Fact Check

Uncheckable: Are the United Kingdom and the European Union sovereign equals?



During a selection committee about the future of the European Union and the United Kingdom’s relationship, the Member of Parliament Michael Gove declared that the success [of the discussions] depended on the EU recognizing the UK as a sovereign equal. As the term sovereignty is open to diverse interpretations, the UK and the EU cannot be compared. As a matter of fact, we cannot state that the UK could have a sovereign power equal to the EU.


In 2016, the Brexiters’ campaign insisted on “taking back control” of British sovereignty. Since 1973 as the United Kingdom became a member of the European Union, the country was said to have lost certain powers. Four years of negotiations later, in May 2020, Michael Gove, a Member of Parliament stated: “The success depends on the EU recognizing the UK as a sovereign equal”. Thereafter he described the EU as “a club” in which one would have to pay to have access to privileges. One should first ask what the definition of sovereignty is. When a state is concerned, sovereign equality is the concept in which every sovereign state possesses the same legal rights as any other sovereign state in international law.

Following the second round of future relationship negotiations with the UK, Michel Barnier, chief negotiator for the European Commission, pointed out: “As sovereigns, each side must be able to decide with full sovereignty, on the conditions of access to our respective markets” comparing a market of 450 million people, the EU’s, and one of 66 million people, the UK. Therefore, both Michel Barnier and Michael Gove agree on their main disagreements: fisheries, governance and level playing field.

Moreover, sovereignty is a matter of interpretation, how a country sees the world and its relationship with others. On the first hand, there is the UK’s idea of sovereignty. Published in February 2020, in a report untitled The Future relationship with the EU subtitled the UK’s approach to negotiations, the Prime minister explained what sovereign equals means for the UK: that it would be “both parties respecting one another’s legal autonomy and right to manage their own resources as they see fit”, “we will not agree to any obligations for your laws to be aligned with the EU’s”. As a matter of fact, the UK wants to end Brussels’ influence over its national laws.

On the other hand, the EU considers that a country alone cannot enjoy the same legitimacy as 27 other countries. Hence Michel Barnier’s quote earlier about the markets’ size… So, can the EU and the UK even be compared? Plus, the numerous free-trade agreements between multiple countries and 21st century trade lead us to ask to what extent can a country be sovereign in 2020?

In The flawed logic of “sovereign equals”, Chris Grey, a former professor of Cambridge University, explains the change in the government’s approach to the negotiation under Boris Johnson. Through politics and negotiations, he tried to make each side believe they are doing the right thing, meaning not choosing, according to Chris Grey: “Once the rules are bent, they cease to be bent. Hence the impossibility of being both a beneficiary and a non-member”. If the UK obtained what it has asked for, the EU system would fall apart. That is why the UK does not want to be treated as a third country, as Canada or Japan.


Be that as it may, one could ask itself whether leaving the EU will enable the UK to be sovereign again?


Margot Michel and Aurore Thibault