DEBUG: blog_post
We have to talk about sovereignty
13 Sep, 2018

It’s what matters to Leave voters

London4Europe Committee Member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes that we should go out and positively explain the democratic nature of the EU and why sharing sovereignty helps us to get more of what we want.


***  Update 17 July 2019. Following the 2019 European Parliament elections no party group had a majority of seats. Nor did the European Parliament rally round one of the Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates). In the light of that inconclusive result,  the European Council (Heads of Government of the EU Member States) proposed  Ursula von der Leyen to be President of the European Commission. She is a member of the German CDU party, which is part of the EPP - the largest Group in the European Parliament. On 16 July 2019 the European Parliament approved her appointment by a majority vote. Later on, it will be for the European Parliament to decide whether to approve the Commission as a whole. So, although the Sptizenkandidat system did not operate in 2019, the EU showed its commitment to democracy by having one body made up of elected governments propose the candidate for EC President and the directly elected Parliament decide whether to approve the choice. The UK equivalent would be for a new Prime Minister to show that they had the confidence of the House of Commons by winning an appropriate vote. ***


Sovereignty matters to Leave voters

Another week, another survey that shows that sovereignty is what matters to Leave voters. For example, a recent KCL/ Yougov survey found:

“Leave voters regard the UK taking control of its laws and regulations as the most important priority for Britain in the next five years, followed by the ability for the UK to make its own trade deals.

“Limiting immigration only to high-skilled workers came third in the list, with a second immigration option to reduce the overall numbers of migrants in the UK even lower down in fifth place (economic growth placed fourth).”

{Link to full report here}

If we are going to win the referendum on the terms we have to persuade Leave voters to vote Remain in their own interests. So we have to address their concerns.

The EU is democratic

Part of the problem is that many Leave voters believe that laws are made by “unelected bureaucrats in Brussels”. The European Commission is unelected, but it just proposes laws, and the choice of its president should reflect which party won the European Parliament elections (Spitzenkandidat system). Laws are made by the Council of Ministers (members of the elected governments of member states) and the directly elected European Parliament. It is broadly at least as democratic as the UK’s system (first past the post? House of Lords?).   There is a description of the EU’s processes here.

We are part of the EU as equal members – it’s not an imperial or colonial relationship. It’s a club where we have a seat on the management committee.

Sharing law-making powers

So what Leavers worried about sovereignty object to is actually sharing law-making power with other EU citizens.  

In the UK, we share law-making power with our fellow citizens. Voters in King’s Lynn, in London, in Newcastle, in Keswick all vote for MPs who pass our laws.   I accept the mandate of a government for which I did not vote because I recognise that it has been lawfully voted in following an election in which all the voters in the UK could participate. I accept that because I see all UK voters as being in some sense people-like-me.  

That does not mean that I wish to share law-making with them on every issue. Whether my borough introduces a 20mph speed limit on local roads is not something where I am much interested in the views of voters who live elsewhere.  

I also see voters throughout the EU as people-like-me. We share the same commitment to peace, to democracy and the rule of law, to individual freedom, to respect for others, to secular society, to non-corrupt and non-violent societies, to debate and to kindness. We are bound together by 2,000 years of shared European history and culture.

One would judge individuals on their own terms of course. But it is easy to think of societies where at the aggregate level I do not think of their citizenry as people-like-me. Theocratic countries, countries much poorer than Europe, autocratic countries, communist countries, countries fighting civil wars. Of course we share humanity. But that does not mean that I wish them to share in making laws that bind me.  

Pooled sovereignty means we get more of what we want

But I am happy to share law-making with other EU Member States at the EU level, when it is appropriate that laws are made at the EU level.

There are clear advantages in making some laws at the Continental level.

  • Pollution crosses national boundaries. Societies desire more environmental and animal welfare measures but are nervous about being undercut by countries with lower standards. Having rules made at the EU level solves that problem.
  • The same is true of State Aids, which are generally harmful to an economy, and if others do not over-use them we do not have to either.
  • Obviously having one set of product regulations, patents, trademarks allows for easier trading than if each nation has its own and businesses have to have their products tested in every country where they sell.  

We will follow EU laws anyway, so we had better have a say

One can exaggerate what sovereignty amounts to in an inter-connected world. The EU is our largest trading partner and our nearest neighbour. In practice, in many areas we will follow EU laws whether we are in or out. Companies will not wish to multiply product lines. Culturally and socially as well as geographically we are close to Europe. The EU is a regulatory magnet – we will not be able to escape its pull. So we might as well make sure we have a real say in its rules.

What would Leavers do with more sovereignty?

We should challenge Leavers to tell us what they would do differently. Which laws have got in the way of their lives? Which laws have not been passed because of the EU? Does any of that matter? Is the benefit big enough to justify the cost of leaving?

We should also point out what some of the advocates of Brexit wish to do with new-found sovereignty, whether it is Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism in one state or Rees-Mogg’s rolling back of environmental and worker protection.

Pooled sovereignty supports peace

We must always remember the purpose of the EU: peace between member states. Polling sovereignty supports peace. It makes member states part of a shared endeavour. It ensures that the inevitable frictions that arise between neighbours are dissipated in endless committee meetings in Brussels. Sovereign European nations gave us centuries of conflict. In the 60 years of the EU there has never been a war between member states. Flip back 60 years from 25 March 1957 (Treaty of Rome): there were two world wars, some smaller conflicts and several near-misses. 


Since sovereignty is the key issue for Leave voters, we will only win if we successfully make our case on their ground. So let’s talk up the advantages of pooled sovereignty and the inevitability of following EU rules. We should also ask them what they would actually do differently.




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