Brexit’s test of sovereignty

13 Dec

The Phase 1 deal agreed by the UK government and the EU last week strongly suggests that Britain is on course to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union. The deal indicates the degree to which the British government is struggling to cope politically and intellectually with the task demanded of them by the majority of voters.

On each of the three points of contention, the UK’s concessions indicate that the government has no real understanding of what it might mean to reinvigorate British sovereignty by leaving the EU.

On the financial settlement, the government’s leading Brexiteer had loudly played to the domestic gallery by proclaiming that the EU could ‘go whistle’ for its money, blithely ignoring the obvious reality of international politics: if the UK wanted a trade deal with the EU, it was going to have negotiate a price. In the end the agreed price looks, as you might expect it would, to be mid-way between the EU’s larger initial demands and the UK getting off without paying anything.

On EU citizens, the UK has conceded that for at least eight years after leaving the EU, the European Court of Justice should have the final say on disputes involving EU citizens who remain as residents in the UK. This already amounts to agreeing not to leave the EU’s legal jurisdiction for a very long period. The UK government could have cut the ground from under the EU on this point by embracing EU citizens already resident here, offering them a fast track to British citizenship. There is already overwhelming support in the UK for allowing resident EU citizens to remain and it is widely agreed that they represent a considerable benefit to the UK economy. The British government seems simply to have lacked the political imagination to make such a simple, obvious and – most importantly – sovereign gesture.

On the Irish border question, the deal is a fudge intended to push the problem into 2018. The bottom line of the deal is this: there will neither be a hard border with customs posts and regulatory divergence between the South and the North of Ireland, nor will there be such a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland the rest of the UK. This amounts to admitting that the UK will not leave the Single Market or the Customs Union, particularly because any trade deal the UK is likely to get from the EU will not cover all of the areas of relevance to the Good Friday Agreement.  Here the challenge that Brexit poses to Britain as a sovereign state is most sharply posed, but in a way that is different from the conventional narrative.

A majority of British voters voted to Leave. However a majority of voters in Northern Ireland voted to Remain. Britain could assert its sovereignty in one of two ways. It could simply impose the national decision on Northern Ireland and insist on a hard border between the South and the North of Ireland. Or it could draw a hard border in the Irish Sea allowing Northern Ireland to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union. But neither seems to be possible because it is believed that either option puts the survival of the Good Friday Agreement at risk. The first option would increase the separation of Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland and make cross-border cooperation more difficult in a way that is unacceptable to nationalist opinion. The second option would place what would be in effect an international border within the UK, representing a significant step towards the reunification of Ireland and unacceptable to unionists.

Britain can neither implement the decision of a British majority over Northern Ireland nor accept that Northern Ireland is no longer part of Britain. The problem Brexit poses for Northern Ireland is not the disruptive exercise of sovereign power from London which has concerned so many Remainers. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. Britain can neither reassert the claims of an imperial past nor move beyond them. This is the fundamental problem of Brexit, which in the case of Northern Ireland has only been postponed until some time next year. One reason why this involution of British sovereignty is only being made explicit today is that EU membership has served for many years as a substitute for the political allegiances that once bound the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland together. As the historian Ross McKibbin once remarked, ‘the EU is now as much part of the structure of the British state as the union with Scotland once was’. And for that reason, the attempt to leave the EU has exposed the withering away of the union and of the sovereignty of the British state.  It is this crisis of the exercise of British sovereign power that is the main force shaping Brexit.

The Irish obstacle to Brexit is a local version of the UK’s larger problem with the EU. As Chris Bickerton and Richard Tuck have pointed out in A Brexit Proposal, joining the Common Market back in the 1970s was a way in which Britain managed the problem of imperial decline, and in the process avoided openly confronting the reality that Britain had become a post-imperial northern European state with limited international reach. Nostalgic Tory Eurosceptics (and the DUP) have never understood that leaving the EU means Britain giving up on its pretensions to great power status. Many Remainers for their part seem equally reluctant to abandon these pretensions.

It is this lack of political imagination on the Leave side that lies at the heart of the Brexit problem. Right from the start the UK government meekly accepted its role as just another member state of the EU when it quickly entered into the one-sided and bureaucratic Article 50 process rather than looking for ways to negotiate politically with other individual states. Brexiteers offered no alternative perspective to that laid down by the EU itself. It has subsequently been on the back foot all the way through the negotiations.

It is true, as the government is now suggesting, that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Some compromise of the Irish border question might yet be found that satisfies English demands for Brexit and Irish concerns for stability. Nevertheless there remains a basic unwillingness among the British political class to imagine Britain as it really is: a large European economy characterized by low-wages, low productivity and long-term economic, political and constitutional sclerosis. If this reality could be confronted, it would be possible to see that Brexit offers an opportunity to reverse Britain’s decline by reconnecting significant sections of Britain’s population with the nation’s political life and confronting the problem of Britain’s broken economic model.

If Britain does end up remaining in the Single Market and the Customs Union, the demand of the majority of voters in the referendum to take back control from the undemocratic mechanisms established by the EU treaties will have been frustrated. Populists and Leavers are already pointing the finger at elite Remainer technocrats who have used their domination of the political class and the deep state to frustrate the popular will. There is some truth in that claim but it evades the primary problem. The resistance of EU supporters to the majority is to be expected – they have always been committed to undemocratic supranational and intergovernmental institutions. But that is only the secondary problem for Brexit. The chief obstacle to implementing the referendum result remains what it has always been – the absence of a political vision that could translate popular anger and frustration at the majority’s exclusion from political influence into a political program for a sovereign democratic Britain.

Chris Bickerton and Peter Ramsay

One Response to “Brexit’s test of sovereignty”

  1. ΘΠ December 13, 2017 at 3:39 pm #

    You really nailed it!

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