Since Britain formally left the EU in January 2020, several British government members have made comments referring to the UK as being “sovereign equals” with the EU. This is a common claim that has been at the centre of the whole debate about Brexit since 2016. From now on, politicians such as the UK’s chief negotiator David Frost, and representatives such as the Cabinet Office, seems to consider that leaving the EU created a situation in which the UK gained equality.
Now the UK has left the EU, we can build upon our existing friendship as sovereign equals.
— Cabinet Office (@cabinetofficeuk) August 5, 2020
A question of autonomy
This is a vast subject that mostly is the result of the way we define the word “sovereign”. Most of the time, we understand it as the powers that are entitled to a government, or a country. To that extent, we can say the UK surrendered a bit of its sovereignty to the EU since the principle of the organisation is that a group of countries willingly decide to take part in a larger group to decide together on common subjects. Those subjects are very significant and concern matters such as immigration, for example since it seems to have cristalized a lot of frustration, yes a country can no longer decide on its own. Yet, the UK never accepted the Schengen Convention.
It is interesting to remember the negotiations that took place when the UK entered the EU in 1973. From the beginning, the UK kept its independence on various subjects. Money was also a very important point when it comes to being sovereign. The UK never entered the « euro zone » and kept power over its own currency. They also paid less than the other members on common budget, a phenomenon known as “British rebate”. On various subjects, we can observe that the UK, from the beginning, kept the most regalian powers it could.
A willing membership
As we said, being part of the the EU is an act that is decided willingly. Saying now that leaving the EU is getting back a form of autonomy and equality is forgetting that the very act of entering it was an act of sovereignty. When becoming part of EU was decided, it was voted by the House of Commons, elected by the people. It was also agreed by the queen which embodies the very sovereignty of the nation, and it was later confirmed in a referendum one year later. From the beginning, this was the expression of a choice and the UK was aware that the EU demands participation and that some rules exist.
We can say that the UK is now changing it’s position toward the EU but saying that it is getting back it’s sovereignty is a bit far fetched and more of a rhetorical argument to play on fears that existed even before 1973. It is also important to understand that from now on, the UK has lost all the privileges that were part of belonging to the EU such as access to the common market. The whole point of leaving EU was allegedly to gain more independence, but right now, for these for economic negotiations, it seems to have weakened their market power – one critical aspect of sovereignty.