by Stewart M. Patrick and Terrence Mullan

September 18, 2018
from WPR Website



Stewart Patrick is the James H. Binger senior fellow in global governance and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. His most recent book is "The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America With the World."

Terrence Mullan is the assistant director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.


British Prime Minister Theresa May

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).

More than two years after narrowly approving a referendum to leave the European Union, the British are discovering that asserting national sovereignty is less straightforward than the proponents of Brexit promised.


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.

Frequently invoked but rarely understood, "national sovereignty" is a lightning rod in many countries, notably the United States, where it animates much of President Donald Trump's foreign policy.


It connotes qualities of statehood that are both inherent and sacred:


  • complete political independence

  • freedom of action both at home and abroad

  • the ability to control the nation's destiny

The practical dilemma is that these three components of sovereignty - call them authority, autonomy and influence - do not always go together.

Nations may join supranational organizations, like the EU, that help them shape their fate, at a partial sacrifice of constitutional independence.


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 alone.

The exercise of sovereignty, in other words, often requires difficult compromises over its dimensions.


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 director of Chatham House. Far from being in thrall to Brussels, Britain was "still largely sovereign."

The shortcoming of this argument lay in the qualifier "largely."


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.

So proponents of "Leave" had some facts on their side.


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,

"exorbitant hypocrisy."

After all, as he put it,

"There is no country in the world that defends its sovereignty with such hysterical vigilance as the United States of America."

Why should Brits tolerate what Americans would never countenance?

Unlike EU members, the U.S. seldom accepts incursions on its sovereignty-as-authority - that is, its constitutional independence. This is not what one hears from the Trump administration and its nationalist supporters, of course, who routinely - but wrongly - condemn multilateral bodies as a threat to American self-government.


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.

The premise behind Brexit was that Britain could have its cake and eat it too.


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.

The Brexit calamity

is a cautionary tale about

the complexities of exercising national sovereignty

in an age of interdependence.

The contentious Brexit process has exploded these illusions.


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 Brexit calamity is a cautionary tale about the complexities and concessions of exercising national sovereignty in an age of interdependence. Britain had a clear sovereign right to leave the EU and recover some of the authority it had delegated to the European Commission and other institutions.


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.

True sovereignty is not simply about independence.


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.

Brussels and London continue to wrangle over the terms of Brexit, including Britain's ultimate divorce bill - which could top $50 billion - the fate of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the status of EU and British citizens within each other's borders after Brexit.


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":

freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and labor.

Given the current deadlock, the two sides are now focusing on a more modest ambition:

a joint political declaration to accompany the withdrawal agreement in March.

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.

Things could get even more grim if negotiations collapse completely, and Britain simply finds itself cast out of the bloc - the feared "no deal" Brexit. Even if Britain does secure a deal, it could be so onerous and one-sided that it could poison Britain's relations with the continent for a generation.


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 Britain," even.

Whether the EU is prepared to show such flexibility remains to be seen, particularly given the fear of encouraging other potential exits.


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.

Britain's sovereignty predicament calls to mind a short but celebrated book written in 1970 by the noted political economist Albert O. Hirschman,

"Exit, Voice, and Loyalty."

Within any organization, Hirschman wrote,

a dissatisfied member faces a fundamental choice.

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.