How the British conception of sovereignty makes EU membership untenable

How the British conception of sovereignty makes EU membership untenable

Although discord over Brexit is the most notorious dispute to emerge between the UK and the EU, it is not the first. The state’s default condition to be the supreme power over its affairs, internally and externally, has been transfigured by the inception of supranational organisations such as the EU. States are no longer able to form a protective shell and are forced to share their authority, with their borders becoming ever more porous.

While most other member states have acquiesced, accepting a reconstruction of their national sovereignty, there is one European state that bucks this trend: the UK. Such an alteration of what sovereignty means overhauls, as well as challenges, hundreds of years of established dogma concerning the UK’s conception of national sovereignty, thus culminating in the spurious relationship between the UK and the EU at present.

Within the British conception of national sovereignty there are four key areas that stimulate incompatibility with the EU: Parliamentary sovereignty, ingrained national beliefs, a uniquely British ‘international sovereignty’ and Britain’s two-faced behaviour towards the EU.

Parliamentary sovereignty

British national sovereignty is embedded in the fervently protected conception of Parliamentary sovereignty. As Britain lacks a palpable constitution, Parliamentary sovereignty forms the framework for how Britain conceives its national sovereignty, defined by Iris Nguyên-Duy in Sovereignty and Europe – The British Perspective as “the right to make or unmake any law whatever… that no person or body is recognised by the law as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament.”

The genetic make-up of sovereignty in the UK is based upon a principle of ‘political constitutionalism’ that ensures Parliament is the omnicompetent facet of government (See Marlene Wind here). Subsequently, sovereignty is unlimited, manifesting itself as a zero-sum game. Any encroachment on British sovereignty is seen as a threat subverting the UK’s power as a sovereign state, rendering sovereignty a game of relative gains, with gains for the EU resulting in insufferable losses for the UK. This dynamic implies there will always be a point at which the British conception of sovereignty is compromised by the EU.

The essence of parliamentary sovereignty is the way the UK perceives it as a dichotomous endeavour: sovereignty is either emboldened or eroded. At the heart of British statecraft is the defence of national autonomy symbolised in parliamentary sovereignty, representing the ability to “to govern… relatively insulated from both domestic and external pressures” (See ‘Sovereign nations and global markets: modern British Conservatism and hyperglobalism’ by Baker, D., Gamble, A. and Seawright, D. in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations).

To govern “insulated” is key, as insulation suggests that British sovereignty is absolute. If national sovereignty ceased to be located in Parliament, then it would cease to exist at all. This binary composition contrasts the EU’s conception of sovereignty which exists as a continuous conception; where state sovereignty is dialled up or down along a continuum to suit EU interests. Two parallel yet incompatible ways of looking at sovereignty, binary versus continuous, prompts fissures to emerge.

Incompatibility arises because the UK cannot initiate the pooling of sovereignty into the EU without contravening parliamentary sovereignty. British sovereignty is composed of in a manner that to pool into the EU facilitates an irreconcilable renunciation of core state tenets. Dynamics of binary versus continuous are not congruent. Parliamentary sovereignty must emphasise the “sovereign majority in Parliament as elevated above other balancing powers” (again, as per Marlene Wind) such as the EU, or lose the core levers of our nation state with it.

Ingrained national beliefs: British scepticism towards Europe

National beliefs underpin a significant part of our conception of sovereignty. Forming the atoms of the British nation state, its vital components, allegories, behaviours and symbols. British beliefs put an unshakable emphasis on the nation state as the final and absolute arbitrator of power. This means that in order to remain as a fully functioning and independent nation state, the UK cannot be impeded by an external actor. What is meant by ‘belief’ in this context is a set of emotional and amorphous beliefs that shape the British people and state; a set of values and principles that bind us together and guide our future. Subsequently, national beliefs are a key component in our conception of sovereignty and impact relationships beyond our borders.

Beliefs shape the set of criteria that defines the meaning of the nation state, they lay down the boundaries of sovereignty and help us interpret whether certain forces are violating our national sovereignty. ‘We’ is confined to one’s nation-state and where political sovereignty resides in the nation-state; membership of the EU erodes this imperative idea. EU institutions distort these boundaries, disrupting the membrane of national borders and lessens the ability of a democratically elected government to control its own affairs and ‘demos’ – the people. As the European integration project metamorphosed, it aimed to crack open the DNA of its member states to deepen political integration – something that the UK did not sign up to in 1973, nor has ever wanted as part of the EU. In short, the EU mutated into something the UK did not want nor forecast: a political integration project.

British attitudes towards Europe have always been somewhat far-removed, as Churchill described so succinctly, a benevolent onlooker who is “with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed. We have our own dream and our own task.” These values form the exoskeleton for how Britain perceives itself and how it wants to be recognised internationally. Fundamentally, European integration from our shores is not founded upon a love for eternal cooperation in an organic sense. Our relationship with the EU is prosaic in nature; functional but not emotional. Our beliefs guide us towards a global destiny, not a regional one, with Churchill again providing the justification for this conclusion when he uttered “if Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.” The crux of the matter is that the UK’s conception of sovereignty is constructed on a set of beliefs that advance the EU as an important, but not an indispensable, partner.

British ‘International Sovereignty’

The conception of British sovereignty has an international element, an ‘international sovereignty’ that possesses a soft, yet assertive, force. What ‘international sovereignty’ does for the UK is orient its default position away from the EU. It biases the British conception of sovereignty towards entities with which the UK has an organic relationship. ‘International sovereignty’ may seem incompatible with the EU’s conception of sovereignty, yet this is an incorrect conclusion to draw. Instead, this interaction is characterised by a lack of a relationship at all. It is neglect that fuels incompatibility. British ‘international sovereignty’ prefers to align itself away from the EU, consequently starving the EU of any interaction at all.

‘International sovereignty’ is only congruent with nations Britain sees common ground with. Europe and the Anglosphere are two different dimensions in which British ‘international sovereignty’ can project itself. While this relationship is disconnected in the EU dimension, once it moves into the Anglosphere British ‘international sovereignty’ finds its compass and direction. The two perceived aspects in which ‘international sovereignty’ can work biases sovereignty pooling in one direction only; towards the Anglosphere, fundamentally stimulating neglect and ensuring linkages wither between the UK and the EU.

The UK’s affinity for the Commonwealth and the United States adds to the level of ambivalence felt towards the EU. Britain’s Commonwealth connections retain an ever-present political pull that places the EU on the backburner. The Commonwealth, alongside the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States, is an organic and natural orientation for our conception of sovereignty. Such a demeanour takes provenance from our deep historical ties between the people of the Anglosphere and the British Commonwealth. This idea feeds a collective mindset and reciprocity between the UK, the Commonwealth and the US.

The shared experiences of culture, language and politics bind the UK and its sister nations together into an intertwined society of like-minded states. It creates the impression that the UK has a benign influence guiding its allies in convergence with British interests – that somehow the Commonwealth, the US ‘special relationship’ and the English-speaking peoples of the world all belong to the UK in a way. Consequently, the UK perceives itself as the founding father of the Anglosphere; an English-speaking civilisation that regards itself as unquestionably unique from culturally similar Europe.

What ‘international sovereignty’ entails for the UK is that its version of national sovereignty has an international axis; transcending borders beyond Britain. It stimulates a perception that the UK can influence and act in lands foreign to itself because of shared cultural, linguistic and strategic ties. To live as part of the Anglosphere and beyond is the eminent British objective, bypassing the EU in the process.

The ‘two-faced’ behaviour of British national sovereignty

Europe has perennially appeared to invoke a choice and, therefore, it has been woven into the fabric of British thought that the EU is an option rather than a destiny. On the one hand, British sovereignty mellows when directed towards the Anglosphere, yet it takes on an awkward disposition when steered towards Europe. Essentially it splits British national sovereignty in two, depending on where the UK is aligned. A modus operandi such as this lies within a British quintessence that the UK can contribute something distinctive that is assumed to be missing in Europe. This ideal widens the schism between the UK and Europe.

Although Britain is part of the European orchestra, it does not play the same instrument. It reverberates at a different frequency and does not derive from the same path dependency. In practice, the British conception of sovereignty is ‘two-faced’. It is pre-programmed to being less receptive to the EU and more receptive to the Anglosphere. The de facto position of British sovereignty is to harden when reflected towards the EU and soften when oriented towards the Anglosphere. Overall, its DNA is dichotomous, exhibiting one of two behaviours depending on the pressing force; a ‘two-faced’ national sovereignty.

For instance, one can see the real-world outcome of this ‘two-faced’ sovereignty towards the EU in the long-term run-up to the Brexit vote. Years before Brexit, Britain pressed for the use of opt-outs on the Euro and the Schengen area amongst numerous others. Opt-outs draw a line in the sand. They establish an area where the state is to remain solely sovereign. Subtle, incremental processes of slowly hardening its conception of sovereignty towards the EU culminated in beleaguered negotiations to improve the existing deal with the EU in 2015-16. They failed, culminating in the Brexit vote which encapsulates the hardening of British sovereignty towards Europe and a natural inclination to reject further integration.

The ‘two-faced’ conception of British sovereignty only ever lays down two paths. Either Britain can cede its sovereign authority to supranational institutions, reducing the autonomy of its decision-making as European states can do little without the acquiescence and approval of their neighbours. Or, conversely, Britain can retain its legal and political rights within broader frameworks of inter-state cooperation; with an elected government able to decide Britain’s future trajectory without external interference. Britain does not want to rely on supranational institutions and continuously agree to policies that hinge on other states, as shown democratically by the Brexit vote of 2016.

Ultimately, this bi-polar facet of the British conception of sovereignty arises due to a perceived choice between a familiar intergovernmental model or an unfamiliar supranational model. EU institutions awaken parts of the British conception of sovereignty that were never designed nor adapted to be pooled into supranational organisations. British sovereignty hardens because it needs a safety mechanism built within it to protect the core tenets of the British state.

In conclusion, all of these factors amalgamate together to formulate a conception of sovereignty incompatible with integrative forces, hindering Britain from pooling sovereignty into the institutions of the EU. Therefore, and naturally, Britain is less likely to embrace integration advanced by supranational bodies. What we need to grasp is that globalisation can be forged in contrasting ways. There is a different route towards global integration. This time with the nation state at the helm, rather than delegating power to a body that cannot and will not solve the idiosyncratic and endemic problems of Britain.

Whilst our European partners forge a complex path through the many bureaucracies and rules of the EU, we can forge ours through our own Parliament and our own elected government. The referendum result does not indefinitely erect a wall between us and Europe. In fact, quite the contrary. Let us not get carried away and assume that everything will be immediately rosy when we leave; because that is simply not the case. There will be difficulties, as there often are in life. Nothing is guaranteed. Nevertheless, it is just as frivolous to assume that we will be worse off forever after leaving.

What the British conception of national sovereignty teaches us is that leaving is not an acrimonious principle. It is within our DNA to be “of Europe, but not a part of it” and that is OK. Although our European partners and those on the Remain side of the fence see it as a deleterious step, those who understand why we have come to this conclusion by scrutinising our conception of national sovereignty will deduce that leaving is an entirely natural phenomenon, that will, if common sense and logic were to prevail, open up multiple doors, laying down the foundations for a prosperous Britain after Brexit.