The Brexit campaign of 2016 was a volatile one; full of anger, disinformation, fear-mongering. A campaign in which chaos, slogans, mottos and sound-bites were created with little regard for accuracy or credibility. That is the political age in which we live; ignorance is revered, accuracy is irrelevant, integrity is out-dated and decency has expired. It would be poetic if it wasn’t so painfully catastrophic.
Catastrophe or not, the UK is leaving the European Union on the 29th of March 2019. By a margin of over a million votes, the British public have opted to remove themselves from what one side called an ambitious and prosperous union, and what the other side called a bureaucratic deadweight holding our nation back. Either way, reciting and reliving the results of the 23rd of June 2016 would be pointless; I wish to focus on a more specific aspect of the Brexit process.
The campaigns from both sides in the build-up to the referendum offered a vast array of arguments, propositions and consequences for exiting the EU. There were reasonable points raised by both sides, however, the campaigns also saw their fair share of hyperbole, scare-tactics and disingenuous promises, all accompanied by platitudes and generic, meaningless sound-bites.
‘Take Back Control!’ was the one that stuck in my mind. This phrase fascinated me not only because of its popularity but also because of its implications. Britain had supposedly lost its sovereignty to the bureaucrats in Brussels and we must have it back!
Among the plethora of disingenuous and misleading phrases employed during the campaigns, this one stood out to me the most. National sovereignty being presented as a binary concept that we, the British people, must possess but do not due to it being exclusively executed by Brussels is a fundamental misrepresentation of what sovereignty is. This representation trespasses on the political integrity of the campaign by implying that it exists in two states, we have it or we don’t, which is wholly inaccurate.
Sovereignty, in the context of the U.K.’s relationship with the EU, refers to the authority that Britain possesses to govern itself and assert legislative, judicial and military power over its own territory. However, sovereignty is not a binary concept. It exists on a spectrum. A state can forfeit sovereignty over some areas and retain it in others. The notion that we have lost this authority, control and power to the EU in an absolute sense is fatuous. Yet, it became the hallmark of the legislative reasons behind leaving and is still employed today in justifying why we left. There are many ways in which this fluid, modern and more complex notion of sovereignty can be evidenced.
The Schengen Agreement of 1985 which effectively abolished the border control between signatory states, was seen as a step towards deeper European integration. However, the U.K. government was not as keen on this as its continental neighbours and opted-out of the agreement. This was because the UK, as an island state, determined that it needed greater border checks and territorial control in order to maintain the highest level of security and political integrity. Thus, we see how the UK exercised sovereignty over the degree at which we participate in the European project and retaining control over border checks.
Similarly, after the 1992 Maastricht Treaty was signed which, among other things, established the Euro as the official currently of the EU, the UK opted out. Then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did not wish to participate in the unitary monetary policy precisely because of its domestic political implications and the potential for too much power, or you could say, sovereignty, to be given to Europe so we did not enter.
We have control. We have always had control, and we have exercised our national and parliamentary sovereignty on multiple occasions since joining the European Economic Community in 1973. Whether one believes sovereignty was first realised after the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, or after the 1815 Congress of Vienna or after the San Francisco Conference of 1945, sovereignty, parliamentary or otherwise, is not a binary and is not something we need to reclaim in order to maintain our national integrity and independence.
This maintenance of independence was even codified in 2009 with the Lisbon Treaty – the EU’s attempt at a constitution – with Article 5.2 stating that under the Principal of Conferral, the EU shall only exercise power within the limits of the competences afforded to it by Member States. As a result, competences and powers not conferred upon the EU in the Treaties remain with the Member States. So, it is even constitutionally evident that member states are able to retain the power and sovereignty they desire, with the EU only having control over areas they are allowed to have control over.
This was one in a litany of great deceptions of the Brexit campaign. A deliberate misrepresentation of the concept and a criminally disingenuous portrayal of the practice.
The Brexit debate will not slow. It is the biggest political event the UK will have to deal with since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and there are no signs the process is going to get any easier or any less vitriolic. But, if we can start to recognise false arguments for what they are, start to acknowledge facts over fiction and refuse to be ‘tired of experts’, as prominent Leaver Michael Gove suggested in 2016, starting with the basics of sovereignty, we may be able to conduct a meaningful political discourse that is not perpetually reduced to meaningless noise from both sides.
Author: Leo N Barnes