The United Kingdom considers that during the Brexit negociations, the European Union is not treating it as its equal. Several months after the Brexit deadline, in a tweet posted on August 5 2020, the British Cabinet Office declared that United Kingdom and European Union are « sovereign equals ». This statement has been used many times by the British governement, especially by cabinet minister Michael Gove. It seems mostly false.
Now the UK has left the EU, we can build upon our existing friendship as sovereign equals.
— Cabinet Office (@cabinetofficeuk) August 5, 2020
Sovereignty is a really complex concept. It has been discussed for centuries by philosophers and lawyers and written in many constitutions. After all these years, these brilliant people seems to agree on a definition. Sovereignty is, according to Stephan D.Krasner, an American law teacher, the control that a state exercises on its people and territory. An extended conception of sovereignty also includes the control of the country’s border, and its recognition by other states.
Within this definition, can we consider that both entities are sovereign?
Let’s begin with the European Union. This international institution is composed of 27 sovereign states. They transfer some of their competences, like competition rules or monetary policy. Inside the European Union, big decisions are taken with the rule of unanimity. In a sovereign country, most of the time, the majority is used to take decisions.
The European Union is based on the « Treaty of the European Union », signed by the members in 2007. Article 50 of this convention, also called « Treaty of Lisbon », allows a member state to leave the supranational organization after a referndum. Even if the process is really long and fastidious, it still exists, and a European state has voted to start a procedure in 2016…
In a nutshell, the European Union didn’t seem to be a sovereign organisation. The institution doesn’t have its own military or police force to enforce law. European laws are agreed and adopted by the states that are members of European Union. So the European Union is not as sovereign as the British Cabinet Office said.
And what about the United Kingdom? As a country, it is, obviously sovereign. But, in joining the European Union, it made the choice to give some competences to the bloc, to decide about the future of Europe. It also signed up for rules, including the one allowing it leave the Union. The UK has to respect this, even if it argues its independence. By this definition, we could say that the United Kingdom not as sovereign as it pretends, even if, legally, nothing constrains it. And, in an other way, being a sovereign country doesn’t make a difference when it comes to negotiating several parts of international relationships: the European Union is bigger than the United Kingdom, and therefore stronger in the negotiations.
The concept of sovereignty is tempered by many political orientations, international agreements and commercial links.
The European Union’s sovereignty is debatable. But from a legal point of view, it seems that the statement of the British Cabinet Office is mostly false. So, why does the British Government need to claim the European Union and United Kingdom are « sovereign equals »? It would seem for political reasons. Members of the government consider the European Union is too powerful, and emphasising the UK’s eventual sovereignty tends to show the fact that the supranational Organization exceeds its prerogatives.