As a UK Referendum on EU membership gets closer, much is being made by those urging exit of the idea of national sovereignty. Indeed for some Brexiters this is the defining issue. What they mean by sovereignty seems to be that a country can make its own laws and act independently of all other countries.
Whether such a situation ever obtained is highly questionable; but it certainly hasn’t obtained for the UK or any other country in recent times. Like other countries the UK is bound into a web of multiple sovereignty-sharing arrangements regarding trade, defence and security via a multiplicity of bodies including the UN, the WTO, NATO and, yes, the EU. Indeed it is ironic that many Brexiters parade the idea that the UK on Brexit could ‘reclaim’ its seat on the WTO as a triumph of sovereignty (by which they mean that whilst remaining a WTO member the UK has since 1973 been represented in trade talks by the combined EU delegation). It’s an irony because the WTO has over 160 members and yet the Brexiters argue that within the 28 strong EU the UK ‘has no say’.
A similar irony is present in the Brexiters’ idea that the UK could lead a new Commonwealth trade bloc. Apart from the fact that there is no appetite in the Commonwealth for such a bloc, its 53 members are highly unlikely (for obvious historical reasons) to want to be lead by Britain! And if sovereignty is the issue, what could matter more than who can direct people in war? Yet Brexiters are quite relaxed about – and mostly in favour of – pooling sovereignty in NATO, which entails British troops being led by foreign generals.
Going back to trade, it’s notable that right-wing Brexiters have no problem with the idea that international ‘markets’ dictate what governments can do, and see no problem of sovereignty in that. Meanwhile, left-wing Brexiters point to the secretive EU-US negotiations to impose the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) on the UK, but are oblivious to the fact that even more sovereignty-violating deals are struck by ‘sovereign’ states outside of the EU, as the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP) shows. In parenthesis, TPP, which includes as six of its twelve members Commonwealth countries (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand), also shows how superannuated is the Brexiters’ idea of a Commonwealth free trade zone. In further parenthesis, TPP is an example of the regional platform trade deals (the EU being another) which have emerged because of the failure of the WTO to enact a global deal, showing how superannuated is the Brexiters’ idea of the WTO as the arena for trade deals.
Brexiters habitually advance their sovereignty argument in terms of a claim that a large percentage of UK laws are made in the EU. The percentage given varies, sometimes being quoted as 80% but in recent months 65% has been the typical claim. The true figure is 8-14%. Then there is another, and very potent, line of Brexit sovereignty argument: that the EU interferes in the UK by imposing human rights judgments upon it. But neither the European Convention on Human Rights nor the European Court of Human Rights are EU bodies. The UK was signed up to them (and in the case of the Convention largely created it) before it ever joined the EU and would be a party to them even if it left the EU.
Then, of course, there is the issue of immigration. Surely it must be a matter of sovereignty that a country can decide who enters and leaves its borders? As regards the Brexit debate several different things have been conflated. One issue, of course pressing at this time, is that of refugees and asylum seekers. But the rules governing that are not EU rules but those of the UN’s 1951 Convention. Moreover, since the UK does not belong to the Schengen Agreement and is exempt from the EU refugee-sharing agreement, it is in any case not directly affected by the crisis. Indeed, were Brexit to occur, the only consequences for borders would be to move the UK border from France to the UK and to require a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, both of which would have devastating consequences, firstly for border control and secondly for the still fragile Northern Ireland peace process.
But Brexiters’ arguments about sovereignty and immigration are also concerned with free movement of EU citizens, not just refugees and asylum seekers. Here, they point out that the UK has no choice but to accept immigrants from the rest of the EU. And they are quite right. That is part and parcel of the single market, which the neo-liberals amongst them want. For you can’t have a single European market without free movement of people any more than you could have a single market in the UK whilst having border controls between, say, Cornwall and Devon or Lancashire and Yorkshire. Left-wing opponents of the EU should welcome this, because it means that the international mobility of capital is matched, within the EU, by labour mobility. Why should workers have to stay where they are, beholden to globally free-wheeling companies to give them jobs?
And in any case, when it comes to free movement within the EU, British people do it quite as much as anyone else, and the numbers of EU citizens living in the UK is about the same as the number of UK citizens living in the rest of the EU. In round numbers its about 2M people in both directions. Many of these British immigrants fail to learn the local language, 'take' jobs from locals, push up property prices, and put pressure on local health systems.
In short, the sovereignty argument of the Brexiters is completely flawed, but actually it is worse than flawed. The globalization of economics and markets has created a political vacuum in terms of the democratic political regulation of capital, and it is that which has created the real crisis of sovereignty. The solution – and let's be clear, it's the only solution – is democratic transnational governance structures. And the only such structure in the world today, imperfect as it surely is, is the EU.