Ever since the United Kingdom first joined what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1975, one of the central debates has been out its impact on our sovereignty.
Not ‘sovereignty’ in the narrowest sense – we have always retained the sovereign power to leave the European arrangements, as the public chose to do in the 2016 referendum – but in the broader sense of being in control of the laws we live by.
For decades, sceptics have warned that the EEC, and latter the European Union, were developing in ways which undermined the authority of Europe’s nation-states and moved power further away from their electorates. In a future post we might have a look back at this history.
Today, however, we’re going to focus specifically on Theresa May’s proposals for Brexit – dubbed ‘Chequers’, after the country house at which she unveiled them – and why they fail to meet the crucial test of bringing sovereignty back to our national Parliament.
Here’s the basic problem: in order to retain the frictionless movement of goods across the Channel and the Irish border, the Prime Minister proposes that Britain sign up to a “common rule book” with the EU. This will mean that our products will be designed and manufactured according to the same rules in place on the continent, so there’s no need for them to be inspected at ports and so on.
The problem with this is obvious: the EU makes the rules, and we’re leaving the EU. Chequers would thus leave the entire UK goods sector subject to regulations drawn up overseas, in the interests of the economies of other countries, without any British input whatsoever.
Nor should we expect such rules to confine themselves to things such as how powerful your vacuum cleaner can be. The nature of EU law is that it always expands outwards, taking over areas of law related to things it already regulates in pursuit of ever-greater harmonisation and uniformity. Things such as competition law will almost certainly be covered by this ‘rule book’, and that’s just for starters.
Of course, May’s plans theoretically include a so-called ‘Parliamentary lock’ on new regulations. But in truth, this will seldom be used. One of Brussels’ driving goals in the negotiations is to prevent the UK having a better deal outside the EU than inside – it is scarcely going to let London trade up from a 1/28th say on the shape of new EU rules to a 50/50 veto.
If you doubt it, just look at Norway. It too received assurances that its legislature could intervene on new rules, but it has never done so. Why? Because built into the agreement will be punitive ‘consequences’, in the form of fines and other penalties, for diverging from the rule book. We will have the theoretical ability to disregard new regulations – but only if we pay Brussels vast sums of money for the privilege.
There is also fierce debate in legal circles about whether or not the Chequers agreement creates a back door for keeping the UK subject to European law. This would fundamentally undermine the sovereignty of Parliament because the European courts follow a doctrine that EU law is supreme over national law.
Even worse, the EU also wants its own courts to be the places where disputes between it and the UK are resolved! This is just absurd. As Franklin Dehousse, himself a former judge on the European Court of Justice, wrote for the Brussels-based Royal Institute for International Relations:
“One wonders how this is considered acceptable for a sovereign state. Such a state would thus be bound by decisions taken by a judicial authority where it is not represented and whose judges would be appointed by its potential opponents!”
The UK-EU relationship outlined by Chequers is, in many senses, worse than a vote to Remain. It means giving up our seat at the table but still having to swallow whatever Brussels serves up, and potentially accepting legal status better suited to a client state than a mature and independent democracy.