The upcoming Brexit referendum is firmly about ‘taking back control’ if Leave campaigners are to be believed. They want to take back control over UK borders, over the number of immigrants and over the laws that, according to them, are mostly decided in Brussels (not the case by the way). The idea of national sovereignty that resides in the mother of all parliaments in Westminster is at the heart of this argument.
This sovereignty story has an appeal that goes beyond the hard-core Brexiteers as a recent column by the Daily Telegraph International Business Editor Ambrose Evans-Pritchard suggested. But what is rarely mentioned is that the flip side of the superficially positive message of ‘taking back control’ is the isolation of the UK on its isles (sceptred or otherwise). To show this one has to explain the concepts of shared power and pooled sovereignty which are not the same. As a Twitter discussion with Evans-Pritchard showed, this is not clear so it is worth making the argument here.
The concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics explains the difference very well in its definition of ‘pooled sovereignty’:
A term used to denote the sharing of decision‐making powers between states in systems of international cooperation. Whereas unanimous decision‐making between states leaves sovereignty unscathed, given the right of any state to unilaterally veto decisions, pooling of sovereignty implies a departure from unanimous decision‐making. The most prominent system of international cooperation in which sovereignty is pooled is the European Union (EU). In a number of issue areas which have been defined in the treaty and subsequent treaty amendments, the member state delegates in the Council, one of the EU’s legislative organs, decide by a qualified majority. Consequently, pooling creates the possibility that individual member states can be outvoted. The main reason why states choose to pool sovereignty is to reduce the likelihood of gridlock in policy areas where—on average—states expect to be better off by pooling sovereignty than by retaining the unanimity rule. This has been the case particularly in the context of creating a European single market for goods and services. The introduction of qualified majority voting in these issues demonstrated that EU member states valued the benefits of the abolition of trade barriers more than those that would have been associated with retaining the right to veto.
So, basically, shared power means governments come together in the EU to hammer out common decisions. Their joint aim is consensus as there won’t be an EU position if opinions are split because each country has a veto. EU foreign policy in the case of Iraq was one such case of a non-position.
In areas like the single market pooled sovereignty means individual states can be outvoted as the basis of ‘sovereignty’ is not their national realm but the EU as a whole. This applies to every member state but the UK in particular seems to dislike a system in which it theoretically cannot have its way all the time.
So what does ‘take back control’ then really mean? It means that the UK would withdraw from both shared power and pooled sovereignty so there could only be an alignment of preferences if, by coincidence, the EU position is the same as the UK one. Since the framework of working towards a consensus would also be gone even consultative structures would have to be created again – from scratch. A coincidental alignment of interests is also less and less likely after Brexit.
So ‘taking back control’ based on a narrow idea of purely national sovereignty means that the UK can in effect run its own house but it has no say at all in how its large neighbourhood is governed. What’s more, the neighbours no longer have any incentive to consider the UK’s position as the reluctant neighbour has eventually decided to withdraw from the joint council. The UK would be increasingly isolated as a result.
Brexiters argue in a fundamentally illogical way when they suggest that the UK will have more influence outside the EU. If the argument is that the UK position within the EU is very often steamrolled over (which is not the case by the way) why would the remaining EU countries suddenly be any more accommodating when the UK walks away from the table and they have less of an incentive to accommodate British views? German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble made clear that in his view voting ‘out’ really means out. And why would global powers such as the US and China deal with the UK in a preferential manner when they have much bigger fish to fry? Remember Barack Obama’s ‘back of the queue‘ comment?
The interdependent nature of today’s world means that true sovereignty can no longer simply mean running your own house but also having a say in the neighbourhood and the wider global context. That is the fundamental reason why these procedures were introduced in the first place! Yes, pooled sovereignty means opening the doors to your house but others do the same in return. Pulling up the drawbridge is no solution.
A vote for Brexit therefore is a vote for isolation – and it won’t be ‘splendid isolation‘ either as it also means the marginalisation of the UK in European and global affairs.