DEBUG: blog_post
Does EU membership enhance or reduce sovereignty?
17 May, 2018



Underlying the different views on Brexit and sovereignty are two separate ideas of what sovereignty means: the ability to make your own decisions; or the ability to get what you want. London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg looks at the issue.

In order to win the referendum on the terms we have to persuade Leavers to vote Remain. We will only do so if we win the argument on issues that concern them. Sovereignty is one of those.

The EU reduces our ability to make our own decisions

Leavers say that EU membership diminishes sovereignty: the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European Court of Justice can order us about. We may be outvoted on the Council.

Leavers exaggerate when they say that sovereignty has ended. That we may Brexit is proof of our sovereignty. By contrast the USA fought its civil war to establish that once a state had joined the Union it could no longer leave. States in the USA have considerable power but are not sovereign.

But the essential claim that membership of the EU diminishes our sovereignty is true. In one sense.

So what do we say in response?

So what? Life requires interactions

Unless you cut yourself off from the world you have to have dealings with other countries. Every treaty is a promise to do something. It is an exercise of sovereignty which diminishes future sovereignty.

But sovereignty is not just freedom of action. It looks to results. Our treaty with country X where we both promise to do something diminishes the freedom of action of both countries but obtains for us the benefit of X’s action (and vice versa).

Whenever l as an individual sign a contract l diminish my freedom to act; but I do so in order to obtain a benefit. My biggest contract was when l worked as an employee. I gave up to my employer the right to determine where l could be and what I should do from 9-5 five days a week, 46 weeks a year. That was quite a loss of autonomy. But the benefits were worth it.

The EU represents a bigger loss of autonomy than other treaties. But it is by no means unique. Few Leavers wish us to quit the World Trade Organisation; yet that too has a court. The NATO treaty commits us to go to the aid of another member state who has been attacked.

The EU is a club where we sit on the Committee

Of course, Leavers talk about the EU as an alien organisation, much as a colonial subject might have talked about the British in the days of Empire. But we are a part of the EU, of each EU institution.

It is not that different from me accepting that the Westminster Parliament represents me even though it has MPs from constituencies other than London.

How would Leavers use their Brexit sovereignty?

I find it annoying when Leave supporters go on about sovereignty but do not come up with anything worthwhile that we could do if we were no longer in the EU that we could not do when in the EU.

A general statement that we can write all our own laws is true. But unless you know which EU laws you would scrap the power is worthless. And until you have that list of laws to repeal you cannot make the assessment whether it is worth the loss of being able to shape supranational laws.

The lack of concrete manifestations shows of course the hollowness of Leavers’ claims that they had a plan.

But it also shows the essentially religious nature of Brexit. It does not need evidence or a rational case. Only believe in this one article of faith and you will be saved!

EU Membership increases our ability to get what we want

Finally, we should think how EU membership increases our sovereignty: we get to tell the French what to do. If we can build a majority in the European Parliament and Council of Ministers then we can get our policies adopted as EU policies; then all member states must follow them.

Some key policies were adopted by the EU following pushes led or co-led by the UK including: the creation of the single market, especially in services; and Eastern enlargement.

Pooling our sovereignty has brought us enormous benefits in areas where issues cross national frontiers. Pollution control is the most obvious example. Another is action on animal welfare. So is agreement on limiting state aids or ensuring fair and open government procurement.  In all these cases we achieve more jointly than we would alone. That is because we wish to have a better environment, better animal welfare standards but fear being undercut by other countries. Similarly, we wish to avoid competitive bidding to subsidise internationally mobile investment


We can explain to Leave supporters that yes they are right that there is a loss of sovereignty in being EU members. But sovereignty does not only mean making your own decisions. It also means getting what you want. Here EU membership helps.









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