September 18, 2018
looks up as an aircraft flies past during a visit to the Airbus area
at the Farnborough Airshow, Farnborough, England
July 16, 2018
(AP photo by Matt Dunham).
Leaders of the "Leave" campaign in 2016 painted the issue in black and white.
Britain had subordinated its sovereignty to Brussels, not least its authority to control its own borders. A fully independent Britain would regain those rights, while also negotiating a favorable, bespoke trade agreement with the EU's remaining 27 members.
With only seven months
left before the deadline to leave the EU, it is clear that this
scenario was a fantasy. Britain is experiencing the trade-offs
inherent in modern national sovereignty.
It connotes qualities of statehood that are both inherent and sacred:
The practical dilemma is
that these three components of sovereignty - call them authority,
autonomy and influence - do not always go together.
They may join
international organizations like the World Health Organization
or the World Trade Organization that preserve their political
authority but entail some voluntary restraints, because collective
action allows them to accomplish ends they could never realize
Prime Minister Theresa May's government is finding just how difficult this can be, particularly when it comes to membership in a regional body with supranational characteristics like the EU.
In the run-up to the Brexit vote, those in the "Remain" camp accused "Leave" proponents of fear-mongering.
The latter were
propounding a "sovereignty myth," wrote Robin Niblett, the
Chatham House. Far from being in
thrall to Brussels, Britain was "still largely sovereign."
While Brexiteers clearly
overstated their case, it is undeniable that the U.K. had, as a
condition for EU membership, accepted important incursions on its
sovereign authority and autonomy. It had delegated to EU
institutions important authorities over labor mobility, human
rights, criminal justice and consumer law.
Boris Johnson, then a backbencher in the British Parliament, accused U.S. President Barack Obama, who had implored Britain to remain in the EU, of,
After all, as he put it,
Why should Brits tolerate
what Americans would never countenance?
In reality, the international organizations and treaties to which the U.S. is a party are voluntary, horizontal, inter-governmental arrangements between independent countries.
They are not vertical, hierarchical arrangements that subordinate the constitution and popular sovereignty to supranational authorities.
This difference is
fundamental - and it helps explains why the U.S. has never joined
the International Criminal Court, which could expose it to the
independent decisions of a global judiciary and prosecutor.
It could regain complete
sovereign authority over critical policy matters and expand its
sovereign autonomy with respect to the EU, even as it retained some
sovereign influence over collective EU decisions affecting its fate
- including unfettered access to the continental market.
is a cautionary tale about
the complexities of exercising national sovereignty
in an age of
Since May invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and triggered the two-year Brexit countdown, negotiations have shown how little leverage London has to shape its destiny with Europe.
The EU holds all the
cards and is not inclined to set a precedent by giving a sweetheart
deal to the first nation that abandons it.
The question is whether
it was smart to exercise that prerogative, given the enormous damage
to its interests. Britons may be demonstrating their sovereign
independence by leaving, but they are also behaving irrationally.
It is about being able to realize valued goals for your citizens. In striking out on its own, Britain will suffer economic costs, in the form of higher barriers to trade and investment, while losing the influence it once had in shaping EU-wide rules and standards - laws and regulations that it is likely to have to accept in any event as the price of doing business with its neighbors.
British officials have
also admitted that at least 168 non-EU countries have yet to agree
to "roll over" more than 750 EU deals - ranging from trade to
airline services to data sharing - which Britain has benefited from
because of its EU membership.
Negotiations remain stalled on broader issues, particularly the terms of British access to the EU market after next March.
In July, May issued a white paper clarifying some of her government's positions and reaffirming the two sides' shared security and economic interests in achieving a deal.
Unfortunately, these so-called Chequers proposals fell short of EU demands, while her concessions - including on the authority of the European Court of Justice - alienated hard-liners in her own Conservative Party, including Johnson, who quit as foreign secretary.
The ball is now in the EU's court. It must decide whether it is willing to compromise with Britain on the EU's sacred "four freedoms":
Given the current deadlock, the two sides are now focusing on a more modest ambition:
Some advocate a "vague and aspirational declaration" as the safest course.
However, this would
result in a "blind Brexit," where Britain leaves the EU without
certainty on the terms of a future trade deal, throwing away all of
its negotiating leverage with the EU.
Timothy Garton Ash
likens Britain's current predicament to that of Germany at
Versailles, warning the EU that a "humiliating" Brexit deal could
encourage the emergence of a "rancid, angry" nation - a "Weimar
Still, some European
experts are beginning to call for the bloc to take a softer and more
pragmatic line, since the political fallout from a no-deal Brexit
will harm everyone.
Within any organization, Hirschman wrote,
The actor can either exit, by leaving the organization, or it can try to improve current arrangements by exercising its voice, for instance by registering complaints or stating grievances.
In choosing to leave the EU, a majority of British voters decided that exit was the only way to preserve their national sovereignty, as they understood it. That was of course their right.
But in choosing to leave that club, they forfeited the benefits of membership - including their voice within its councils.
Rather than be on the
executive committee, Britain is on the outside looking in, with
little leverage to secure flexible rules it wants only for itself.