A Matter of Sovereignty

June 30, 2017

It is true that some sovereignty has been pooled or, more precisely, lent to the E.U. But what is lent can be recalled, and evidently this is what Brexit will do. Leaving the E.U. after almost forty years will be complicated, a long, drawn-out process that may require a transitional period lasting a number of years. But because the U.K. remains a sovereign state there is no legal or political obstacle to its exit. Other states may be sorry to see us go, but they are not going to try to prevent our departure.

Of course, independent—sovereign—states may, for whatever reason, enter into a union that becomes binding and hard to leave. That was the experience of the Southern states in the U.S. After the War of Independence there were thirteen states that formed a union, some reluctantly. When the Southern states wished to withdraw and form a new Confederacy, the government of the Union denied their right to do so and regarded them as rebels, fighting a bloody war to compel them to remain in the Union. No provision of a right to secede had been made in the Constitution, though Southern politicians and lawyers, like Alexander Stephens from Georgia, the Vice President of the Confederacy, advanced a powerful argument that there was a natural right of secession. In the view of President Lincoln and Northern politicians, there was no such thing. The Confederate States fought for their liberty in defense of the sovereignty they believed they had only lent to Washington. They lost the war and were forced back into the Union.

The contrast with Brexit is marked. All Theresa May, the British prime minister, had to do was write a letter invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. This was possible because unlike Abraham Lincoln in the case of Virginia and the other states of the Confederacy, nobody in Brussels thought that the United Kingdom had ever surrendered or lost its sovereignty.

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