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False : « UK and EU are sovereign equals »





On December 31, the United Kingdom is supposed to leave the European Union, more than four years after the Brexit referendum, in June 2016.

Negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU have recently been marked by rhetoric from the British government claiming that Great Britain and the European Union would be sovereign equals. According to that claim, Great Britain should be negotiating on an equal footing with the European Union, as any other state of the world.

There are reasons to consider that this claim is neither valid or relevant in terms of analysing the post Brexit relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.


First of all, sovereignty is a legal notion attributed to States. A State is sovereign, which means it has the full power in its own territory. On an international scale, a sovereign state is independent from other countries. According to that definition, saying that Great Britain and the European Union are sovereign equals is not valid, for the simple reason that European Union is not a state. It’s a treaty which gather 27 independent and sovereign states, united by common rights and rules.

However, it’s true that negotiations put around the table two distinct entities : a state – United Kingdom – and an association of states – the European Union.

Even if we consider sovereignty not as a legal definition, but as the capacity to decide without any constraint, these two entities are not equal. They are tied together by a ratio of power which is unfavourable to Great Britain. First, their size : the EU is much bigger, on all levels (demographic, economic) than UK, and therefore much more powerful.

Second, because Great Britain, being part of the European Union, has maintained close links with it and this particular connection makes the UK dependent on the EU in many aspects. This interconnection and interdependence is evident on an economic level.

In a column in The Guardian published the February 28, 2020, the French minister of European Affairs Amélie de Montchalin alluded to : « The UK companies [she]meets every days » which « do not want to sever their ties with the EU internal market and its 450 million consumers. » To sum up, due to their historical and particular relationship, the UK and the EU are interconnected and interdependent. But the ratio of power is asymmetrical.

This final point gives rise to the question of the economic independence – and sovereignty – of a country. It seems that in a globalized world, if a country aims to be entirely sovereign, it must be or alone, or the most powerful one, in order to impose its views to the other countries. It is not the case of Great Britain.


To conclude, Britain and the EU don’t seem to be sovereign equals whatever the way we interpret the term of sovereignty. Nevertheless, if that claim seems irrelevant to analyze the relationship between the UK and the EU, it helps us to understand the Brexiters’ conception of the EU, and the mentality that led British people to vote for Brexit.

Indeed, that rhetoric of British sovereignty that had supposedly been « stolen » by the European Union has been deployed during the Brexit campaign in 2016. Slogans like : « take back control of our money/of our borders/of our laws » demonstrate many Britons’ feeling of having been robbed of their sovereignty. That conception of sovereignty comes from there.

Brexiters actually consider the European Union nor as an association of independent states, but as an other government which would have taken the power of its country.