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What Leavers mean by sovereignty
24 Feb, 2019

Lessons for our campaign


Remainers have to understand what Leavers are about if we wish to win their hearts and minds, writes London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg, with contributions from Vice-Chair Nick Hopkinson. This article is based on research by Sandra Khadhouri.  For Leavers, it’s about confidence in Britain in a Europe of nation states, democracy, freedom.

Remainers consistently underestimate the importance that Leavers attach to sovereignty. We overweight how far the vote was actually about something else (austerity, inequality). It is hardly respectful to say that Leavers did not answer the question on the ballot paper. We also overweight immigration. It is sovereignty that is key. The clue is: “Take back control”.

But what does sovereignty mean? You can read a measured pro-Brexit article here (if you google “ – Noel Malcolm – Brexit is about sovereignty and parliament must respect that” you may get round the paywall). If you have a taste for it, listening to and looking at Leave forums provides some clues.

Leavers see themselves as the real patriots fighting a deracinated elite. They are the true people. They are the oppressed underdogs. They don’t think much of us, which makes them feel they are perceptive. They believe that we don’t think much of them, which makes us seem to them to be nasty.


Great Britain with an emphasis on the Great

Leavers see themselves as having a faith in the country which Remainers lack. They see us as timid, defeatist, believing the country is useless and needing to hold EU-nanny’s hand. Leavers believe in the greatness of Britain, of the country’s potential. They wish to have full ownership of our identity and assets.

We should argue that we see Britain as one of the leading powers in the EU, one of the big three blocks in the world, along with the USA and China. By contrast, the “special relationship” with the USA is not a relationship of equals. The British Empire that made us one of “the big three” in 1945 is long gone.

We enhance our sovereignty by joining together with other EU members where that helps us to obtain more of what we want such as stronger environmental and worker protection, greater security, standing up to multi-nationals.

We are confident enough in our abilities to wish to work in partnership with others. We are sure of our identity and do not believe that we have to turn our back on our neighbours in order to preserve it.

We leverage our EU membership in our dealings with third countries – they appreciate us because we have a major voice in the EU.


A Europe of nation states

Leavers believe in the nation state as the sole source of legitimacy, the guarantor of freedom. For some, Brexit is the means to the collapse of the EU and hence a return to a Europe of nation states with no supranational organisation. We should not have others tell us what to do – we deserve freedom to do what we want on the world stage without rules. War, especially WWII, is seen positively, as a fight for freedom.

War is a calamity not a glorious adventure. War has not gone away, not even from Europe (Ukraine, Georgia, Yugoslavia). There has never been a war between EU member states – Europe has never before had so long a period with so much peace. EU membership is one reason. It dissipates the inevitable frictions between neighbours in interminable committee meetings. It smooths over border conflicts, like in Ireland.

The world needs a rules-based system to preserve order. The EU is but one of several thousand international organisations, international professional bodies and standards setting agencies which shape rules which bind British organisations, companies and individuals. Without an international rules based system, the most violent and powerful nation states would be able to throw their weight around – until enough countries get together to stop them.

The EU is an international grouping  of nation states which acts in some jointly decided supranational policy areas . Every member state sits on the European Council (sets strategic direction) and the Council of Ministers (one of the two legislative bodies). So we retain the benefits of nation states (common  identities and norms) while avoiding the downside (conflict).



Freedom and independence are key words for Leavers. No-Deal/ Leaving on WTO terms – “Welcome to Opportunity” – is a symbol of that. It shows Britain tearing herself away from ties to Europe, re-establishing links to the Commonwealth, going global. If we weren't being held back, we'd be even further ahead.

EU membership gives each one of us as an individual the freedom to live, work, study, trade, set up a business, love marry and settle down with an EU citizen partner, retire anywhere on this large and diverse continent without having to ask an immigration officer for permission. It’s like the freedom a US citizen has to go anywhere in the USA.

WTO terms are just the most basic rules to allow trade to happen at all. No country trades just on WTO terms.

EU membership makes it easy to trade with the rest of the world. EU trade agreements with 62 countries (with 20+ more on the way) facilitate our trade. Germany exports far more than we do – trading success is a matter of business achievement and domestic policy choices. The same EU rules do not hold back Germany and other countries.


Throw the rascals out

Leavers wish to live under laws made by the people they elected, not by a supranational authority. The elite are corrupt and cheating the little man.

EU laws are made by the directly elected European Parliament and the Council of Ministers (representatives of each member state). We actively shape decisions which bind us, and get our way almost all of the time. There are good answers to Tony Benn’s five questions to ask the powerful. And it is not as though democracy in the UK works that well (first past the post, House of Lords).

All the political parties have proposals for righting “burning injustices”, building a Britain “for the many not the few”, a plan to “build and safeguard a fair, free and open society”. These plans would work better if we stayed in the EU - the Government would have the time to implement them, there would be more money.


It’s not the economy, stupid

Leavers are willing to pay a price for sovereignty and immigration control. They despise the emphasis that Remainers put on economic arguments for EU membership: putting their wallets first. Noble souls give up material possessions for higher values.

The EU is a political  project with peace being its paramount goal. It always was and we knew that when we joined and in the 1975 referendum campaign. It aims to bring the peoples of Europe together. Trade and prosperity are means to an end.

Pooled sovereignty works better than go-it-alone strategies in some policy areas. That is why different laws are made at EU, national and county level. In an inter-connected world we have multiple identities: European, British, Londoner – and many more.

Freedom of movement exposes us to the way in which people who are like us in history and values are still different in some ways. An open society is more successful. Freedom of movement gives us opportunities across the whole continent. While a third of Leave voters would make large personal sacrifices to obtain immigration control, a third would make none.



Sovereignty is key to Leave voters’ motivation. We have to address that. Part of our response should be to offer them a different take on how the world works, and how our sovereignty is best exercised and augmented.






The London4Europe blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.