Its about Sovereignty, stupid – which is why we need a long extension

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 Michael Grubb discusses three realities about Brexit that need to be recognised in order to move the process forward. There should be time for a wider debate about what sovereignty means which only a long extension can offer. 

So, some 33 tortuous months after the Brexit Referendum, the third rejection of May’s deal means that Parliament now has 10 days to propose a way forward. Within days, they must winnow down last week’s ‘indicative votes’ into a viable option – one which must recognize three core Realities.

The first was exposed by the Referendum itself, and ever since: the deadlock is about Sovereignty. The economic arguments pounded by ‘Remain’ simply shirk what resonates most with many Leave voters – sovereignty and control. For decades, governments of all persuasions stressed the EU as an economic venture, a big market, a Union to increase economic gains as spoils for its members to barter over. Economics dominated the Remain approach. Don’t talk about the elephant on the table.

The resulting dialogue of the deaf is tearing the country apart. The first Reality is that the EU does require Member States to pool sovereignty in important areas. We need the debate we should have had all along – not just in the Referendum, but in the years of denial that created the crucible for it.

Dead or Alive, the importance of May’s deal is that gave form to the real elephant, if we look closely enough. It underlines the fact that sovereignty, as Mrs Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary famously remarked, is not like virginity which you either have or you don’t.  It is a resource to be used. The Great Question should always have been: how do we want to use it?

The Leave answer was simple: get out, ‘take control’. It is that simplicity which has crashed horribly into reality – and that is not May’s fault. The second Reality involves such simple and undeniable logic that it should have been acknowledged on the first day after the Referendum, not on the 1000th, which has just passed. No hard border within Ireland, and none down the Irish sea – as agreed by all main parties all along – means no hard border between Britain and the EU. The famous ‘backstop’ guarantees this. The demands of hardline Brexiteers for ‘alternative arrangements’ was a euphemism for their own failure to find any, beyond vague appeals to technology.  My teenage children could see that was like demanding the EU agree that 1 plus 1 could, if all else fails, equal 3.

The prize sought with this effort was, of course, a degree of trade freedom which is incompatible with the absence of customs checks at the UK-EU borders. This brings us to the third Reality – the global context. When Mrs May went to the G20 Summit in China to start exploring trade interests, the Chinese were bewildered. A country with one twentieth of their population wants to leave a bloc that has half their population, and expects detailed attention leading to a more favorable trade deal?  I was in China then and my hosts were dumbfounded that a country could so totally fail to understand the realities of the 21st Century.

With a whole Department dedicated to trade, the achievements have been almost invisible. It is hard to improve on existing trade deals struck as part of a major bloc. ‘Trade freedom’ has migrated from an economic, to a political, to a now largely symbolic expression of sovereignty. We can pay for our own trade negotiators and customs officers, but they can’t achieve much of value, beyond the biggest prize – of a good trade deal with the EU.

Global reality comprises negotiations amongst the major powers – principally China, the US and EU, but with other rising nations (like India, which also has 20 times the UK population).  The UK’s principal choice is whether we work within one of those blocs, or view the main global events from the periphery. The irony is that the UK’s relationship with the US gave us exceptiona

l leverage on the EU position from within. As a channel to Europe, it also enhanced our influence on the US. Both would be lost upon exit. We could of course find partners, like the “environmental integrity group” of the global climate negotiations which comprises Mexico, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Korea, Switzerland and Georgia. That helps to illuminate the third Reality.

That leaves the UK with two main options. One is May’s deal or some other variant with no hard border (like a Customs Union). Leave the EU and assert sovereignty in critical areas, like migration and jurisdictional powers. Unfortunately because both political (as with Northern Ireland) and economic (EU trade) interests link us anyway so closely with the EU, the consequence is to reduce sovereignty in key economic sectors – where de facto we would have to align with EU rules we would no longer help to forge. We also accept to be a second rank power, at best, mostly watching the great events of the 21st Century from the sidelines.

That may seem like a high price to pay; it is. But back to the basics. The EU’s development necessitates Member States to pool sovereignty, in important swathes of decision-making. As Julie Smith charted in her candid book, in telling ourselves it was all about markets, the UK went along with much of this without sufficient Parliamentary scrutiny or public debate.

So the honest alternative is to acknowledge the EU as a political project.  A new approach to national-international governance, which on the positive side has provided the umbrella for peace in Ireland and in central Europe, but which requires us to change our traditional notions of sovereignty. One which implies some common identity and purpose, building and extending shared values of liberal democracy. To assert our sovereignty as a major power within the EU, not as a modest island off its shores. To conceive and debate the ultimate paradox suggested by the last 33 months, and May’s deal – that Brexit could actually reduce our sovereignty and control.

The EU’s patience is worn thin. They are tired of the UK and its apparent chronic inability to face these three Realities. Parliament, it seems, still has one last chance to converge on options that eschew fantasy and reflect the real tradeoffs. Its routemap must include – demand – the time for the real national debate that we should have had all along: about what our sovereignty means in the modern world and how best to wield it. For all sides though, that is a big ask.


Michael Grubb is Professor of Energy and Climate Change at UCL.


Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL

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Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

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