EU Referendum: The Great British Trade-off? Sovereignty not Abdication

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The idea that Britain should “take back control” is founded upon the view that we, the UK, have been deprived of our sovereign control by virtue of our membership of the EU (European Union). Further, that if we relinquish our membership in favour of Absolute Sovereignty, Britain will at the same time, be relieved of the perceived burdens of European control and we will be free to make decisions that serve British interests to the exclusion of EU policy.


In particular, –

  • The aspiration to assert absolute sovereignty over our borders – to decide who may or may not benefit from that which the UK has to offer – jobs, welfare and healthcare.
  • The aspiration to assert absolute sovereignty over the British budget – to reclaim hard earned British money from the claws of unelected European bureaucrats, and to re-invest this wealth in British industry, schools and hospitals.
  • The aspiration to assert absolute sovereignty over UK law, both with regard to parliamentary law-making, and within our own courts of law.
  • The aspiration to unburden ourselves of an ever-enlarging Europe – a Europe weakened by the demands of our poorer neighbours from the old Eastern Block.
  • The fear of overcrowding; competition from ‘foreign’ workers; a lowering of British wages and of quality of life in regions with high levels of migrants; the heralding in of terrorism or pandemics from unchecked borders; the imposition of trade agreements or treaties that do not appear to prioritise British interests; an expanding neo-federal Europe in which we vie for attention.
  • The fear that we are losing control in a world that appears increasingly out of control.


On 23rd June 2016, the UK faces the most historic decision within a generation: whether to Leave, or to Remain within the EU?


The answer is complex and whatever we decide, will affect all aspects of our lives. The consequences will be far reaching and will ricochet across the world.


Britain is re-writing its place in the world, for generations to come.


However, there are no guarantees as to the consequences of our decision: no electoral promises that can be made; no crystal balls that can predict what will happen next. The truth is, no-one can be certain of the impact of our decision, whatever we may decide.

The best we can do is to balance the Pros and Cons – to consider all sides of the debate, and to understand that whatever we decide will bring with it both risk and opportunity.


BUT before Britain answers, we must first ask the right question.

The question which faces Britain is not: do we have valid concerns – for this is undeniable.


 But rather –

Will these problems be solved by our “taking back” Absolute Sovereignty?

 Or will this prove to be no more than a hollow gesture:

an abdication of our sovereign influence?


In reality, the concept of Absolute Sovereignty is an illusionary one: it has never existed, not even in the days of the Divine Right of Kings and Absolute Monarchy.

From the outset of time immemorial – the year 1189⁽[i]⁾, the time of King Richard I – Monarchs, Ministers and Bishops have engaged in Treaties and Alliances with other ruling classes in pursuit of advantages in trade, services, security or religious ideals⁽[ii]⁾.

In short, we have always bartered our sovereignty where it suits us to do so.


This is because “Sovereignty”, of itself, is meaningless.


Sovereignty of itself garners nothing and promises nothing: it does not – of itself – bring power or influence. Nor does it guarantee trade, security, wealth or any other national aspiration. Rather, Sovereignty simply entitles the bearer to enter into agreements in pursuit of such things, be it at a national level – by way of law-making via the parliamentary machine –  or by virtue of supranational agreements, satisfaction of which rely upon the pooling of like-minded sovereign powers and resources in pursuit of a common goal.


Sovereignty without power and influence is without value; it is worthless.

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, 1630s

Charles I before the English Civil War


So, what of Sovereignty?  

Will leaving the EU genuinely restore our Absolute Sovereignty in any meaningful sense? And if so, to what effect?


In actuality, the UK commits itself to a range of supranational agreements and treaties:

  • Geneva Convention
  • European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR)
  • North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)
  • United Nations (UN)
  • World Health Organisation (WHO)
  • G7 and G20
  • International Monetary Fund (IMF)
  • Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change
  • European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), e.g. the Hadron Collider
  • “Special Relationship” with the US

… to name but a few⁽[iii]⁾.


In so doing, we, as a nation, accept certain limitations upon our Absolute Sovereignty, in exchange for an increase in our strength and influence, thus giving our Constitutional Sovereignty meaning and worth.


This we do in recognition that in certain matters, be it trade or national security, we, as a nation, benefit from the Pooling of our resources and a collective sovereignty in solidarity with other like-minded nations.



David Cameron at G20 Summit in Australia, 2010


Against this background, what is Britain’s sovereignty worth within the EU?


As a member of the European Union, we take a leading role in all decision making undertaken by the European Union; to initiate and influence outcomes for the benefit of ourselves and others. Where disagreement arises, we have the option to opt out of specific agreements. However, for the most part, the economic advantages of membership far outweigh the disadvantages. In short, a fair trade. Further, by Pooling our national resources, we are able – alongside other EU member states – to embark on far greater ventures than we might otherwise be able to consider alone[iv], whether in the field of:

  • Science and research⁽[v]⁾, e.g. European Global Satellite Navigation Systems Agency⁽[vi]


  • Regional regeneration, e.g. Bridgend RFT (Wales), which has to date received an EU investment of £3.5 billion (2007-2013) and is set to receive another £1.8 billion⁽[vii]


  • Development of Poorer Areas, such as Poland, thereby promoting stability within the region and providing incentives against mass migration, not to mention developing a new market for our own goods and services.


  • UK led development of a European Digital Services Single Market⁽[viii]⁾, implementation of which would add £319 billion to the UK’s economy, and could increase British household income by 4% in aggregate⁽[ix]⁾.


The opportunity to “pool sovereign power selectively [to] design integrated EU responses to many challenges that [the UK] cannot resolve on its own⁽[x]⁾”, namely:

  • energy security and efficiency
  • environmental sustainability
  • internet governance
  • managing a more assertive Russia
  • the fight against terrorism


Whilst the EU might narrow UK Sovereignty, in doing so,

it also magnifies and focuses it,

rendering UK Sovereignty effective and meaningful.



Galileo: the European Global Navigation Satellite System


In many ways, The EU might be alternatively defined as merely a string of agreements and treaties. The purpose and function of these are directed at specific areas – a.k.a. the Four Freedoms:

  • free movement of goods (where Germany excels, for example)
  • free movement of services (where the UK excels)
  • free movement of capital (where the UK also excels)
  • free movement of labour (where central and southern EU states have a cost advantage)


Anything falling outside regulation of these four freedoms, is the responsibility of national governments, acting either independently, or in conjunction with other member states, by choice. Matters which remain broadly, or exclusively within UK control include⁽[xi]⁾:

  • Health Policy
  • Education
  • Fiscal policy and public expenditure
  • Monetary policy
  • Income tax, corporation tax and capital gains tax
  • Non-EU immigration
  • Border control and security
  • Pensions
  • Welfare
  • Foreign policy decisions
  • Defence
  • Intelligence
  • Development cooperation and humanitarian aid
  • Local government
  • National policing and criminal justice
  • Media regulation


Sovereignty is the capacity to influence our outcomes.


Thus, Leave or Remain ought to turn upon the question:  which arena best utilises the UK’s sovereign power and influence for the best net gain?


At present, the EU, acting as agent for all for its members and under their collective instruction, works unrelentingly to secure trade deals across Europe and the world at large which benefits its members. In their absence, the UK would need to negotiate such deals independently, thus taking up valuable administrational and ministerial time and money.


In their absence, the UK’s sovereignty would count for far less without the enhancement of pooled sovereignty – of the collective European block, negotiating as one.


In the case that we should Leave the EU –

Any deal reached by the UK independently of the EU, would likely incorporate a need to regulate standards or a trade-off, not dissimilar to that we currently experience with the EU, and arguably from the more disadvantaged position of being on the ‘periphery’ of Europe.

Regardless of our EU membership, the UK – if we wish to continue trading with other EU members, currently our largest single market – will still be subject to EU rules and regulations, since adherence to these are a condition of any nation wishing to trade with the EU, and arguably, from the more disadvantaged position of being ‘the Outsider’.


This would leave the UK subject to EU rules and regulations, yet without the position to influence or determine the content of these rules and regulations.


This is before considering the UK’s diminished capacity to influence European measures required to address pressing international concerns: energy security and efficiency; environmental sustainability; internet governance; managing a more assertive Russia; the fight against terrorism; balancing the demands of America and of global corporations.


There are no certainties and no guarantees as to what the future may hold for the UK, regardless of whether we Leave or Remain. But what is certain is that by leaving the EU, the UK will not be able to secure the Absolute Sovereignty some aspire to, whilst at the same time, will be abandoning our opportunity to use our sovereignty to shape and prepare for an inevitable and unavoidable future – and whether we like it or not:


  • Overpopulation
  • Shortages of resources and energy
  • Mass migration
  • Mechanisation of Industry
  • Climate Change
  • Continuing geo-political instability


More importantly, the UK’s role within that future is within our own hands.


The cultural and political face of the UK has changed dramatically since we first joined the EU in 1973. We live in a world that would have seemed impossible then: a world of rights and multi-culturalism; of technology we could not have imagined; of a level of unimaginable global co-operation in tackling crises from climate change and energy shortages to security and terrorism.


We stand on the brink of something very important.




[i] Time Immemorial (in Law)

[ii] Supranational Treaties, (1200s onwards), Wiki

[iii] Supranational Treaties (1900-date), Wiki

[iv] Reality Check: Where does EU money go? (May 2016)

[v] Research Projects that would not have been possible Outside the EU

[vi] European Global Satellite Navigation Systems Agency

[vii] Bridgend Regeneration Fund

[viii] European Digital Services Single Market

[ix] Britain, the EU and the Sovereignty Myth (May 2016)*

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.


King Charles I, National Portrait Gallery

David Cameron, G20 Summit, 2010

Galileo: the European Global Navigation Satellite System

Feature Image: Big Ben (WallpaperZZZ)


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