The words “take back control” can be seen plastered across the Vote Leave campaign. Indeed, the crux of the case for Brexit is that Britain has lost its sovereignty, snatched away by the European Union.
Whilst aspects of the EU can certainly be seen as undemocratic, or “anti-sovereign”, national sovereignty is complex and dwindling in the modern world. As the de facto leader for Vote Leave, Boris Johnson has urged people to “vote for freedom”. Johnson speaks of sovereignty as though it were a black and white issue – you either have it or you don’t. In reality, national sovereignty is relative, and intertwined with an inter-dependent world.
The idea that Britain can stand alone is nostalgic of the days of empire, rather than pragmatic. Whilst Britain is one of Europe’s strongest military and economic powers, this does not mean it can ignore the need to work closely with foreign powers in an increasingly globalised world to address increasingly globalised issues, namely terrorism, the refugee crisis and climate change, to name just a few.
More than 300 historians have echoed this view, warning voters of condemning Britain to a future of irrelevance should they vote to leave the European Union. In a letter to The Guardian they contended: “On the 23rd June, we face a choice: to cast ourselves adrift, condemning ourselves to irrelevance and Europe to division and weakness; or to reaffirm our commitment to the EU and stiffen the cohesion of our continent in a dangerous world”.
One of these 300, Niall Ferguson, has criticised the nostalgic arguments for Brexit which suggest Britain can stand alone, describing such Eurosceptic views as “a classic example of scissors and paste history clipped from the pages of Our Island Story”, instead arguing that “the lesson of history is that British isolationism has often been associated with continental disintegration”.
History has clearly played a significant part in both sides of the debate. Yet, whilst 300 historians have pledged voters to think of Britain’s internationalist co-operation and the nuances of its relationship with Europe, Boris Johnson has used history recklessly, erroneously and reprehensibly. After criticising the Remain campaign’s “Project Fear”, he claimed “The European Union is an attempt to do [what Hitler wanted] by different methods”.
If we are to bring up the ghosts of the past and speculate what they would think of the referendum, then we must remember that, in reality, Hitler condemned the Pan-Europa movement as “a fantastical, historically impossible childishness” that would become a “Jewish protectorate”. Indeed, Hitler’s idea of what Europe should look like involved “a Europe of free and independent national states, whose spheres of interest are separate and clearly delineated”.
The ceding of some sovereignty does not harm Britain. Although the EU has the biggest impact on our sovereignty, other organisations also involve the pooling of authority in return for membership, such as the United Nations, World Trade Organisation, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and NATO. For example, our membership of NATO obliges us to go to war if another member country is attacked/invaded and vice versa. It is certainly worth ceding some of our sovereignty for this protection and prevention of war.
Buried within Vote Leave’s criticisms of EU membership, lies a paradox of British power. Whilst they argue London is too weak to influence and reform Brussels, they simultaneously assert that Britain is powerful, and that once free from the yoke of the EU, it would wield enough power to negotiate trade deals effectively with the likes of China.
The Remain campaign’s apathy towards taking a lead to reform the EU not only helps to weaken the institution, but also creates a self-fulfilling prophecy - British reluctance to play a prominent role in the union only strengthens arguments of abandonment. As one of the member states with the biggest populations in Europe (alongside France and Germany), Britain has the power to step in and take the lead in the reform of the EU. It is the lack of desire to do so – perpetuated by pessimistic Eurosceptic arguments about sovereignty – that prevents us from doing this.
Real sovereignty is relative. A country that refuses to pool some of its power and authority under a supra-national authority is one that has little control of the global problems that affect it, whether that be refugees heading towards its borders in search of safety, or the pollution that arises from industrialised nations.
In an increasingly globalised, inter-dependent, and unstable world, Britain’s problems are often global problems. Global issues can only be solved by working globally. Rather than myopically clinging to nostalgic, nationalistic Little England ideologies of sovereignty, we should see the world beyond our nation and lead and co-operate in tackling the problems that face the world today. We can only do this by accepting that the ceding of some of our sovereignty is essential to working on an international level.
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