Monday, 20 June 2016


The word sovereignty has been used almost to death during the Brexit debate. At times it seems to be thought of almost as a commodity, as if we could regain sovereignty, or lose it, by the ton. As with other such terms, the more a word is used, the less useful it seems to be.

As sovereignty relates to Thursday's vote, the question is about national autonomy: the balance and proportion of law or regulation making by, on the one hand, the European structures and, on the other, by the UK government. Sometimes sovereignty gets muddled in people's minds with democracy, but they are two concepts: even if the EU structure were thoroughly democratic, the issue of sovereignty might still arise if people felt that non-UK citizens were having an unwarranted say in our affairs.

Involvement in any international trading organisation will involve some loss of sovereignty in this sense. In order to trade, there must be agreed standards, and the body that creates the standards must be shared. Regulation may include legislation to protect the worker; agreement on standards for products will not lead to fairness if a partner nation still has slavery legalised.

Other voluntary groupings also involve some loss of sovereignty; through NATO or the UN, we understand that British troops will sometimes fight under "foreign" commanders.

Thursday's question before us regarding sovereignty is whether the ceding of law-making to Brussels is disproportionate to the purpose of the partnership which Brussels regulates, and whether leaving the EU will significantly help. We need to sift through claims and exaggerations on both sides, and perhaps recognise that there will never be an absolute "restoration of sovereignty" so long as we trade with anyone.

Without foreclosing this particular question in the Brexit debate, I wonder if it expresses a more deep-rooted problem. Perhaps we are just not very good at "giving up" something of ourselves in order to contribute to a greater whole in any context. This seems to be the reason for breakdowns of many associations, from marriages through to treaties. Whether in marriage, a club, or a grouping of nations, I join You, You and I become We, and each of us surrenders some autonomy. Whether or not this issue should lead to a Leave or Remain vote is one thing; growing in my capacity to give up something of myself for a common good is quite another.

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