Europe

A Matter of Sovereignty

June 30, 2017

Multiple Pages
A Matter of Sovereignty

The word “sovereignty” was bandied about during our E.U. referendum last year, and there were many who said that Edward Heath, the prime minister who took us into what was then the European Economic Community, had lied when he said that this involved no loss of sovereignty. In fact he hadn’t. The referendum itself was proof that the United Kingdom remained a sovereign state. The U.K. government didn’t require the approval of the E.U. to hold the referendum, and the result, whether you liked it or not, gave the government the authority to begin the process of withdrawal.

It’s instructive to compare it with the Scottish referendum two years previously. The question put then was similar to the question in the E.U. referendum. The Scottish electorate was asked to vote on the proposition that Scotland should be an independent country—that is, whether it should leave the United Kingdom. But there was a significant difference. The devolved Scottish government had no legal authority to hold such a referendum, for the act of the U.K. Parliament that established devolved government in Scotland reserved constitutional questions for Westminster. Therefore the Scottish government had to get the approval of the U.K. government and Parliament in order to hold the referendum.

“It is true that some sovereignty has been pooled or, more precisely, lent to the E.U. But what is lent can be recalled.”

The difference is clear. The U.K., being a sovereign state, could hold a referendum on the question of leaving the E.U. without requesting permission to do so. Scotland, not being a sovereign state, required permission from the sovereign U.K. state that the Scottish government wanted to leave. The E.U. could not legally have prevented the U.K. government from holding an in-out referendum; the U.K. government could legally have prevented the devolved Scottish government and Parliament from staging such a referendum, though doubtless a decision to do so would have been politically unwise.

The ability to hold the in-out E.U. referendum demonstrated that membership in the E.U. didn’t compromise the U.K.’s sovereign status. Many other things obviously demonstrated this. Membership in the United Nations is open only to sovereign states. The E.U., not being sovereign, is therefore not a member of the U.N., but all the individual member states of the E.U. have a seat in the U.N. Assembly. They are there because they possess sovereignty. The United Kingdom and France are two of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council; they could not continue in that position if they had surrendered their sovereignty to the E.U. 

A sovereign state can make war. In the almost forty years of British membership in what is now the European Union, the United Kingdom has engaged in war in the South Atlantic (the Falklands), Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Serbia, and Libya. In some of these wars it was joined by other member states of the E.U. (and, of course, the USA), in others not. In none, however, did it require the authority of the E.U. Actually there is no E.U. body that could have given such authority, none that could have denied the sovereign member states’ entitlement to go to war, and of course, unlike sovereign states, the E.U. has no army, air force, or navy.

If the E.U. were indeed a sovereign state, it would be a very strange one, with a budget that depends on the approval of its constituent member states. That budget, incidentally, is tiny compared with the budget of individual member states. It would be a sovereign state that levies no direct taxation on its subjects, leaving that right or responsibility to the member states. The E.U. does make laws, and the number of these laws has been a cause for complaint. But few citizens of the E.U. can name many of these laws, which are indeed mostly administrative regulations concerning the working of the single market. In any case, most of the bad laws here in Britain are made by the sovereign U.K. Parliament in Westminster, not Brussels, or by the devolved Scottish Parliament or the Welsh or Northern Ireland Assembly.

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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