British ‘sovereignty’ post-Brexit: not quite what was in the mystery box

Article published on Sept. 21, 2016
Article published on Sept. 21, 2016

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The pro-Brexit campaign promised voters that the UK would have greater 'sovereignty' should the country decide to leave. However, the reality could see more restrictions in practice.

In the fun and games of the Brexit referendum campaign, one particularly amusing meme emerged on the net. It was of Mr. Burns offering the ‘mystery box’. However, this box, instead of being a bribe to nuclear safety inspectors, was the ‘Leave’ offer represented to the British electorate: Vote Brexit. We don’t quite know what might happen if we go (who cares about experts, after all?) But things will be better if we are out of the EU. You can count on it. Come on, be exciting and enterprising. Open the box.

The promises went further than plain old mystery however. Some states-of-affairs were confidently predicted as becoming categorically superior should Britain vote to leave. One of these, and the focus of this article, was the lure of ‘sovereignty’.

This issue had been passionately pushed by the Eurosceptic press years before the referendum campaign. The tyrant Brussels has long been blamed for restraining Britain in key policy areas, from freedom of movement to fisheries. Not only was the brutish European Union a burden on Britain’s potentially great political and free-trading future, but it was the petty bureaucrat that banned curved bananas and funded, with taxpayers’ money, dance lessons in Burkina Faso. These examples were only two of many that upset true, upstanding Britons, of course.

As such, the rhetoric of ‘sovereignty’ was a key weapon in the Brexiteers’ arsenal during the referendum campaign. Not only was it engrained and emotive, but it had a useful malleability. ‘Sovereignty’ could be adapted to many gripes: without imposing EU legislation, Britain could ‘take back control’ of its borders or cut finicky red tape, for instance.

To illustrate this, it is worth looking over the language of editorials in key Eurosceptic newspapers. Here are just a few. The Sunday Telegraph claimed that ‘the Leave campaign has articulated an ambitious vision for Britain as an independent nation, once again free to make its own decisions.’ The Daily Mail, in its special comment piece, raged that ‘the EU is an edifice built on lies — starting with the blatant untruth, peddled when we signed up to the Common Market in 1973, that we were joining nothing more threatening than a tariff-free trading zone, which would involve no sacrifice of sovereignty.’ The Sun urged its readers to ‘BeLeave in Britain’, to leave the sclerotic and burdensome Brussels machine.

As can be seen, there was no shortage of opinion arguing the importance of ‘sovereignty’ to the electorate. As stated, this rhetoric framed many disparate issues. However, it is worth unpicking how British voters actually understood - and continue to understand - ‘sovereignty’. In general, the British public comprehends the concept indirectly through its malleability – many thought that their concerns related to it, but when polled, ‘sovereignty’ as a distinct issue has scored rather poorly. Research by Ipsos MORI confirms this – tangible issues such as immigration and the NHS predominate, in comparison to something as dry and abstract as ‘sovereignty’.

This leads us to the situation regarding Brexit. The May administration has reaffirmed that it will fight for British ‘sovereignty’, with its nebulous promises represented by the empty soundbite that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. The general expectation will be that Britain will try to reclaim some of its ‘sovereignty’, somehow. But what does that mean actually regarding the specific definition of ‘sovereignty’? How will it affect the major concerns of the British electorate?

An in-depth report published by esteemed think tank Chatham House has examined sovereignty post-Brexit. Of course, by sovereignty it specifically meant the definition pertaining to the power and influence of political decision-making, rather than the catch-all espoused by Brexiteers. Needless to say, it confirms that Britain already had a great say over decisions made at Brussels.

Furthermore, the notion of ‘regaining’ absolute sovereignty is explained to be either irrelevant or impractical for many concerns. Westminster already controls most issues that Britons care about, such as the NHS, while British governments have long understood that pragmatic trade-offs of sovereignty can lead to beneficial results. This is the case with its membership of multiple international organisations, such as NATO, the UN and the World Trade Organisation. It is disingenuous to say that an internationally isolated and uncompromising country suddenly has more power and influence at home and abroad. If this were the case, North Korea would surely be the most ‘sovereign’ nation on the planet.

The newly ‘independent’ UK may find that it has less of a say over EU-related issues that concern it. To some, this may seem obvious. But to others, like the new Minister for Brexit, David Davis, this may come as a surprise – like requiring all EU member states to agree to a trade deal. Who knew!

A potential taster of things to come came from Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico. Recently speaking on behalf of the Visegrad Group, he stated that the UK must admit freedom of movement for a trade deal to be acceptable. For a Slovakian politician to lecture the UK on its international options certainly seems like a novelty, historically speaking. Perhaps this is the new ‘sovereignty’ promised by the Brexit campaign?

Of course, the notion of ‘sovereignty’ could easily have been merely a rhetorical device to convince Britons to vote for Brexit. For many prominent Eurosceptics, having won the referendum, it has outlived its usefulness and may be dropped. Of course, it wouldn’t have been the only major promise to have been jettisoned after the result. The commitment to pledge money from the UK’s EU contributions to the NHS appears to have passed away also.

Whatever happens in the future, it may not be what many Leave voters expected. The promise of a resplendent and invigorated Britannia, specifically tackling the major concerns of the nation, may not arise in the way that they have been led to believe. The prize of improved ‘sovereignty’, both in terms of its explicit political aspects and of the hot topics covered by its loose definition, may not be in Mr. Burns’s mystery box.