A common line of defence for the Leave campaign is the one about self-determination – that our country, unshackled from the grip of shadowy figures concealed in Brussels’ institutions, can chart its own course to the lands of a prosperous future. That without the regulatory constraints, ‘red tape’ and bureaucracy, Britain will be able to reclaim its own parliamentary sovereignty, and will be able to determine the rules by itself. That parliamentary sovereignty is supreme, with economic costs being a price worth paying for.
We will show, in this short op-ed, that the prospect of reclaiming sovereignty, conjured up in the Leave campaign’s image, is an illusion. By ‘taking back control’, we are not only infuriating our European brethren who will decide our fate in the event of a Brexit, but also locking ourselves out of the negotiating rooms where the rules, regulations and treaties that will still impact us post-Brexit, are forged. And so by leaving the EU, we will be ceding power and sovereignty to other nation states, contrary to the very point of Brexit itself.
We have more control than you might think
First, let’s quickly agree on what sovereignty really means. Sovereignty refers to being a supreme authority within a geographical territory. Such authority, on a particular scope or matter (i.e. monetary policy), is supreme if it cannot be superseded by any other authority.
Now Brexiters love to shout about how much control the EU has over UK affairs. They love to shout about the chains of regulation that choke our industries and enterprise. They bemoan the illusion that Britain’s interests do not coincide with those of our Continental neighbours. The facts speak a different story.
As it currently stands, the UK has pooled (some of) its sovereignty with other European nations. We share (limited) rule-making through the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, which act as legislative chambers. We share international trade policy through the customs union, and have shared market regulation through the free movement of capital and labour, and common standards on product regulations to name a few. UK parliamentary sovereignty is not absolute – there are areas of legislation on which the UK works with or defers decision-making to the EU.
To be even more precise, the areas of law that the UK has deferred to the EU is limited to trade policies, rules and standards for the EU Single Market; competition rules and state-aid; intra-EU migration, and fisheries. The UK shares decision-making with the EU (i.e. it retains some decision-making power) in the following areas: ratifying trade agreements, energy/climate policies, environmental standards; agricultural, employment, consumer protection, VAT, asylum and cooperation on foreign policies. All other areas of policy – ranging from education to health to monetary policy – are the exclusive preserve of the UK parliament.
We agree with the EU the vast majority of the time
The EU actually dictates little policy without negotiations and shared decision-making with the UK. And that’s the entire point. For policies such as free movement of goods, it makes sense to have a common policy for member states, to create standardised rules for all for simplicity, outside of politicians’ controls to twist and mutilate as they see fit to further their own goals. And for those Brexiters who believe that our interests are not aligned with our European siblings, here’s a fact that will surprise you – we have voted 2,474 times with the Council of the European Union out of 2,601 decisions . Yes, that’s over 95%.
Negotiations will be difficult if we Brexit
Imagine now that we invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – the signal to the world that Brexit is to occur two years from now. From that point onwards, the UK government would have two years to finalise negotiations for a new EU-UK relationship for all the policy areas above which the UK either shares or defer decision-making power to Brussels.
This is where the Leave campaign’s doctrine of ‘take control’ comes into its own. By leaving the EU, they argue that we can reclaim decision making powers in all of the policy areas listed above. We can get control of our borders whilst still retaining access to the Single Market. We can avoid paying into the EU budget, and maintain the elements of the status quo that works in our favour. We can initiate trade deals with non-EU nations without any repercussions from our European neighbours.
The Leave campaign blissfully assumes that by reclaiming complete control over our own laws and regulations, that we will regain absolute sovereignty. There is no acknowledgement towards the potential retaliation of neighbouring states. They assume that we can cherry pick the best of our current EU arrangements, and in a post-Brexit future, can carry those forward in any new relationship that our government seeks to pursue. This is the exact definition of absolute sovereignty – Brexiters believe that retaliation from other nations will be negligible and that parliamentary sovereignty will rule supreme in all matters.
Unfortunately, the reality is that politics is messy. It is full of compromise, half-baked promises, and imperfect agreements. Cameron’s pre-referendum negotiations is testament to that. As is the ongoing Canadian-EU trade deal that will ultimately exclude services. A country may claim sovereignty in its own parliament, but that sovereignty means nothing if other countries are unwilling to cooperate. To take an extreme example, consider North Korea. No one can deny that its government has free reign to rule as it sees fit. But it is subject to crippling economic sanctions, and international diplomatic efforts are hostile and cold if not anything else.
So how does that relate to the EU? In the event of a Brexit vote, will our European neighbours give us warm, welcome and favourable terms? Very likely not. To see why, let’s start with their incentives. The European project is to create ‘an ever closer union’, but that is not relevant to the UK as we have now an opt-out from that particular goal. Instead, Brussels will see a Brexit as a threat to the ongoing European project – their (current) objective is to not undo the integration that has occurred over the last 40 years; and the UK leaving the EU could certainly provide the impetus for repeat referendums in other member states.
They have an incentive to be demanding in the negotiations – to make Britain an example of what happens when a country leaves the bloc – for the very reason that credible punishments will keep member states in check and preserve the integration that has occurred since the EU’s inception. This does not have to be explicit punishments – the EU could offer favourable trade terms for goods (not services), while restricting Euro-related transactions to be conducted within the Eurozone, directly damaging the City of London’s passporting rights. The latter is bound to be more damaging to the UK than the status quo guaranteed by the former. This veiled ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach will send enough of a strong signal to member state’s governments to not entertain the thought of future referendums in their own territories.
Moreover, the negotiations over a British exit are likely to be protracted and painful for two reasons. Firstly, the UK will not be present in the talks, and will have little input in framing the draft resolutions while the other 27 nation states have a say. Regulation without representation is certainly not want the British people want. Secondly, the UK government is woefully unprepared to deal with the legislative effort in combing through all EU directives, and also in being able to strike trade deals with other countries since it does not have the staff nor the experience in the civil service to be able to do so effectively. The last time Britain tried to negotiate a free-trade area (known as EFTA) with European nations was in 1958 as a challenge to the Common Market proposed by France and Germany. It failed dramatically and was ultimately superseded by the Single Market.
Britain never had absolute sovereignty, and it never will, Brexit or no Brexit. It is an illusion, and a lie. If ‘taking back control’ creates tension and a gradual ceding of powers to Brussels in return for aspects of the Single Market that we have just left and need, what good is our beloved sovereignty then?
 Philpott, Daniel, “Sovereignty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/sovereignty/>.
 Wolff, R. P., 1990. The Conflict Between Authority and Autonomy