Bobby McDonagh / Nov 2020
The silence surrounding this week’s Brexit negotiations augurs well. It would be tragic, for everyone, if the Brexit negotiations were to break down at this late stage because the UK doesn’t fully understand its own negotiating demands.
Going into this decisive week of talks, the senior British Brexit negotiator, David Frost, tweeted that the UK would not budge from its insistence on sovereign control over three things: its laws, its trade and its fish. Hopefully, it is beginning to dawn on London’s negotiators that the EU’s negotiating position is entirely compatible with those stated British objectives. It is now highly urgent, following the departure from Downing Street of the Cummings cultists, that someone will have the gumption to explain this to Prime Minister Johnson before it is too late.
It is important to recall two fundamental aspects of sovereignty. First, sovereignty is not something to be hidden away from the light, to be buried at Stonehenge and only to be dug up for inspection during the summer solstice. Rather, if sovereignty is to have any value, it is must be deployed with pride, confidence and wisdom. Second, the necessary corollary of valuing one’s own country’s sovereignty is recognizing that others equally value their sovereignty; in this case, the European Union and its Member States.
Consider first sovereignty over British laws. It is admirable as a guiding objective but misleading as an absolute principle. The UK is negotiating trade deals all around the world, essentially seeking to replicate the trade access it already had as part of the EU. Each of those deals necessarily involves some constraint on British sovereignty. The trade deal with Japan, for example, involves legal limitations on Britain’s use of state aid, an imposition apparently deemed intolerable in the Brexit negotiations. Indeed, the UK’s entire engagement with the wider world represents a sensible sharing of its sovereignty. Were it not open to such sharing, it would not be a member of, say, NATO or the WTO.
Moreover, the European Union collectively, as well as its Member States individually, is likewise sovereign. The EU has the right to determine the laws which govern the access of goods, including British goods, to its market. As the most open trading entity in the world, the EU is willing to exercise its sovereignty by entering into reasonable trade deals with others, including with the UK. However, it will remain unmoved by any plaintive claim that the UK’s sovereignty has some special status. Sauce for Britain’s goose is sauce for Europe’s gander.
Then there is the somewhat curious demand for sovereignty over British trade. If Frost meant that he wants control over British trade with the EU, the UK already has that. Nobody can force the UK to accept any compromises in the Brexit negotiations if - a big if - it is prepared for the immense economic damage it will bring on itself as a result. The real question is not whether the UK has so-called trade sovereignty but rather how it will exercise that sovereignty. To turn down a reasonable trade deal with the EU would not demonstrate national control but rather national impotence. It would represent the culmination of the Brexit fallacy that no bread is better than half a loaf. If, on the other hand, Frost is referring to the UK’s trade with the rest of the world, there will be no meaningful trade deals that do not in some way limit British sovereignty. National control over trade is a contradiction in terms. Absolute control over trade stops at Dover and Heathrow. The only way to achieve such control would be not to export anything.
So-called British fish have become a totemic issue. They represent the one area in which the UK, alongside the damage to every other aspect of its national economy, is set to register a Brexit win. The EU understands that. But here again the complexity of sovereignty runs into the reality that the EU also has sovereign interests. If Johnson insists on a maximalist outcome on fish, he cannot object if the EU, in order to protect the legitimate interests of its own fishing communities, exercises its equally legitimate sovereign rights on other issues of importance to the UK.
Johnson has only days to decide, belatedly, whether to fish or cut bait. The narrow understanding of sovereignty reflected in David Frost’s earlier tweet belongs to a receding Trumpian world. It is at odds with Britain’s long record of effective international engagement in pursuit of its interests. It would hole the Great Ship Going Global below the waterline.
Fortunately, a Brexit deal that respects the sovereignty of both parties is to be had this week. The first step must be to understand and accept what that sovereignty means.