Sovereignty or Power

Frederick Wilmot-Smith

On 29 March 2019, unless the European Council unanimously decides otherwise, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union and a new trading arrangement between the EU and the UK will come into effect. If no bespoke deal is approved, trading arrangements will be conducted on World Trade Organisation terms. The UK will also lose any arrangements to which it is a party through the EU: there are more than 750. This is one reason the UK’s negotiating position with the EU is asymmetrical: even if ‘no deal’ harms both sides’ trade, it will be much worse for the UK.

The prospects of a bespoke deal look dimmer by the day. Some people are sanguine about this. Many more are worried. A group of MPs were reported to want ‘to give parliament the ability to veto’ a ‘no deal’ Brexit. It is unclear what these MPs have in mind. Perhaps they anticipate revoking the Article 50 notification. But it is debatable whether this can be done unilaterally; as a question of European law, it falls to be decided by the European Court of Justice. Perhaps they merely hope to change the UK’s negotiating strategy. But the clock has been ticking for months and two years is a very short period in which to negotiate a deal. Angela Merkel's expressed hope that trade talks can begin in December is hardly cause for rejoicing. It took ten years to hammer out Switzerland’s agreement with the EU. Even if a deal is negotiated, the European Council can reject it.

During the Brexit referendum, a distinction was made between sovereignty and power. An institution can, like the Moldovan Parliament, be sovereign with limited powers; another, like a multinational company, can be powerful without being sovereign. The Westminster Parliament, some Leavers argued, was no longer sovereign: hence the language of ‘taking back control’. They weren’t swayed by forecasts of a loss of international influence because they were concerned with sovereignty, not power.

Parliament, as a sovereign body, can legislate as it likes. The effects of its legislation are a function of its power. The Article 50 notification may take back sovereignty; it gave away power. The MPs who would like Parliament to veto a ‘no deal’ Brexit are like King Canute’s courtiers who told him he could command the tide to turn back. There are 498 MPs who voted to trigger Article 50; some still have not grasped the implications of that vote.


  • 20 October 2017 at 10:54am
    David Timoney says:
    A further dimension of the problem is the distinction between internal and external sovereignty, which is problematic in the UK because both are vested in Parliament rather than being split between a sovereign (such as the people) and a legislature.

    For many leavers, "taking back control" is essentially about the integrity of borders (the free movement of people) and the integrity of domestic law ("meddling" foreign courts). This means it is actually a concern with internal sovereignty (who has power within the UK) rather than with external sovereignty (the concessions we make to other states for mutual benefit), hence the insouciance of many over future trade deals.

    The sticking point that is likely to lead to a no-deal outcome is therefore not money (many leavers would consider a few more billions a price worth paying to be shot of the EU), or even the general principles of the rights of EU citizens in a future UK (so long as these were granted by Parliament and thus potentially revocable), but the status of Northern Ireland where the constitutional dispensation entails the ceding of internal sovereignty (a brute fact obscured by the ambiguity of the EU framework until now).

    While some leavers would probably be as happy to be shot of Northern Ireland as the EU, the current political balance (the government's dependence on the DUP and the Tory right's residual unionism) precludes this as a possible outcome. MPs may not have grapsed the tactical error of the Article 50 vote, but they've also failed to appreciate the strategic impasse that May's foolish calling of a general election has led to.

  • 21 October 2017 at 8:46pm
    Kommissar Lohmann says:
    A democratic society can survive as such regardless of the relative power of the state in the scheme of international relations, but not when the aforementioned state lacks sovereignty.

    But then again, who did ever mention so a banal notion as "democracy"!?

    PS. I already miss Glen Newey.

  • 24 October 2017 at 2:08am
    kassia says:
    The Glen Newey mention is seconded.

  • 25 October 2017 at 2:42pm
    Stu Bry says:
    Events in Parliament this week make it clear that many MPs seem to have little understanding of what invoking A50 instigated and are unable to differentiate between A50 negotiations and the negotiation of a new trade deal.

    MPs have three options. 1. Agree to the exit deal negotiated by David Davis 2. Reject the deal negotiated by David Davis 3. Bring down the Government.

    I have not the very real possibility that Davis will negotiate a deal which is unacceptable to both hardcore leavers and remainers which would leave us in a state of anarchy.

  • 31 October 2017 at 7:51pm
    Leo the Cat says:
    I have been guided in these matters by the wise words of Prof Michael Dougan, international lawyer at the University of Liverpool, from before the referendum. If you have never seen his 20 minute briefings on youtube, they are well worth a visit. I quite liked the dry way he started off by saying that these are basic principles we teach to our first year students, or something similar, implying that various politicians didn't know what they were talking about. This is an observation now born out by fact. He actually ended up talking about lying "on an industrial scale", you can make your own minds up about that.

    But to business. One point he made was that sovereignty had never been surrendered. The distinction comes when a sovereign nation agrees, voluntarily, to devolve powers, for example by international treaty. Nato is a very good example. The USA has based nuclear weapons on British soil, giving the British no powers of inspection. Is that a loss of sovereignty? The old Tony Benn question "How can I get rid of you" comes into play, and the answer is quite simple. You withdraw from the treaty. However, the details may be a bit more complicated.