The Argument from Sovereignty

Most arguments for Brexit quickly fall apart if you inspect the facts. One argument that has some substance is that the EU represents a loss of sovereignty – we are conceding power to an unelected European Commission. This is certainly the one that Boris Johnson likes to plug.

Like so much of the Brexit case, it is based on a woolly, rose-tinted vision that has no foundation in reality.  But first it as well to be clear  that in theory the EU is at least as democratic as the UK Parliament, and arguably more so. Like the UK parliament it comprises two houses one elected with universal suffrage, the other not. The European Parliament is elected every 5 years and every adult in the EU has an equal right to elect their local Member of European Parliament (MEPs).  To this extent it is just as democratic as the House of Commons. The other “house” is the Council of the European Union (not to be confused with the European Council or the Council of Europe which are different!). Unlike the House of Lords (which is partly hereditary and partly appointed) this comprises the relevant ministers of the member nations. So it is indirectly related to elected governments. The European Commission which is sometimes seen as the unelected villain of the piece cannot pass any legislation. .  It is an executive body, like our Civil Service. It is true that all legislation has to be proposed by the commission to provide consistency and depth but this can be done in response to requests from anyone.  Parliament can amend legislation that has been proposed.

There is an active and quite technical debate as to how well this system actually represents the will of the people. There have been several modifications over the years to  make it more responsive so it is not fixed in stone and quite capable of improvement. But it is a democratic system and any claim to the contrary is just wrong. 

Setting that aside – is it unwise for the UK to cede any power to a supranational body whether that body is democratic or not? This is where we need to be realistic.  The Brexit vision seems to be one of a self-reliant UK that is the sole correct place for sovereignty. A government that makes all the decisions that affect us and which we, the British people, elect and hold to account. This a vision of a utopia (or possibly a dystopia) which never actually existed and is becoming further and further detached from reality as the world becomes more and more globalised. Even the concept of the British people is increasingly unclear.  The Scot, the second generation Muslim living in Birmingham, the expatriate living in France and the French professional living in London will all have different ideas of what it is to be a UK citizen. This vision is certainly irrelevant to the current world and probably never made sense.

In reality power is distributed both above and below the national level and is held accountable in many different ways. The preponderance of power still lies with national governments. It is the decisions of the UK parliament that we know about and care about and which affect us most. However, all countries also cede power to supranational bodies – often bodies that are a lot less democratic than the EU  e.g. the Council of Europe, the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and NATO – to name just a few. It is the price we pay for functioning in the modern highly interconnected global world. These institutions usually work through negotiation between representatives of nations – a  process that is widely accepted.

Why do we need a EU in addition to these other organisations? There all sorts of reasons. Trade is an obvious one. The members of the EU all trade intensively with each other and there are obvious advantages to removing tariffs and standardising on things such as safety regulations and labelling. But there are many others – environmental (pollution and climate change do not recognise national boundaries), foreign policy (it would have been almost impossible to place effective sanctions on Russia over Ukraine without a EU),  even the response to the refugee crisis – while the response  has been very far from ideal it is hard to see how it could have been done better with each country acting for itself.

Perhaps most importantly the members of the EU represent a common set of values: democracy, equal rights, freedom of expression, religious tolerance etc. It is easy to neglect these  until they are challenged (which is happening at the moment). It is these values which allowed the EU to play a major role in helping members of the former Warsaw Pact become modern democracies within the EU as opposed to totalitarian or failed states (as has happened to most ex-Soviet states which did not join the EU).  It is the EU values which can act as a counterbalance to nationalist, intolerant and anti-democratic movements currently taking place throughout the continent.  The early part of the 20th century saw a rise in such movements which took over some national governments . The resulting conflict of values could only be resolved by the most horrendous wars the world has seen. The EU is a repository of broader values and a forum for resolving these conflicts.

Of course the EU has handled many of these challenges rather badly compared to an ideal solution. It needs improving – a great deal. That is a process which has been happening and in which Britain has played a big role (e.g reform of CAP).  The answer is not to head for the exit door. We need a better EU – badly. The alternative is for each country to operate separately.  We saw how that worked out last century. Let’s not go there again.


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