the UK has signed in the last two centuries. These bind the British state, meaning that a new government cannot come to power and say that they are nothing to do with them, which is why treaties almost always contain termination clauses. If you do not like them, you get out of them, in the specified way; what you cannot do is alter them unilaterally, or pick and choose which bits you will observe and which bits you will not. And so, of course, it is with our EU membership.

Rules often need an enforcement authority. This is what, within the EU, the European Court of Justice is for. So, yes, being part of EU involves accepting that in particular areas the ECJ can overrule the highest court in our land. And of course its judges are “unelected” – as indeed are our own. But this is neither surprising (of course there must be someone to referee some aspects of a multiplayer game like the EU) nor remotely unusual. We happily accept the jurisdiction of, for example, the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court, and many other international tribunals. Bilateral treaties are littered with provisions for binding arbitration. In a world in which states choose to govern at least some of their relations and interactions by agreed rules, acceptance of higher jurisdictions is part and parcel of belonging to an international community. North Korea accepts no such constraints, but is hardly an attractive role model.

It may be comforting to imagine a past when we British did exactly what we wanted in the world. But such a past never existed, and over the years we have undertaken a whole web of international obligations, because we see a net advantage in constraining ourselves as the price for constraining others – either to refrain from action that would damage us, or to do things that we want. In this way we shape the world around us to better suit our national interests - to preserve our mastery of our own destiny. This is the sovereignty that matters, and that our EU membership strengthens.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: Series, European Power, Cohesion & Governance, Britain in Europe, London office

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