Listen to this article
“In the modern world it is worth distinguishing between the substance and symbols of sovereignty. The substance is the freedom to act independently — something that is now seldom possible for any single country.” So advised Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party when urging Britons to vote to remain in the EU at the 1975 referendum on membership. More than 40 years later Tory Brexiters are still fighting for the symbols of sovereignty.
“Take back control”, the mantra of the Leave campaign speaks to an illusion, the notion that the Westminster parliament can exercise power untrammelled by any outside institution or authority. If this was ever true, it defies — even more than in 1975 — the present-day fact of a closely interconnected and interdependent world.
It is a small step to argue, as do many sceptics, that the EU is a conspiracy against the nation state, an effort to subvert British freedoms in a European superstate. The evidence is otherwise. Germany is no less German, France no less French and Britain no less British for their membership of the EU. The stronger argument is that the union has rescued Europe’s nation states from the tyranny and conflict that described the first half of the 20th century.
Real sovereignty is the capacity to advance the security and prosperity of the nation. Britain has been sharing it for centuries. Since 1834, when the Foreign Office started counting, it has signed more than 13,000 treaties and international conventions on issues ranging from war and peace and trade, to the environment and human rights. Each in their way has chipped away at the nation’s theoretical sovereignty. Most, if not all, have advanced the national interest.
In some areas, the EU treaties do reach further into national life than these other agreements, not least in setting the rules for the single market and providing for free movement of people. Governments have accepted the European Court of Justice as final arbiter in these spheres and delegated to Brussels authority over trade and environment, though Britain has remained outside the single currency and Schengen open borders system.
For all that Brussels occasionally wants to reach too deeply into the nooks and crannies of national life, this pooling of sovereignty can scarcely be said to have removed decision-making from the Westminster. On matters of national security, economic management, taxes and spending, social policy, health and education, planning and much more, all the choices are made by British politicians.
The Brexiters’ neuralgic obsession with abstract notions of sovereignty is confounded by the real-life experience of Britain’s 40-odd years of membership. Brussels played no part in the Thatcher revolution, in deregulation of labour markets nor, indeed, in the light-touch oversight of financial markets before the 2008 crash. Nor has the EU shaped international diplomacy or had any say in decisions to go to war.
The gains from pooling sovereignty speak for themselves. Britain joined the EU as the “sick man of Europe”. Now its economic performance is among the best. The impulse has come from more intense competition, open access to the world’s most valuable single market and a ready supply of skilled workers. The Brexiters miss the irony when they cite today’s relatively strong economy as a reason to leave the EU.
Brexit would restore only the symbols of sovereignty. Interdependence has deepened with the advance of globalisation. The shift in economic power eastward and southward has made it harder for advanced European democracies to set the terms of economic relations. The rewards in this landscape accrue to those nations that remain open to competition and change.
Beyond this, the union serves as a platform from which Britain can promote its interests and values. Crudely, it provides additional leverage in a world that no longer belongs to the west. By choosing to leave, Britain would surrender its role as a force multiplier and weaken its sovereign power.
What Westminster devolves it can reclaim. Each and every one of the international treaties signed by Britain, including its membership of the EU, rests on the continuing consent of parliament. The very fact that Britain is debating whether to remain in the EU and could choose on June 23 to leave should be proof enough for any waverers that the nation’s sovereignty remains unfettered.
Get alerts on Brexit when a new story is published