The Brexit campaign has brought a core political issue to the forefront once again: the ability of a people to decide its own fate. The slogan Taking our country back resonated with not just the Leave campaign. The concept expressed a feeling of lost control – of lost sovereignty- and a desire to take it back. You do not have to be a nationalist or consider yourself a sovereignist to relate to these ideas. However, delving back into the question of sovereignty raises a difficult question: where exactly is this ever-present absence of sovereignty?
Sovereignty is a core concept of modern political philosophy. Popular sovereignty, as developed very clearly by Rousseau, does not offer an exhaustive definition and opens the door to at least two complementary dimensions: the sovereignty of nations within the framework of international law; and the power of a State to print money, levy taxes, make expenditures, and shape its economy.
These three dimensions of sovereignty are inherent to modern democracy and to its core institution, the State. They occupy a privileged space in representation, founding texts and civic debate.
Clearly, there is no chemically pure version, and never in the course of modern history has there been an instance of full sovereignty in any place. The nation states of the 19th century were the closest expression of the concept in the international order and those very nation states were engulfed in power struggles. Sovereign debt crises are as old as currencies and are a reminder of the very relative autonomy that States actually have in their monetary and tax policy. The sovereign people is required, therefore, to place its power in the hands of representatives over which, however, it has but limited and occasional control.
Essentially, sovereignty is an operative concept that is indispensable to modern democracy, and yet it is immediately diluted once implemented in reality. For several decades now there has been a trend towards heightened dilution.
In international relations, mid-sized powers such as France and Great Britain began realising, as of 1965, that they were no longer capable of political autonomy. At the start of the 21st century, the global power of the United States and the regional powers of Russia and China struggle to extricate themselves from an international order despite its evident weaknesses. Beijing in the South China Sea, Moscow in Ukraine and Syria, Washington in the Middle East, in all of these instances there is no escaping the common rules or the will of their competitors without paying a steep price and with mixed results at best. Other countries take a neutral stance – at best – or experience “limited sovereignty” in the Leonid Brejnev sense of the term – at worst. Generally speaking, all countries, without exception, are subject to interdependence and heteronomy.
When it comes to the economic and financial realm, globalisation has completely changed things. In industry, the internationalisation of value chains has bolstered the clout of corporations vis-à-vis the States, strengthening the trend towards the specialisation of national economies and placing economic choices firmly in a context of interdependence. This can bring about painful trade-offs: the death of British steel (under Indian control for several years now), after the fall in world prices linked to Chinese surpluses, was accompanied by lower steel prices which was beneficial for the British automotive and aeronautical industries. The recent increase in European customs duties changes the terms of this trade-off, but by no means erases the need to make choices. To put it simply, when it comes to industrial policy Great Britain is no longer master of its own destiny. The country is forced to choose – to make choices that are not sovereign trade-offs but are often decisions made within the constraints of conditions set by non-domestic entities. As for financial and monetary policy, the situation is no better: the power of the markets and the delegation of monetary policy to specialised institutions constitute a considerable limit to a State’s sovereignty. Even the “exorbitant privilege” of the dollar is limited by the power given to major debtors and by the price of currency wars.
So, the sovereign people guides the general directions taken in domestic policy but has a significantly decreased ability to choose and to have oversight in a world increasingly bound by standards and measures that are produced by experts who are beyond the authority of the citizens or their representatives. To add to that, in Western democracies, particularly in Europe, States have lost influence in a shift in prominence to regional and national authorities. The logic of subsidiarity – which is part and parcel of European construction – naturally decreases the power of the national capitals, which have been the traditional symbol of national sovereignty, and increases that of regional areas and centres of power. Here we see again the dilution of sovereignty in its classical meaning: as an expression of the unity of people and the coherence of power.
It is against this backdrop that the Brexit debate should be analysed.
Leave voters expressed first and foremost a feeling of lost control, of lost sovereignty, which is anything but fantastical. The world is beyond their control, just as it is beyond the control of their country, and their country is beyond the control of their State. What’s worse, the world imposes itself upon them and upon their leaders. There is a simple reason for this: through the upheavals of financial crises, geopolitical conflicts and migration crises, the world integrates itself, inexorably. Financial crises, migration, and conflicts are the most tangible sign of a sometimes painful world integration. Generally, Brexit supporters were those most discontented by globalisation, or pensioners nostalgic for a time when Great Britain had major clout in international affairs.
The fact that the majority of them never actually experienced that time is another story entirely. What they did experience first-hand, however, was the progressive anchoring of the United Kingdom to the EEC (initially sold as an enlargement of the national market and London always held on to that vision); an integration Great Britain has generally tried to opt out of (British rebate obtained by Margaret Thatcher, the refusal of the Euro and of the Schengen area), and which the British political class never really supported like their continental counterparts did. The British people never truly subscribed to the “European Holy History” or Histoire sainte europeene as Thierry Pech has described it. Since the very outset they have approached Europe à la carte.
While they may not have cultivated the chimera of a ‘de-globalisation’ like their neighbours across the channel, the British did however convey to Europe their clear resentment. And to a certain extent it’s perfectly reasonable. A country suffering from a lack of sovereignty cannot withdraw from the world, but it can, on the other hand, withdraw from a political construction that progresses not by a deep evolution of world history, but by a sequence of choices that can, by definition, be overturned. It is obvious that the future costs of Brexit have been grossly underestimated; yet is that not a simply a further affirmation of that sovereignty? To not be concerned by costs? The British people have not without courage “embarked on an adventure” to paraphrase another redoubtable defender of the sovereignty of country. The rest will fall into place.
The problem is that it would be extremely difficult to subscribe to this alternative version of the holy history, the one that would have the British people proudly taking back control of their sovereignty. This version is unlikely to emerge from the adventure unscathed.
First of all, this political fiction of a sovereign people has been undermined by the fact that the decision for Brexit was supported by a slim majority of voters, (36% of voters), abandoned by its main proponents, and opposed by two thirds of the Parliament. It would be difficult to characterise as sovereign any decision that would force such a huge issue as the possible secession of Scotland to the forefront of public debate just one day after the vote. What’s more, it’s worth wondering, what type of sovereignty would emerge from a Brexit if, irony of ironies, a United Kingdom attempting to reverse its decision to leave was constrained by European partners keen to send a message to their own constituents and to certain other member states, along the lines of: “we respect you, but your choices come at a cost.” So long British rebate!
Then, the issue of Scotland and the heralded debate on Northern Ireland are a reminder of just how fragile the hallowed form of the State is, the very same that that the sovereignists want to revive. European construction has long been associated with linked to the secessionist impulses of certain Belgian and Spanish provinces. In reality, on a peaceful and unified continent the cement holding states together appears more brittle than was thought. But in the case of Great Britain, it appears that to a certain extent it was actually Europe that was the cement, and that without Europe a slogan such as Taking our country back can be potentially devastating. Several centuries of the British State – as we know it – is what is at risk.
European States were built in large part to wage war, and the very wars that tore the continent apart made those States relevant and coherent. Today, wars are economic and the maps have been redrawn. The playing field is not level: Size matters, as The Economist recently declared in a headline. Whilst highly specialised city states can capitalise on globalisation, the instruments of economic sovereignty are not accessible to mid-sized economies. They are too small to play in the big leagues and too big to hide away from the world markets. They are not able to protect the interests of their citizens, as workers or as consumers. With a population of 65 million Great Britain cannot specialise like Switzerland or a Singapore. Its major strength, finance, is not a source of job creation for the inhabitants of the industrial cities of the North-West. Integration in industry and trade are still necessary. But the United Kingdom has lost several assets. By exiting the EU, its influence over the setting of standards will be weakened. To sum up in one sentence, the size of British teabags will still be decided in Brussels, but with no political influence from London. Britain’s negotiating position with its trade partners will also feel the impact of severed membership from the EU. An entity just does not have the same leverage with a population of 65 million as it does with a population of 500 million. Under these circumstances, monetary policy might become the adjustment variable of a Great Britain hampered by the raising of EU customs barriers and by the choice of some multinationals to relocate. The other option, tax dumping, which is seriously being considered in London currently, is not without risk to public finances and to good cooperation with the Europeans. Basically, there is decreasing leeway, and it is worth considering the effects of Brexit on British economic and financial sovereignty. Great Britain might have actually have limited, not expanded, its ability to be master of its destiny.
The bad news is that in the current atmosphere of digital globalisation, the situation is not set to improve. The power relations between countries and big multinationals are increasingly unbalanced. A recent example is Privacy Shield, the EU-US framework agreement on personal data transfers from the Old Continent to the United States. The only reason it was negotiated under good conditions was because it was negotiated on a European-scale. What sort of Privacy Shield will there be for British citizens in a future where handling data will be an increasingly important issue?
Digitisation is speeding up globalisation – and the resulting loss of sovereignty – in areas that increasingly impact public life and economic development. Google and Facebook could be described as enormous worldwide public services that collect a fee that, by virtue of its universal nature, could be considered a tax. Negotiating with these giants is set to be challenging, and when it comes to international trade, size matters. States have a big role to play in this: their tax revenue and their ability to protect their citizens will be determined by the power relations that they can establish and the coalitions that they can be a part of.
The British cannot go it alone and that is the problem. Rather than being an equal partner, which is what they have essentially just given up, they will probably become a junior partner in ad-hoc partnerships like a 51st US State, or as a Fifth European wheel. Their feeling of regret for lost sovereignty is understandable. But they are not likely to recover it anytime soon.
This article was originally published on Telos