52. Giving up what you have for something you never lost

Peter Burke
Chair
Oxford For Europe

3 January 2021

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This is the week this Brexit government’s dream came true. It is also the week when their promises are put to the test. If they are found wanting let’s make sure they are held to account.

Of course, this whole debate has always been about sovereignty. But we should cut through the sound bites and ask ourselves what sovereignty actually means in the 21st century.

For me, it is about being able to seamlessly do work, travel, study and do business in 27 countries. It is about pooling our strength and speaking together in a world full of great powers. And in a time of crisis, it is about pulling each other up. Instead of trying to get back to your feet, alone.

And the European Union shows how this works in practice. No deal in the world can change the reality of [the] gravity in today’s economy. And in today’s world, we are one of the giants.

Ursula Von Der Leyen

The fetishising of sovereignty, code for going it alone and “we were once an empire”, is a cruel delusion for which the UK will pay a heavy price.

Patrick Smyth

New Year in London. Welcoming in a new era? Or a bonfire of what we hold dear?

30 Minutes To Justify Independence

I had the privilege of hearing the Polish statesman Radek Sikorsky speak at a conference four years ago. He was preceded by Daniel Hannan who huffed and puffed for what felt like 30 minutes about the sunlit uplands of Brexit and was loudly applauded by the Brexiters in the audience. Sikorsky started his speech brilliantly. “Ladies and gentlemen” he said, “so, you have had your Independence Day!”. Again booming applause from the many people who did not appreciate irony. “When we in Poland had our Independence Day it did not take half an hour to explain why it was a good thing”.

To this day his remarks ring true: even now that the deed is done, Brexiters struggle as much as before, possibly more, to find positive benefits. More and more they are forced to fall back on the argument that 17.4 million people demanded sovereignty and can’t all be wrong, and that to say otherwise is in some way a denial of democracy.

For myself, like Sikorsky, I grew up in a country which has a long and complex relationship with a larger neighbour. Irish people – at least those south of the border – know what it is to gain independence. And it looks very very different to what has just happened to the UK. Paradoxically, the fact that the UK was always free to leave demonstrated the falsehood of the ‘Brussels shackles’ rhetoric.

The EU in 2021. What sane person would celebrate this new look?

Sovereignty for what?

What does independence mean? Surely our Leaver friends have thought about that, given the massive sacrifices they are prepared to make with other people’s lives and livelihoods to achieve it. When challenged to answer, they talk about sovereignty, which they tend to define as the ability for a nation to mould its own future, to make decisions (yes, and to make mistakes) independently of the will of any other nation. The ERG rather pompously had a ‘Star Chamber‘ confirm that the agreement ‘preserves the UK’s sovereignty’ – as if they understood the word.

The government and ERG seem to be unaware that any nation, even the most powerful (of which the UK is no longer one) can thrive only if it learns to work with others, for example by being part of transnational organisations, be that the much-vaunted World Trade Organisation, UN, or NATO. Membership means the pooling of sovereignty, and this is usually understood to be in the mutual interest. It is not a question of being held captive, rather one of being a willing partner. So it was with the EU. The UK as a member had just as much sovereignty as any other. EU members still have control of their borders, as France is currently demonstrating to our cost. The UK participated fully in the decision making bodies of the EU, and, with France and Germany, was generally regarded as one of the Big Three. The UK was respected by other members as pragmatic and sensible, and had an influence beyond its size upon European legislation. For example the European Single Market was very much the creation of Margaret Thatcher and her government. Only rarely did the Council of Ministers make decisions to which the UK had strong objections.

Sovereignty therefore does not mean the ability to do as you like, but rather the ability to make decisions, in concert with others, that serve the long term interests of the nation and its people. It is where decisions are made remotely, with no input from the nation, from its people or its government, that there is a loss of sovereignty. This is precisely what we are witnessing since the day UK left the EU and gave up its place at the table. However, the tangible evidence will only start to accumulate now that the transition period has ended.

Furthermore, if sovereignty means that national government has discretion to make decisions as well, then surely this is only valuable if that national government can be trusted. It is astonishing to me how many people say that they favour Brexit on grounds of sovereignty, ie giving Westminster more influence, and yet very understandably also say that they would not trust Johnson’s government as far as they could throw it.

Before we can decide whether sovereignty is in the interests of the people, we must also ask how it will be used. It’s nothing if it just means the power to make decisions that you have no intention of ever making. As Jonathan Powell put in in his brilliant demolition of the deal: “We have defended the theoretical possibility of doing things we don’t actually want to do, like lower our environmental standards or support failing industries, in return for giving up measures that would increase our prosperity. So we have spent the last weeks fighting (and losing) over fishing, which represents 0.1 percent of our economy, while accepting that services, which represents 80 percent of our economy and where we have a competitive advantage, is excluded from the agreement.” 

The UK, Ireland and sovereignty

I referred earlier to Ireland, it gives me no pleasure to compare and contrast our two nations in terms of sovereignty. Ireland has chosen to remain within the EU (in accord with the wishes of over 80% of its people in recent opinion polls – this despite the fact that for the past five years it has been a net contributor to the EU budget). Yet it remains a sovereign and equal member of the EU, with a seat on the Council of Ministers, its own commissioner and 11 elected MEPs. If the EU is a “protectionist” organisation, as we keep being told by the Eurosceptic side, this may not be such a bad thing. Ireland for one can vouch for the fact that the solidarity of the 26 other EU states has worked to protect its interests. This is something which the UK no longer enjoys. Instead it is outside the club and decisions made in Brussels no longer need to take the best interests of the UK into account. It is however in many respects at the mercy of those decisions, now being a relatively small state living geographically and indeed economically in the shadow of a much larger neighbour. Ironically this is precisely the status from which to a great extent EU membership has rescued Ireland.

The UK’s loss of international status has been such that in 2017 for the first time it lost its seat on the International Court of Justice. Ireland has just taken up its seat on the Security Council of the United Nations, where the UK has had a presence since the UN’s foundation, but now increasingly we are hearing murmurs that that too may come to an end.

At a micro level, and it gives me no pleasure to say this, the same is true. Until last Thursday a UK passport was worth every bit as much as an Irish one. Now an Irish passport holder has the freedom to live and work in 32 countries, as compared with just two. Who has greater sovereignty?

Ironically it was David Cameron, the author of this whole misfortune, who, possibly in one of his moments of lucidity, said before the referendum, ‘(suppose Leave wins).. You have an illusion of sovereignty but you don’t have power, you don’t have control, you can’t get things done’.  Bobby McDonagh, former Irish Ambassador to London and Permanent Representative to the EU, put it like this: “the UK can reach no meaningful trade deals that do not limit British sovereignty. National control over trade is a contradiction in terms. Absolute control over trade stops at Dover and Heathrow. There is only one way to achieve such control. Don’t export anything.”

And yet it is for this elusive thing , sovereignty, together with what has turned out to be a negligible increase in fish catches, that the UK negotiators have accepted, and Parliament has passed into law, a deal which in almost every respect disadvantages the UK compared to the status quo. A list of the benefits and losses which the deal brings has been compiled by Yorkshire Bylines and is entitled the (David) Davis Downside Dossier. The European Movement has done something similar. In both cases it makes painful reading.

The PM refers to it as ‘a fantastic deal’. For once he is right, its benefits are totally in the realms of fantasy.

We were promised ‘less red tape’. On New Year’s Eve fish exporters were informed that this is what they have to do. No, genuine, not satire

A Done Deal?

There seems to be a belief on the Leave side that Brexit has now been done, and that there is no more negotiating to do, so the day has come when we can at last stop talking about Brexit. The reality is that, if I live to be a hundred, I do not expect to see that day. I just hope my children will. Meanwhile, for us it is important to look forward, not back, but also to keep up the fight to regain, by working with others, the sovereignty we have so carelessly discarded.

The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

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