(Editor: Ciaran Cresswell, on the last day you can register to vote in the referendum, let’s us in on why sovereignty ain’t all that.)
I’ve been rather obsessed with the EU referendum of late. I’ll be frank, I’m a remainer, or a ‘remanian’ as Monsieur Farage recently put it. So if you too hail from ‘Remania’, great. If you’re a Brexiter, hear me out.
I feel it’s safe to say that on economics, at least in the mainstream, the leave side haven’t got much to go on other than guesswork and wishful thinking, which is fair enough; we’ve never left the EU before. An area where they seem to be doing rather well however is on the issue of sovereignty; let the British make laws for Britain, ‘FREEDOOOM’ and all the rest of it.
I’m not for a second saying that the EU is a paragon of transparent accountable democracy, it badly needs reform, then again, so does the UK government. But even with democratic structures to the side, purely focusing on sovereignty, there is logic in their argument; yes we have a say at the table, but sometimes we don’t always get our own way (thankfully so in the case of George Osbourne trying and failing to prevent a cap on bankers’ bonuses). Wouldn’t it be better if we could just make all our own laws with our own elected representatives? Wouldn’t we be more sovereign then? Wouldn’t we have sweet sweet FREEDOOM then? Well, it’s not quite as simple as that.
First I want to clear up a definition; ‘sovereignty’ and ‘freedom’ get bandied about a fair bit as if they’re the same thing, and there is a lot of overlap, but they’re not identical. Oxford dictionary online defines ‘sovereignty’ as “supreme power or authority” and freedom as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants”. So in a way the former, being ‘supreme’, is more applicable to governments, and the latter is more about individuals. Also you could say freedom is the choices available to you, but sovereignty is making the choice, or ‘the freedom to choose’, so in a way, sovereignty is a kind of freedom.
However, none of that really matters. The real distinction I want to make is that freedom/sovereignty/whatever as a thing, isn’t just one thing. It’s not something you either have or you don’t, it’s like a current, a flow, always changing, for some freedoms depend on relinquishing others. If you want to exercise your freedom to buy something on the app-store you must relinquish certain freedoms by agreeing to the T’s and C’s. If you wish to get a job and earn money you must relinquish free time. If you wish to have the free time to do the above by electing a representative (MP) to participate in democracy for you so you don’t have to make all the decisions yourself then of course you must relinquish your freedom to make all your own decisions; you must, in effect, relinquish a part of your personal sovereignty, to gain access to a freedom, and the time to make good use of what remains of your sovereignty.
Before I talk about the EU itself, I’m taking you back around 300 years to the time of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jacques Rousseau. Among many others, these political philosophers were all involved in ‘social contract theory’, which supposes that man (and woman), by living in society, makes a ‘contract’ with society to limit some of his own personal freedoms and natural rights, in order to secure and gain access to other, more important freedoms and natural rights. For example, if you renounce your freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want, on the condition that everyone else does the same, it means other people can’t come along and murder you when they feel like it, simple enough. The people share their sovereignty by concentrating it in a sovereign/monarch/president/executive etc. to establish and protect rights and freedoms.
They also supposed that before organised society there would have existed the ‘state of nature’, with no laws, no governments, no institutions, no nothing, just people. This in a way would have been a time of maximum freedom and sovereignty for the individual. They noted however that in the state of nature there is no guarantee for freedoms and natural rights, precisely because of a lack of concentrated, sovereignty, hence the need for the aforementioned social contract. But come on! Sovereignty’s great right? The state of nature would be amazing! No governments to tell you what to do, just pure, unadulterated individual sovereignty. Or would it be?
Imagine if Nigel Farage lived on an island in the state of nature; he could fish to his heart’s content, he would in theory have the freedom to choose to do whatever he wants. But would he have healthcare? Would he have a smartphone? Enough food? Laws to protect him against the wrongdoing of others or a police force to enforce them? Would he have any of the benefits that come with living inside a society in which you are expected to pool your sovereignty with others in return for those benefits? Increasing sovereignty doesn’t necessarily increase freedom, nor does it increase rights, and it certainly doesn’t increase your ability to realise those freedoms and rights. Sure, you could sail out to international waters in the mid-Atlantic and have ‘sovereignty to the max’, but would you want to?
We all know this, we all live in a civilised society, and we all enjoy the benefits that brings. We all know that limiting some freedoms to gain others can be a good thing. “But we already have that” the Brexiters say, “we already live in a country with laws, all we want to do is to be able to make our own laws. We want our sovereignty back!” There is however another level to this.
According to the social contract theorists, even if people group into societies with a leader at the head of them, exiting the state of nature and entering a world of nation states, those nation states themselves remain in a state of nature with each other, which can be just as chaotic as one between men (i.e. international war on the continent for hundreds if not thousands of years). Just as people pool their sovereignty because they can achieve more together than they can apart, so too do nations. When nations relinquish parts of their sovereignty by working together in supranational bodies, as they do in the UN, NATO, and of course the EU, it provides security, freedoms, and other various benefits that weren’t previously there, both for the nation states, and for the individuals that comprise them.
Take the UK in the EU: by conferring areas of its sovereignty to the EU institutions where all member states (including the UK) collectively decide on matters, it gains access to the single market, a freedom it did not formerly possess. But that’s boring, what about what you and me can do as citizens who give up sovereignty to live in a nation which gives up sovereignty to live in a bigger nation-ish sort of thing? We can work and travel in ANY other EU country. Yes, by giving up bits of our sovereignty we get the ultimate freedom: the freedom of movement. Not to mention the rights we have assured by this supranational body which certain national governments might not be so keen on keeping.
Of course we might not always get our way if a decision depends on the collective consent of a majority of MEPs, a majority of councillors, and occasionally the unanimity of all 28 nation states. Not always getting your way is an integral part of a democracy; as a Labour voter in Britain I am frustratingly aware of this, but does that mean I want to exit society because I don’t always get my way? Does it mean I want to go live in the state of nature to ensure maximum sovereignty? No. Sovereignty≠freedom and rights, some freedoms≠all freedoms, and very importantly, freedom/sovereignty/all of the above≠opportunity.
There’s one thing we keep forgetting; there are always elements outside our control, so no matter how much sovereignty or freedom we have we might not always have the opportunity to realise our freedoms. It’s a big world we live in, an increasingly globalised one at that, and one in which current affairs and global events seem increasingly volatile. By relinquishing a part of our sovereignty by working with others, especially in the EU, we have a greater influence in the world, enabling us to better ensure the outcome of global events, and the opportunities they bring. Without the influence to make your freedoms realisable, what good is sovereignty?
So, what do you think? Do you still think sovereignty is the be all and end all of everything? Or are there other things that are more important? If you’re still crazy about sovereignty, perhaps it’s best you go out to sea or some unclaimed island somewhere where you’ll have it in spades. If you think, like me, that things like rights, particular freedoms, and influence through working together are all more important than sovereignty per se, then spread the word: we’ve unwound one of Brexit’s leading arguments. Now about immigration… well, that’s another topic, for another day.
Thanks for reading,