Frustrated by the circular arguments of the Brexit debate? Get a rum old sovereignty chaser down your neck for some unrestricted 2020 retrovision and a banging trade deal hangover cure.
OK, cure is over-egging it, but it might help with the nausea.
While it has been lazily punted about like a scuffed, old, patchy ball, unpacking this term is the closest we will get to an explainer of the whole UK-EU debacle.
The hackneyed lines that the UK ‘does not understand sovereignty’ and that ‘EU nations have relinquished sovereignty’ are somewhat simplistic assessments of what this concept means to the respective camps.
The dictionary definition of sovereignty typically expresses an abstraction – ‘the authority of a state to govern itself’ or ‘supreme authority’.
But when abstract concepts become operationalised in the real world, varying perspectives and lenses expand our interpretation of them and create living, breathing connotations. The real world is the principal catalyst for meaning. Stick with definitive simplicity on any idea, and your intellectual and interpretive paths narrow.
So, back to the concept of sovereignty and we are drawn to consider associated concepts like ‘power’ (‘the capability or capacity to act’) and ‘authority’ (‘the right to exercise power’). These definitions can be expressed differently, but as broad brushes here, they fit the bill for the contextual aspects that operationalise the concept in the real world.
Well, at least we should be drawn to them, but many are not, and threads of theory and practice are not always sucked up into the melting pot for routine rumination.
Recognising these associated factors opens up the potential for trade-offs and balances between power and authority that might affect the flavour of sovereignty, or at least bring forth the notion of contextual sovereignty. With these under the proverbial belt, observers might become more receptive to the direction of the European project.
Even a small degree of movement, and the 2016 referendum would likely never have made it past the gobwaffle fringes.
But the gaping chasm between perspectives is where the unmanaged divergence started that ended in the rancorous split. The UK is largely fixed on national sovereignty – absolute and definitive within its domestic boundaries – while the EU is all about a notional sovereignty of its amalgamated nations and overall border remit.
And never the twain shall meet.
You can see how this whole shebang is founded on one bed of snarling crossed purposes. Any nation that had not bought into the European Grand Design might naturally recoil at the reimagined notion of sovereignty that smacked of surrender and engendered a strong desire to, erm, take back control.
For Europhiles, membership of the EU does not mean that any nation loses its sovereignty, but it does mean that the authority of nations to make some decisions must be delegated. This might mean acquiring more power on some counts (this is EU philosophical territory in a nutshell) or losing it altogether on others. That is the real ‘deal’.
If nation states on the continent delegate that authority, it is still sovereignty but pooled power, assigned to one single supra-national executive.
The trick is understanding what trade-offs each can bear that give them an overall better outcome. Is the ECJ such a big deal if the vast majority of their judgements are perfectly aligned with the UK courts? Conversely, does losing the freedom of movement matter if the overwhelming mass of UK citizens might never use it? The principle of the trade-offs cuts both ways.
Ireland, for example, has been a both a winner and a loser on this very score in the past year. A winner through the combined support of the EU27 on Brexit – and a loser when the EU thereafter fixed its new budget and screwed them over. There is, after all, no such thing as a free lunch.
The unity of the EU27 is in itself a stark definition of reduced sovereignty in the national sense, but arguably increased power (and therefore sovereignty) in the notional sense. Each has abdicated its freedom to act exclusively alone, but trusts that outcomes across the board will push up the percentage of wins they might otherwise have achieved as solitary nations.
This world view sits at the heart of pro-EU philosophy on the continent, but it is kryptonite to mainstream UK thought and alien even to most pro-EU Brits, who are primarily mainly on economic benefits. The UK is firmly entrenched in EEC or Common Market mode.
The harsh truth for Remainers, though, is that even they were mostly not really that much into EU. Take a wee moment to reflect on Phoney Tony Blur’s pro-Remain New Labour coterie, who never made the case for the EU during their 13-year stint in power. You can only assume that they were either ideologically lukewarm to the whole Euro thang or saw overt Europhilia as politically too risky.
Sure, invertebrate liberals will still be poncing about with their flags and their pleas to ‘keep our star safe’, but the main tranche of their rhetoric will lament that ‘leaving Europe’ will make the UK poorer (but in the fiscal sense only). They are now playing catch-up on what Europe really means – and banging the drum loudly – but self-defeatingly for the wrong reasons.
While the popular views are that Brexit was won by a combination of Leave lies and Remain reticence, we can look back as far as the Blair years to see when the guns of Euro-polularity in the UK were spiked.
Of course, now that the political risk has evaporated, these clowns are the loudest in the circus.
We should also not forget the continental European reluctance to engage with the UK and to spread the Euroword. I cannot recall any evangelists who furthered their objectives by never leaving the confines of their own church, and the Brussels gang maintained this stance even on the home straight prior to the 2016 vote. Quite remarkable really.
We will all ultimately decide for ourselves whether Brexit was really worth it, but a realignment with Europe will follow only a comprehensive enculturation from a near standing start.
If this could not be achieved from within during 47 years of full membership, it does not look too promising now, even if we were to power ourselves from the heat of the bridges we have all now burned both at home and abroad.