A question of sovereignty: on the (im)possibility of Brexit

The chaotic endgame of Brexit shows the promise of reasserted sovereignty coming up against the reality of diffuse sovereignty in the UK

Over two years into the process, and with around three months left until ‘B-day’, Brexit is heading inexorably towards its chaotic endgame. In the intervening period, the discourse has moved little, as debates around debates and the rehashing of arguments from the first campaign appear to be dominating the public sphere. The question of the UK’s sovereignty may appear to be just another remnant of that period but carries with it post-Brexit implications, irrespective of how the process is finalised. Campaigners for remain, along with many political scientists and legal scholars, have recently been buoyed by the decision of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that Article 50 is unilaterally reversible; an action that supports their argument that the UK was sovereign all along. This fact, supposedly, fatally undermines a principle argument of Brexit, that the EU diminished British sovereignty and leaving would allow the people or parliament to ‘take back control’.

Intergovernmentalists, who see states as the main actors in supranational integration processes, argue that as long as a country retains the ultimate authority to withdraw from an international agreement – and has the legal instrumental means to do so – then it retains sovereignty. The problem with such a reductive conceptualization of sovereignty is not that is it necessarily empirically wrong but that rather it narrows the empirical field to such an extent that it loses both explanatory and political (normative) purchase. If the ECJ’s decision shows the possibility of sovereignty, couldn’t we argue that the process itself demonstrates the impossibility of Brexit in its own terms? The UK can take back control – of its borders, its money, and its laws – but to do so would come as such a great cost that its very ability to exercise its sovereignty across a variety of areas would be diminished. Alternatively, we could argue that while Brexit demonstrates the depth of national sovereignty it makes clear the limits to the breadth of contemporary sovereignty. Sovereignty is limited because it is diffuse, spread across different institutions in different policy areas which are nonetheless interrelated and interdependent.

Tying one’s hands

A state-centric approach to sovereignty is grounded on a set of assumptions regarding the continued central importance of the unitary state in the international order. This develops from the traditional Westphalian model of statehood in which the state is the ultimate source of authority within its borders and stands as a nominally equal member of the international community. It is the view shared by many of the hard-line Brexiteers who see the EU as a direct attack on this singular form of sovereignty, as Jacob Rees-Mogg argues, “it is the nation-state which properly serves the people and defends their interests.” Liberal intergovernmentalists, on the other hand, argue the complexity and interconnected nature of contemporary governance, across areas such as security, economy the environment, require solutions beyond the capacities of the single nation-state. Accordingly, European integration can be viewed as a conscious decision to pool authority at the international level in order to preserve or strengthen sovereignty at the domestic level.

A particular weakness of this view is that politicians have long sought to discursively and materially deny their own ultimate authority and through processes of delegated governance or the adoption of binding rules effectively tie their own hands. While the European Union has been a particularly effective target of this, especially in relation to economic policy, the current debate over Italian and French budget deficits shows that the idea of a community of shared values and a community of shared rules are both political (and thus human) constructs and inextricably intertwined. The EU justifies its decision to extend France a flexibility to break rules not afforded to Italy because of prior acceptance of agreed values. As one French official argued last week, “Contrary to Italy, we do not question European rules”.

If, as a number of recent edited volumes have made clear, depoliticization can be understood as an attempt to deny or obscure political agency in situations where it exists the Brexit can be seen as a counterpoint. A moment of politicization in which agency is claimed in a situation where it is absent, or at the very least obscured. One of the principle sticking points in the Brexit process is the attempt by many of those involved to present this as a typical policy issue, that is ‘problem’ focused when the crux of the matter should be understood as ‘agency’ focused – it’s not about what we do but what we can do. So what we have is the promise of reasserted sovereignty (take back control) coming up against the reality of a diffuse sovereignty.

Lifting the curtain on the sovereign body

Dramatic crises of national sovereignty are not solely a modern preoccupation but are, thankfully, historically rare. We might, however, be able to glean some lessons from those more notable historical examples. In the period of the French Revolution – a time the present day gilet jaune protestors attempt to reconstruct – the sovereign body was simultaneously a legal idea and a material fact.  Ultimate, and on occasion arbitrary, power lay in the body of the king and as such sovereignty can be described as being physically embodied. As before with the execution of Charles I in England in 1649, the significance of this realisation and the manner in which this sovereignty was popularly and violently challenged (with the sovereign head literally removed from the sovereign body), provided a clear vision and message that sovereignty was all too frail, all too human.

A legal or constitutional order serves to detach or disembody sovereignty from a single person, placing it instead in an abstract or defuse set of institutions, such as the people, a parliament or the European Union. These institutions, despite insistences on their universality and transcendental nature, remain the products of humans and as such are subject to their frailty and weaknesses. One of the clearest ways to demonstrate the weakness of sovereignty is to attempt to wield it. Sovereignty as an imminence, an unspoken but omnipresent threat, is incomparably more effective in maintaining political and social order than the exercise of sovereign power, which at once can be seen as a failure of the sovereign (‘how did we get to this point?’) as well as revelatory of its limitations (‘is that all it can do?’).

An unfortunate by-product of Brexit has been to ruthlessly lay bare the limitations of parliamentary sovereignty, as Theresa May struggles to command a majority for her deal – or indeed any deal – in the face of a divided parliament, a divided party and a divided country. These problems are not caused by an absence of sovereignty but by its diffuse nature. Exercising sovereignty in one area or over one domain – for example, by reducing immigration – highlights its diminished nature in another – risking damage to the economy. For a number of years the UK’s economic model has relied on the importation of skilled and unskilled labour, raising levels of demand and tax revenue while lowering costs of training and investment. The prospect of growing an economy with an ageing population, relatively low levels of investment and productivity will provide a challenge for any post-Brexit government and likely reduce their room for manoeuvre, at least in the short term. Similarly, by demonstrating the sovereignty of the whole polity it has focused attention on the fractures between its constituent parts – Northern Ireland being a particularly strong example but also Scotland, Wales and cities vs. towns.

The consequences of this situation are difficult, if not impossible, to anticipate but what is likely is that, whatever the outcome of Brexit, confidence in politics and political institutions is unlikely to be increased. The literature on depoliticization and anti-politics has provided us with some of the great insights on how we got to this position – as disaffection grew alongside anti-systemic manifestations of politics – and might well provide a glimpse of what is yet to come, albeit in an more intense and unpredictable form, as the reality and limitations of politicization reveal the diffuse nature of sovereignty.