Fact Check

Mostly false : “ Now the UK has left the EU, we can build upon our existing friendship as sovereign equals.”


The claim:

Sovereignty has been a crucial point of pro-Brexit propaganda. Now that Brexit is about to be definitely implemented, will the UK and the EU become sovereign equals, as the British government’s campaign insists ? British cabinet member Michael Gove claims that the EU has failed to accept that the UK will be a « sovereign equal » post-Brexit. We evaluated this assertion.

What is sovereignty?

First, one has to understand the concept of “sovereignty”. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, sovereignty is “the power of a country to control its own government”. Since the EU is a group of countries and not a single country with a government to control, there is no such thing as a “European sovereignty” that could be compared with a British sovereignty. 

One could wonder if the UK was sovereign as a EU member but this is not the point here. In other words, legally speaking, considering the EU and UK as “sovereign equals” makes no sense.

Then as summed up by Michel Barnier, chief Brexit negotiator for the EU, both entities will never be equal because the imbalance in size and power is too big. The European Union with its 27 member States and 450 million consumers has way more weight in international relations, and more power in trade relations, than the UK and its 60 millions inhabitants, relying on the EU for more than half of its exports.

However, Britain is not completely powerless in the face of the EU. There is still a strong relationship between Europe and its former member. Over the years, the UK and its 27 neighbours exchanged people, technology, goods and culture. This partnership is reflected by the number of EU citizens currently living in the UK. According to the Migration observatory of the University of Oxford, there were 3.6 million EU citizens in the UK in 2018. If the EU refuses to compromise, these 3 million people will suffer the consequences.

Being a sovereign country in a globalized world

As argued in The Guardian by Amélie de Montchalin, France’s secretary of state for European Affairs, what the British see as sovereignty issues aren’t ideological, but rather practical questions needing to be tackled. “Like any free trade agreement between sovereign partners, our future relationship has to be a balance of rights and obligations” she writes. That is why even when it is out of the Union, the UK still needs to respect and deal with EU legislation. Sovereignty doesn’t mean unlimited freedom, the UK will still have to abide by international laws and adjust to other countries’ decisions and policies.

Indeed, one can wonder what “sovereignty” even means in a globalized world. If one country wants to trade with another, both will have to seek a compromise on norms or tariffs. Both will surrender part of their sovereignty in the process. Besides, in our globalized world, countries and trade deals are tangled. What happens behind Brussels’ closed doors has repercussions in Ottawa, or Washington.

Nancy Pelosi, the US’ House of Representative Speaker warned Boris Johnson : “ No US trade deal if the UK violates the EU agreement”. At the end of the day, the question is not whether or not the UK and the EU can discuss as sovereign equals but if the UK can build new international relations and accept the obligations that come with it.



Juliette Coulais and Mathilde Ansquer