I have been pondering in what sense does Brexit affect UK sovereignty. In simple terms, the UK’s sovereignty is unchanged. The UK has the right to leave the EU, therefore it has independent authority whether it chooses to use it or not.
What is Sovereignty?
Wikipedia defines Sovereignty as the “power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies.” This suggests that we need to consider degrees of power, and this takes us rapidly beyond the simple terms above.
In one regard, the definition above suggests leaving the EU would clearly increase the UK’s sovereignty. Currently there is a lot of interference from EU bodies that a Hard Brexit would remove.
Sovereignty – to give it away or to exercise it?
Another way to think about degrees of power is to consider effectiveness i.e. the power to do or get things you want. While a country might claim theoretical power to do anything it wants to, in practice all countries enter in binding agreements with other countries which put constraints on some behaviour in return for other benefits. For example, a trade treaty creates easier trade once you agree to certain standards, or joining NATO because you care about your economy and your security. In this way, you exercise your sovereignty, giving up some of your autonomy in exchange for a benefit you value more highly. To use an analogy to the individual: you lose autonomy by having a job (you have a boss and you have to go to work) but you gain power to do what you want by having money.
Relative power therefore, is an important determinant of the effective sovereignty of a country.
If you are very powerful compared to another country, then a treaty you enter into will likely be better suited to your preferences than to theirs. Whilst superpowers and small states are both sovereign, in practice the superpower gets to set the terms a lot more often.
Smaller states can change this is by clubbing together: finding like-minded states, forming coalitions, standing up to larger powers by, in effect, acting like a large power themselves. If your internal values and goals are similar, then the loss of independence is more than made up for by the increase in power you gain. Thus, the EU is a greater global power than any of its constituent countries. The US, when thought of as constituent states, is similar. Under this approach, you could even suggest “sovereignty” has been increased by pooling it, rather than diminished.
And finally back to Brexit….
The question for the UK is whether it had more effective sovereignty by pooling its sovereignty within the EU or by going it alone. This is a way to think about why people voted the way they did.
- Is the UK pooling its sovereignty with countries with which it shares values?
- If the UK left would it be a significant global power?
For people older than me, my guess is that they do not feel an affinity with continental Europe let alone its values, and at same time retain clear memories of when Britain was a significant global power.
For people younger than me, there is a much greater affinity for European culture and values, and a very limited sense that the UK is an important independent state if it were alone on the global stage.
Thus, one group sees a freedom from EU control, and with that an ability for the UK to use its power without restraint. The other sees a separation from modern liberal values, towards political extremism and a rapid decline in economic and political power.