Are EU In or Out? – Part 6: The Issues – Sovereignty

Qualifier: The following article shall cite political views which represent, to the best of my understanding, the positions of the Official Remain and Leave campaigns. As such they may not necessarily represent the views held by myself or by any organisations or political parties of which I am a member. My own views shall be indicated throughout.

Part 1: What is The EU? can be read here

Part 2: A Brief History of Brexit can be read here

Part 3: The Issues – Immigration can be read here

Part 4: The Issues – Trade, Economy and Finance can be read here

Part 5: The Issues – Brexit Negotiations can be read here

A Side Note – A Review of Vote Leave’s “Leaving Framework” can be read here

Europe Day

A poster for EMI’s 2016 Europe Day events.


Likely to be one of the “softer” issues in this debate as unlike immigration and unlike the economy it’s one that doesn’t render down so easily into simply numbers. This doesn’t mean it’s any less important. How we feel about the concept of “Europe” plays a very large part both in what we will want out of that relationship, what we will want Europe to become and what we want ourselves to become either within or outwith the Union. It also tells us a lot about how we see our relationship with our governments which means that the result on Thursday may well have deeper ramifications on how the United Kingdom itself is governed. Sovereignty, who controls the locus of power and where it resides, is a policy on which your position may well lie in how you define it.

The “Leave” campaign viewBritain is losing control over how it governs itself. Between the European courts overruling our own, the unelected EU bureaucrats making laws which override our own and with membership of the Union blocking the UK’s ability to make trade deals, the EU has diluted the UK’s place in the world. We have to “Take Control” so we can become a fully sovereign nation again. We “gave the world” democracy, we should give it back to ourselves.

The “Remain” campaign view: Thanks to David Cameron’s reforms, the UK now has “special status” within the EU. We’re “protected” from any further integration within the Union and our “opt-outs” from items like Schengen and the Euro protect our interests. The new “red card” system will allow national governments to veto the EU Commission if 55% of nations agree. By this manner, our sovereignty is preserved.

The Common Green view:

The Leave campaign have, without doubt, utterly controlled this side of the debate. Remain have barely done anything to put forward an actual positive case for ownership of our EU membership and instead retreated into apologising for it and trying to find “protections” against it. It’s been a long running theme in Britain’s relationship with the EU which has never been particularly embracing. It is particularly telling that Remain didn’t even try to make a celebration out of Europe Day on May 9th. We’re very unusual as a member nation which doesn’t mark this event. Even Turkey holds events on this day.

I believe that to cut to the heart of this is to look at the view of just what the UK actually means by sovereignty and by government. The key argument of Leave is one that seems, at least on the face of it, one that is very familiar to those involved in the 2014 Scottish Independence campaign and, for those who voted Yes who now back Remain it may seem a bit of a dichotomy of a position to be in. At best, I foresee that some of the words of Leave will certainly come back to haunt them should they find themselves on the Unionist side of any future Scottish independence referendum.


Insert “the UK” or “the EU” at your pleasure. Source: IndyPosterBoy

No doubt there will be some on the other side who seek to portray this position as incompatible or hypocritical (I’ve certainly spoken to a few Yes voters who will be voting Leave on this basis)  but I believe that there is a distinction between the two Unions of which Scotland is currently a member. The question of sovereignty.

The short version is that if you join a Union then that should be viewed as a fully sovereign decision. You only actually give sovereignty up if you are then unable to leave that alliance if it no longer is to your benefit to be in it. Whilst the EU grants that right to its members, via Article 50 of the Treaty of Union, the UK does not have a formal mechanism for a constituent member to declare that it wishes to leave. Even after the 2014 independence referendum, which will almost certainly inform the structure of any future attempt, the ability to even hold another referendum can be vetoed by the Prime Minister (and he has certainly threatened to do so).

The longer version though looks at how we govern a country. One of the core tenants of the European Union is Subsidiarity – The idea that governance should be made at as local a level as possible and also that it should be made at exactly the level that is appropriate. This idea of localism was one of the reasons I personally got into the independence movement back in 2012 as I do not believe that Westminster meets this test (it certainly doesn’t on tax policy).

Instead, I see the UK model of government as one in which Westminster is seen as “supreme”. It is the “Mother of Parliaments” from which sovereignty flows. Whenever power is invested elsewhere, whether that is “downwards” to the nations and regions or to a local level, or whether it is “upwards” to supra-national level, as in the EU, then it is power somehow “lost” to Westminster. For those who wish to “Take Control” it must be brought back and recentralised.

Westminster Model.png

Students of the history of devolution in the UK will see this in practice in the fact that there was actually a powerful struggle over the concept of sovereignty such that Westminster, technically speaking, kept hold of the right to legislate over devolved affairs, it merely promises, in most cases, not to without permission and has merely appointed an “executive“to carry out affairs on its behalf for the duration of devolution.

In a subsidiary model, however, the “ultimate” power of government lies at the absolute local level. Everything which can be done at this level is carried out here. If it makes sense for a local community to level local taxes which which to fund local projects then it can and should do so. But whilst a local community could probably fund a local health clinic, it couldn’t fund a major hospital. So power is pooled and granted upwards to a regional authority or up to a national government where appropriate. But, and this is crucial, this process need not stop here. Supra-government co-operation and international alliances sometimes make sense, so power can and should be granted upwards in increasingly larger, nested arrangements of alliances, federations and/or confederations to the very top level of government which, if and where appropriate, may speak for all of us everywhere.

Subsidiarity Model.png

I’m going to put this out there. Assuming a democratic institution and a strong sense of subsidiarity as outlined above, I would be perfectly comfortable with a Federal Europe and find no contradiction between that position and that of continuing to campaign for Scottish independence.

How realistic is this model in the long term? Would this serve to dilute “national” government?

Perhaps one thing to understand is that the concept of the “nation-state”, that a government – a state  – is the exclusive unit of one “nation” – a single, ethnic or cultural group, often located within a single territory – is a relatively recent invention. Prior to the 19th century, in Europe at least, the mode of government tended to either be a city-state – government controlling a very limited territory centered around one urban area and its economic watershed – or a multi-ethnic Empire – where a strong state imposed control over as much territory as it could feasibly hold regardless of the people within it.

Now, I’m not advocating a RETURN to either of the prior models. I’m merely noting that the concept of nationhood and statehood has evolved to fit the times and there should be no expectation that this process should not continue. As we continue to live in a world of expanding global trade, ever easier methods of movement and expanding democratic control of states it is possible that the model of the relatively isolated nation-state will, at some point, need to be reviewed.

This is the thesis put forward by Harvard Professor Dani Rodrik in his book “The Globalization Paradox” which proposes a fundamental trilemma of the three pull factors of Democracy, Globalised and integrated Free Trade, and Nation-Statehood.


In this thesis it is simply not possible to have all three of these factors in play at any time. Something has to give somewhere such as:

Global Federalism:- By focusing on maintaining democratic politics and global trade, each nation effectively gives up the ability to negotiate its own trade policies. “Sovereignty” cannot lie entirely within a single nation as it must abide by the rules set and agreed by all of its other trading parties. This appears to be the future from which the Leave side are recoiling.

Golden Straightjacket:- A term coined by Thomas Friedman, this essentially puts forward the proposition that if a country tries to apply “national” policies within an environment of global economic integration then trade deals become increasingly the preserve of more global looking corporations and companies. The economy may continue to grow but the scope of politics itself narrows and democracy, which tend to have little impact on internal corporate policy, retreats in importance as a driver of that economy. This side of the trilemma has been seen most clearly in the lack of transparency within deals like TTIP. Unfortunately, this appears to be the side to which Leave want to reach.

Bretton Woods Compromise:- The third “solution” to the trilemma is to abandon the idea of global trade and movement of goods, services, people and capital. By returning to the post-WWII period of strict currency and capital controls combined with a fairly protectionist view of economics then both democratic accountability and a strong sense of individual national identities can be maintained.

I’m not about to tell folk that just one of these options is clearly “the best”. It’s not even an essential property that one must sit exactly in the extreme corners of the trilemma, one can find a series of compromise solutions. One thing I would offer, however, is that I believe that democratic institutions are vitally important. I would be relatively comfortable with either a Global Federalised world or a Bretton Woods compromise and am more than happy to discuss just how far we should proceed along the path of globalisation. I do believe that even if the ultimate goal is the former, then the latter is perhaps more achievable in the medium term.

I would, however, reject the path towards the Golden Straightjacket though. If this truly is the path that Leave would have us move towards then it should be a sufficient reason to vote Remain to prevent it.


Whilst Leave have largely controlled the debate over sovereignty I believe that it resides in a false premise which has been failed to be countered by Remain. The idea that the Government of the UK is somehow special or “supreme” isn’t one which is either unchallengeable or even necessarily advantageous (especially for Scottish independence advocates) nor will it necessarily lead to a form of government optimised for subsidiarity and accountability. Further, Leave do appear to be leading us towards a world in which our democratic institutions are cast aside to serve both a hyper-globalised world and the idea of “Britain” in all its flag-waving glory. If this world appeals, then this a choice that a voter will have the right to make by voting Leave on the 23rd. If it doesn’t, then the choice to Remain in the EU may well serve our “Sovereignty” rather better.


10 thoughts on “Are EU In or Out? – Part 6: The Issues – Sovereignty

  1. Pingback: Are EU In or Out? – Contents Page | The Common Green

  2. Pingback: Are EU In or Out? – Part 7: Final Thoughts | The Common Green

  3. Pingback: EU’re Out, Apparently | The Common Green

  4. Pingback: You’ll Have Had Your Devolution? | The Common Green

  5. Pingback: QuEUing up for Membership | The Common Green

  6. Pingback: Transition Timelines | The Common Green

  7. Pingback: Withdrawing Agreement | The Common Green

  8. Pingback: The Devolving Union | The Common Green

  9. Pingback: Post-Nationalist Scotland | The Common Green

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.