Sovereignty and power after Brexit

Nick Westcott | Jul 2021

The British Government has insisted that leaving the EU is essential to restore British sovereignty and independence, to enable it to adapt swiftly and freely to a rapidly changing world. Whatever the short-term costs, it has argued that it is worth it for the long-term freedom to act as it chooses.

‘Sovereignty’ is at the heart of the argument and of the British government’s actions. The clearest expression of the British position was David Frost’s speech in Brussels in February 2020:

“Some argue that sovereignty is a meaningless construct in the modern world, that what matters is sharing it to gain more influence over others. So we take the opposite view. We believe that sovereignty is meaningful and what it enables us to do is to set our rules for our own benefit. … [That] is the point of the whole project.”

As I have argued elsewhere, the government’s definition of sovereignty is a particularly narrow one, closer to that of North Korea than of other western democracies. It is also specifically targeted at the EU, categorically rejecting any EU limitations on national freedom of action, while on other issues – climate change, taxing tech giants, human rights – accepting the rule of some international law. North Korea at least accepts that its autarky limits its influence on other countries, which it considers worth it to have absolute control within its own territory. In Britain’s case, however, there is still an assumption that ‘Global’ Britain will continue to play an active and influential role in the world, as proposed in the Integrated Review. But, like a superpower, it wishes to pick and choose the constraints it accepts.  

In reality, ‘sovereignty’ is not an absolute, but depends on a country’s ability to defend its national interest and the power to do so. Power springs from three things: economic strength, military might, and having friends. Brexit has damaged the first and last, at least in the short term – and as Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead. The national interest is harder to define. All too often it is simply defined as the political interest of the party in power. But in a democracy it is reasonable to equate it with the greatest benefit to the greatest number. So ‘sovereignty’ is only useful if you have the power to enforce it in defence of a realistic definition of the national interest.

How has Brexit affected Britain’s exercise of on sovereignty on two issues that were central to the debate: borders and trade?

People often think borders are permanent, immutable, and a guarantee of safety. Ever since the Chinese built the Great Wall and the Romans Hadrian’s Wall, developed states have believed that borders can keep a turbulent and barbarous world at bay. They all failed. As often as not, history suggests, borders are a cause of conflict rather than safety, and that they are in permanent flux.

The genius of the EU is that, in abolishing internal borders, it made them more manageable and people safer. Borders were no longer a cause of conflict. Reclaiming control of our borders was one of the battle-cries of Brexit, and the Home Secretary is trying to demonstrate its value by imposing tougher controls over visas and immigration, creating in consequence both a labour shortage and a flood of boat people instead. But it has also made Britain’s most politically important border, that across the island of Ireland, harder to manage. Disagreement over that border is already stoking the risk of conflict in the north. So the theoretically increased control over our borders is making us neither safer nor more prosperous. It fails the national interest test.

Trade is inherently a cross-border activity. Despite having left the world’s largest free trade area and imposed new controls on the 40% of Britain’s trade crossing to and from Europe, the Government continues to proclaim its commitment to free trade. Free trade worked wonderfully for Britain when it ruled the waves and controlled nearly half of the world’s trade in goods. In trade, size matters more than sovereignty. Trade rules are set and trade deals negotiated between those who do most trade – in this world, the US, the EU, China and Japan.

As part of the EU, the UK could help set the rules to protect and promote its industries. Outside it cannot. The WTO accepts the rules the big boys set, and the UK becomes a rule taker, not rule maker. Of course, we can control what comes into the country. But what matters more is control over what we sell to others. And there we now have to accept rules in our largest market over which we no longer have any control. Brexiteers like to pretend that we never had control over EU regulations, but history shows this is not true: Britain negotiated many EU rules to its own benefit. Outside the EU, we no longer have the economic or military power, nor the friends, to impose our standards or rules on others. So again it fails the national interest test.

On foreign policy, as Luigi Scazzieri argued recently on this site, the British Government is deliberately avoiding systematic coordination with the EU institutions in preference for ad hoc cooperation with smaller groups on specific issues. This works up to a point. But it ignores the fact that for the remaining member states, membership of the EU is an integral part of their national identity. They may not love all of its rules, bureaucracy and decisions; but for them it matters, and it works. They have a say over the decisions that affect them. They will therefore continue to do things collectively, and will continue to take decisions that affect us, over which we now have no control at all. One may call that restoring sovereignty, but the reality is that we are less able to protect our national interests.

It is ironic that Lord Frost, the ideologist of sovereignty, works in the same building as John Bew, the historian of ‘Realpolitik’. Yet despite the dictates of realpolitik, the Integrated Review which Bew largely authored, effectively ignored the existence of the EU as an actor in the world. Brexit is not pro-sovereignty, it is just anti-EU. As is clear above, in separating ourselves from a world economic power, our sovereignty is diminished, not restored.

Sovereignty is certainly not a meaningless construct. But the British Government seem to have misunderstood its true nature. In that Brexit has not delivered any other tangible benefits, the Government cling to the ‘restoration of sovereignty’ as a drowning man does to a soggy cushion. Having jumped overboard, we will swiftly have to learn to swim alone.

Western civilisation is far more fragile than we think. World War II tested it almost to destruction. The European Union was created to help sustain liberal democracy and liberal economies for our children’s benefit and prosperity. It has done so, handsomely. Britain may find that the Biblical axiom applies to sovereignty as much as to life: ‘Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.’