Brexit: Make hard choices but don’t confuse sovereignty with autonomy

Demonstrators hold EU and Union flags during an anti-Brexit protest opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, December 17, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville - RC14C86B4D80

British debate about exit from the European Union (“Brexit”) has been dominated by yearning for “restoring U.K. sovereignty.”   Pro-Brexit advocates want Britain to “take back control” from European Union governments and bureaucrats.

Clarity demands a distinction between a nation’s de jure sovereignty and its de facto autonomy.  De jure (legal) sovereignty means formal juridical independence; domestic political authorities are in principle the arbiters of behavior within a nation’s territory.  But actual constraints on the power of political authorities markedly diverge from legal principles. De facto genuine autonomy is often sharply limited.

De jure sovereignty cannot guarantee that a nation will be able, de facto, to prevent external influences from shaping events and decisions taken within its borders.  If foreigners were to use coercion or military force to abrogate a nation’s de jure sovereignty (and its de facto autonomy), that would of course be adverse.  But reductions in de jure sovereignty that improve welfare for the residents of a nation are an entirely different matter.  A nation may decide, wisely, to accept reductions in its de facto autonomy.  If domestic political authorities willingly enter into welfare-enhancing arrangements that supersede de jure sovereignty, such departures are not “violations.”  They are cooperative accords.

When discussing the competing U.K. goals of local autonomy and external openness, the relevant tradeoff is between de facto local autonomy and external openness.  De jure sovereignty is frequently irrelevant.

Effective U.K. autonomy depends more on the complex web of economic, social, and cultural interactions with the rest of the world than it does on the U.K. government’s formal political power.

Effective U.K. autonomy depends more on the complex web of economic, social, and cultural interactions with the rest of the world than it does on the U.K. government’s formal political power.  Those interactions inescapably erode the ability of the UK’s government and citizens to make independent untrammeled decisions.  Yes, the UK’s membership in the European Union erodes formal sovereignty.  Economic, social, and cultural interrelationships intentionally erode sovereignty.  However, because of the cooperative relationships across the English Channel, the UK’s membership in the European Union has on balance enhanced rather than eroded effective U.K. autonomy. British skeptics can legitimately argue that the EU Commission and its governments may have adopted excessive regulations.  But skeptics cannot argue that those decisions were taken without U.K. participation.  Whatever future decisions may be made about Brexit, moreover, many of the existing cooperative relationships with the EU are likely to be maintained—precisely to forestall an unwanted deterioration in effective U.K. autonomy.

Anti-EU sentiment can question not only whether economic relations with the EU have been conducted appropriately.  EU skeptics may logically complain about unwanted immigration from Europe. They may logically assert that EU membership undermines U.K. culture and national identity.  It would be unfortunate, however, if most Brits were to favor a Brexit because of superficial yearning for elusive sovereignty.

The options for the UK’s future with Europe fall into three classes: exiting the EU with a negotiated deal, exiting the EU without a deal, and remaining in the EU with no Brexit at all.  Each class has multiple possible variants.  (A no-Brexit option would require a further referendum reversing the public vote in 2016 and/or a general election won by a new government.)

An “exit-deal Brexit” and a “no-deal Brexit” require in effect a new “fence” surrounding the European Union with the U.K. placed outside that fence.  Brexit choices entail determining which UK-EU transactions are permitted to cross the fence (and in detail how).  As starkly revealed by the negotiations of the European Union with Theresa May’s government, the issues of fence-definition are central stumbling blocks for agreements on a Brexit option.

The three classes of U.K. options have more common elements than typical public discussion perceives.  Every variant of an exit-deal Brexit or any scenario for a no-deal Brexit requires difficult U.K. decisions about the details of British governance, the institutions of its economy and society, and the evolution of perceived U.K. national identity.  Even the no-Brexit class of options will in practice entail rethinking of those hard choices.  And whatever option is finally chosen will require an agreed rebalancing of U.K effective autonomy together with cooperative U.K .arrangements with the European Union.

None of the options facing the U.K. can be implemented cleanly and quickly.  Regardless of which option is formally selected in the next few months, years of protracted further discussions and negotiations will doubtless prove necessary.

For each of the detailed issues about the UK’s relations with European nations, the underlying U.K. goal should be to craft a preferred combination of genuinely effective “local” (UK) autonomy and of beneficial integration with Europe. Leaning toward European integration undermines effective autonomy.  Tilting toward U.K. autonomy sacrifices potential benefits achievable through openness.  For some issues, a preferred combination may be attainable through an exit-deal Brexit.  But none of the Brexit variants can promise unambiguously to enhance the effective autonomy of British governance on all issues.  An enormous complication for any exit-deal Brexit is that EU negotiators have so far declared unwillingness to follow an issue-by-issue, “a la carte” approach to resolving the issues.  For many specific issues, moreover, a no-Brexit option remaining within the EU could create a balance of effective local autonomy and external openness to the outside world that could be preferable to any of the exit-deal options.

Consider the speed limits applicable to local roads or the aspects of local culture and history to be taught in local schools.  If all issues were so local and so easy, the U.K. authorities would unambiguously prefer to be outside the new EU Brexit fence.  Decentralized decisions for such issues at the level of the individual nation would be satisfactory.  Explicit “cross-fence” cooperation with outside nations would be unnecessary.

But the bulk of important issues are not “local.”  They do entail collective action with European nations—across the fence if a Brexit option is chosen.  Because cross-fence cooperation is necessary, decisions cannot be fully decentralized into individual EU member nations. 

Think of regulations and oversight about the production and marketing of medications.  By agreement of all EU members including the UK, cooperative oversight throughout the EU is typically beneficial.  The functions of the European Medicines Agency are to provide such oversight.  If an exit-deal Brexit is to occur, cooperative adjustments need to be found to support some form of continuation of the EMA’s oversight.  Analogous comments apply to a wide range of issues that affect all members of the European Union.  Another example highly important to the U.K. is the design of regulations and oversight for the provision of financial services throughout the EU.

Regulation and oversight of immigration from Europe is more controversial.  Some British residents complain, for example, that the free movement of labour within the EU has led to a surge of Europeans coming into the UK, taking jobs away from locals, flooding the schools with their children, committing crimes.  Emotions can run high about threats to national culture and traditional ways of life.  In turn the U.K. governments experience strong pressure to reduce the ease of movement of Europeans crossing the U.K. border.

Most of the difficult issues will require UK-EU cooperation whether or not the U.K. finds itself outside the EU fence. The issue areas had to be addressed in the past while the U.K. was inside the European Union. They will need continued attention even if the U.K. chooses a no-Brexit remain.

The general dilemma is vividly highlighted by the status of Northern Ireland and whether and how a “backstop agreement” about transactions across Northern Ireland’s border should be included in a negotiated exit deal. Brexit choices place Northern Ireland inside the U.K. but outside the EU fence, thereby complicating the administration of border customs and Good-Friday arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  If no Brexit were to occur, Northern Ireland would be inside the European fence without explicit disruptions to Good-Friday arrangements; yet Brexit advocates of “taking back control” would then still complain that U.K. and Northern Ireland were subservient to adjudication and enforcement machinery designed “not at home” but rather by the European Union.  Whether or not Northern Ireland is outside or inside the EU fence, controversial adjustments are likely.

The United Kingdom is inescapably a part of Europe.

As of December 2018, U.K. politics are in shambles. Calmer discourse is overshadowed by simplified emotions.  Britain has been unable to foster a more rational, shared notion of how to depart or remain within the European Union.  Convergence toward a shared notion will entail healing of the fractures within both the Conservative and the Labour parties. That convergence will be more likely if debate could focus on which option will support the best combination of U.K. effective autonomy and prudent U.K. openness to the rest of the world.  Eventual Parliamentary decisions will be possible only after substantial convergence has occurred.

Friends of Britain pray that all parts of the British political spectrum will manifest clearer leadership.  The pro-Brexit factions within the Conservatives need to abandon inconsistent claims.  Tories with preferences to reconsider the 2016 referendum and to stay within the EU must clarify and better articulate their case.  Rather than merely obfuscating while gaming for chances to trigger a new election, leaders of the Labour party should heal their own intra-party fractures and inform the country how a post-election Labour government would shape an agreed compromise on Brexit issues.

One contention asserted by some protagonists of an exit-deal Brexit is that if only a skilled British negotiating team would make very strong demands of EU negotiators, then EU negotiators would grant major new concessions to the hard-line pro-Brexit U.K. position.  This contention is poppycock and should disappear from future debate.

If some variant of Brexit is to occur, U.K. citizens for years will have to struggle with updated identity questions. They will have to adapt their thinking and behavior, acknowledging they live in a “third country.”  Many significant parts of life cannot then be “inside the fence”—as once they were, and as they would have continued to evolve.  The EU will implement many decisions in which the U.K. does not have an explicit voice.  Yet those decisions will inevitably affect the U.K. closely.  Brits will sometimes find life outside the fence congenial – the U.K. may well, for example, take back control of immigration.  But at other times “home” residents may experience regrets.

Outside the fence, Brits will not want, nor should they aspire, to be entirely different from the rest of Europe.  Brits are, to be sure, notably different from Germans, or French, or Swedes, or Greeks, or Poles, or Romanians.  Such differences of course will, and should be, nurtured even if the U.K. were to remain inside the European Union.  But more than ever Brits will still need a dual identity.  The United Kingdom is inescapably a part of Europe. The U.K. will be crucially needed to continue a leadership role for the entirety of Europe. No clear severance from Europe is possible, whether the U.K. is outside or inside the EU fence.