« Now the UK has left the EU, we can build upon our existing friendship as sovereign equals », the UK cabinet office tweeted on August 5 2020. As negotiations between the UK and the EU are still ongoing about the final agreement, the UK government keeps repeating that Britain and the EU should be considered « sovereign equals ». The government is entitled to hope for this kind of relationship, but the idea of the UK and the EU being « sovereign equals » is questionable.
The idea appears in a document presented by the prime minister in February 2020. In this text, titled « The future relationship with the EU », the government describes its policy towards the new relationship between the two. It calls for « a relationship based on friendly cooperation between sovereign equals, with both parties respecting one another’s legal autonomy and right to manage their own resources as they see fit. Whatever happens, the Government will not negotiate any arrangement in which the UK does not have control of its own laws and political life. That means that we will not agree to any obligations for our laws to be aligned with the EU’s, or for the EU’s institutions, including the Court of Justice, to have any jurisdiction in the UK ».
Now the UK has left the EU, we can build upon our existing friendship as sovereign equals.
— Cabinet Office (@cabinetofficeuk) August 5, 2020
What is « sovereignty »?
« Sovereignty » is a particularly polysemic notion. Its definition depends on the political opinion of the one who speaks. However, the United Kingdom can unambiguously be defined as a sovereign state. It is thanks to its sovereignty that UK’s people could vote the Brexit and manage to exit the EU. In this representative democracy, Parliament possesses the legislative and ultimate authority.
According to Albert Vann Dicey, a nineteen-century jurist, the British parliament has « the right to make or unmake any law whatever; and, further, that no person or body is recognized by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament. » Two centuries after, this definition of sovereignty is similar to the current government’s claim for complete control of its laws and political life.
Sovereignty is commonly associated with a nation, a state or (in a more revolutionary view) with the people. We can talk about national sovereignty, state sovereignty, parliamentary sovereignty or popular sovereignty. But can we say, as the UK government does, that the European Union has its own sovereignty?
The EU is neither a state nor a nation. Consequently, from a legal point of view, it has no sovereignty. Nor can we say that there is a sovereign European people. Indeed, the only EU universal suffrage is the European parliamentary election. But MEPs can only vote or amend the law projects presented by the unelected European Commission, as it is the only institution empowered to initiate legislation.
EU institutions are supranational and powerful. They are not based on the idea of sovereignty, but on the balance of power between member states.
A new international relations order
International relations traditionally occur between states, since the end of the Thirty-years war and the signature of Westphalia treaties in 1648. By using « sovereign equals » to define its relation to the EU, the UK tried to imitate the Westphalian order. But this pattern doesn’t fit the current negotiation: on one hand, the UK is a state and on the other hand, the EU is the union of twenty-seven other states. The traditional pattern of western international relations has been shaken by increasing globalization and European integration, and has in effect become obsolete as a means of defining the relationship between the two.
Since the European Union has developed an internal market and a customs union, trade agreements – which are the big part of the current discussion – cannot be negotiated at an interstate level.
However, the Westphalian order isn’t completely dead. Defence and diplomacy remain issues that are managed at the level of individual states. For instance, member states still have their own armies and diplomatic corps, while the EU hasn’t managed to build its own defence and foreign policy.
As far as free-trade is concerned, interstate relation became out-of-date in the current Europe operation. Free-trade agreements are signed between the EU and « third states ». Such is the case of Canada for Ceta or Mexico for Mercosur. With the claim that it is a « sovereign equal » for the EU, the UK government seems to be pushing the idea that the UK should be treated as a third-state by the EU, that is to say like Canada, the US or any other independent country.
The assertion is not relevant because the EU and the UK are different in kind. One is a union of sovereign states and the other is a sovereign state. The British government can legitimately hope for an equal relationship between the UK and the EU, but for obvious economic reasons, they are not on a level playing field. The lexical battle played by the UK is part of a show of force inherent in any negotiation.