Why sovereignty matters to both campaigns in the EU Referendum

17 May 2016



This is a significant referendum. Anyone who is under the age of 59 has not had the opportunity to voice their opinions on our relationship with the rest of Europe through a national referendum. And, as a student, the importance of being able to engage in this rarer than once-in-a-generation event is not lost on me. It holds the prospect of revitalising our democratic political systems in Britain. 



The last UK-wide referendum on the subject of European integration took place in 1975. In this, the public were asked whether the United Kingdom should remain part of the European Community - what was then the referent for the Common Market. 67% decided that they did. This time, the polls have it much closer between the respective campaigns. But that's not the only thing that has changed since 1975. Not only has the rapid growth of new technologies and the expansion of the market led to an unprecedented increase in globalisation, we have also been confronted by resultant dangers. Issues surrounding social security, terrorist activity and economic fluctuations continue to affect (and worry) many. Although the outcome of the referendum will not be able to directly affect any of these issues, it will have told us whether the British public think that we are better confronting them inside or outside of the EU.



There will also be a wide range of reasons as to why people will turn out to vote - or decide not to. Some who will vote to leave will claim that they are standing up for national sovereignty - the ability of the nation to determine its own destiny. Similarly, those who will turn out to vote to remain in the EU will claim that they are standing up for national interests too - the economic, social and political interests of the nation. I don't intend to make this article a normative exposition, but the arguments are  well worth exploring - and this writer encourages everyone to read as much material as possible between now and 23rd June - our day of decision.



One of the arguments worth exploring stems from the idea of national sovereignty. I have defined sovereignty above as the ability of a nation to determine its own destiny. Whilst true, this needs expanding. Not only is sovereignty the ability to control one's own destiny, it is the ability to decide upon the process which acts as the means towards this end - the political route we undertake to achieve particular objectives.



Unsurprisingly, this is one of the central themes of the Leave campaign. But sovereignty also has potential to be part of the rebuttals that the Remain campaign can levy against their opponents. Working on the assumption that national sovereignty is a shared aspiration, the argument that Britain can obtain sovereignty through union with the rest of Europe is a valid one - and one which is already being used by Remain campaigners.



David Cameron has recently claimed that Britain has a "special status" within the EU. Although some have been brisk to brush this aside as nothing more than rhetoric, there is still some truth in his statement. Britain has never been part of the single currency, and it looks unlikely that it will be any time soon. Britain is not part of the Schengen zone, nor is it likely that it soon will be. Britain has now secured agreement from EU finance ministers to drop the tax on sanitary products to 0%. And Britain has been granted the right to demand that EU immigrants work for four years before receiving state benefits in the UK.



All of these powers enable Britain to act in its own interest, at the same time as co-operating with the rest of the EU over trade, through access to the single market. These powers also serve to protect our interests. Being part of the G8, the United Nations, the Commonwealth, having its "special relationship" with the US, as well as being part of the EU, Britain truly does have its feet under several important decision-making tables in the world.



The decision that now confronts us is whether to remain in these institutions, with our interests protected across the world, or to go our own way, defining and defending our national interest in a different way. The choice is ours to make on 23rd June.

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