Sovereignty or Interdependence?



As I continue to participate in many EU referendum debates, I have a strong feeling that the ‘remain’ campaign is winning the argument regarding the economy. All credible studies and facts lead you to that conclusion. The ‘leave’ campaigners’ arguments on the same are definitely lacking credibility and certainty.

The arguments around sovereignty on the other hand, seem less clear. If we are outside the EU,  Brexiteers argue with conviction, we will be able to make our own decisions, free from the interference of Brussels.  It is a very simplistic and seductive argument, especially as most of us aren’t political theorists, and when we hear the word sovereignty, we automatically think ‘independence’, which is a good thing, right?

However, as I have thought about this more and tried to find a simple way to respond, I have started to think about how this relates to our own lives. We all like the concept of being independent and free to do as we please, but we also rely on each other to make our communities work. We are interdependent.

This  ‘independence vs. interdependence’ dichotomy has been central to the EU argument since even before we joined. And while the idea of ‘taking control’ is a good slogan, I actually think that interdependence is one of the strongest arguments for staying in, because we can see how we can apply this to our own lives.

Before coming to the UK, for example, my family lived in a large block of flats in Germany. There were about 50 families in close proximity, sharing playgrounds, washing facilities, parking etc. Now it’s obvious that this kind of community requires rules, some formal, some informal, to get along, and I vividly remember that there was one family who refused to stick to the rules and were deeply unpopular, including their children, who became ‘outsiders’ when it came to activities in the playground.  This is definitely not an argument for teutonic conformity, but even at the age of seven, I  had a basic sense that people need to work together to make friends and to be an ‘insider’.

I also quickly learnt very early on in my business life at Siemens, where we have plenty of necessary and sometimes some not so smart rules, that the only way to change the latter with success, is to work yourself into a position to change them from within and for the good of the entire corporation.

Now, take these arguments and expand them to macro-level.  No country is truly independent or sovereign.  We in Britain are interdependent, with our European neighbours in particular, when it comes to dealing with 21st century challenges, like pollution, cross-border crime, financial instability and terrorism.  Therefore, we voluntarily give up some sovereignty, pooling it with others in the EU, because together we are stronger on those issues.

It’s true that sometimes we are not happy with the rules, and indeed that they are not smart, but here too, I think we can learn from our personal experiences, where it is mostly much better to work to change the rules from within, than being ignored on the outside.  And contrary to popular opinion, the UK isn’t always on the losing side in the EU.  I speak to European colleagues and people in Brussels regularly and they tell me how important, and how much success, the UK has in making the case for free trade, reducing regulation, tackling climate change and much more. I’m therefore quite astonished by the lack of confidence in the UK to believe that we can’t be an even stronger leader in the EU, changing and improving the system from within. Because we most definitely can!

And what happens if we do run away and try to set just our own rules?  Well, it’s simple, we actually lose sovereignty.  Europe is not going away and we can’t tow ourselves into the middle of the Atlantic and try to cut ourselves off from trade and political and economic system on our doorstep. We would simply have less control over the pollution drifting over our borders; the cleanliness of our seas; the standards of financial regulation affecting our economy; the consumer and trade regulations to which our exporters and importers are bound in or out of the union; the security and economic crises sending shock waves – such as extreme migration and terrorism – deep into domestic life.  We would end up being on the outside looking in, while others make decisions which affect us.  That doesn’t feel very much like sovereignty to me.

And who is it,  that would lose out if we do decide to run away and try to become more sovereign? It will  not be the Brexiteers. It will be our next generation, just like it was the children of the family living by its own rules that I described at the beginning of this blog. The parents had made their choice  to make their own rules and to live largely in isolation. But their children had not chosen to be excluded from play and lots of great experiences.

In the same way, let’s not allow self interest and isolation ruin the opportunities for generations to come. Instead, allow them to be part of a proud outward looking Britain that is helping drive equality and better chances for all in the EU. That is the Great Britain that I have adopted as my home 40 years ago and I’d like our future generation to have the same chances Britain has provided for me.

Posted in: EU

14 thoughts on “Sovereignty or Interdependence?”

  1. No one claims that the EU is the only reason for peace. But European nations were at war as recently as the 1990s in the Balkans and the prospect of EU membership has assisted in the reconciliation there. Moreover in the Baltic countries EU membership is very much seen as ‘soft security’ option to complement the ‘hard security’ of NATO membership.

  2. You fail to understand the meaning of sovereignty. The UK’s interests so often diverge from the interests of other EU members, yet the majority rule system renders us powerless. The EU has not existed for 70 years, and is not responsible for peace in Europe – as amply demonstrated by the previous post. We should be free to forge trade agreements and common laws when they suit our interests, and not be forced into them by political union when they do not.

  3. Jurgen said: “This ‘independence vs. interdependence’ dichotomy has been central to the EU argument since even before we joined. And while the idea of ‘taking control’ is a good slogan, I actually think that interdependence is one of the strongest arguments for staying in, because we can see how we can apply this to our own lives.”

    Independence is not isolation.

    Independence allows interoperability with others by choice (eg how NATO tends to work). Interdependence as the EU applies it removes choice, ties our hands at the real top tables and obstructs corrective feedbacks from our nearest peer nations.

    1. I can see where you are coming from, but do believe that leaving the EU, would isolate us more from decisions that affect our nation, obviously those coming from the EU, but also (and you are right to a lesser extent) those from other major nations. I am of course largely talking about regulations that affect trade and in that regard, I believe we’d be no more sovereign and worse off.

  4. You say “it is mostly much better to work to change the rules from within, than being ignored on the outside” but this rather overlooks the fact that the EU does not make the rules. It adopts them form UNECE, IMO, Codex, ILO, ITU, Basel2 and a whole universe of global super regulators, NGOs and standards bodies. UNECE especially. Everything from automotive standards to town planning. The EU is a rule taker, not a rule maker.

    In this, it’s not even as if any real scrutiny is applied by MEPs. Most MEPs know very little and have no real expertise. Most of them don’t even know what they’re voting for. They work to lists provided by their groups. They won’t know whether it’s ordinary legislative procedure, or whether it’s first reading in response to comitology.

    To them, it’s just a vote that they turn up to, in order to press a button. As to amendments, most are for show only and get discarded. The ones that stick are the official amendments, whatever happens, on technical standards, if they come from international sources, the details can’t be changed. Very often, though, you get MEPs showboating and virtue signalling, putting in amendments for the sake of it. These are stripped out during the voting, and have no effect whatsoever.

    We have no real line of defence as EU members. They say we wouldn’t have a vote at the EU if we left and all I can think is… so what? The EU is a just a redundant middleman. If we want a full independent vote, right of reservation and opt out then we have to leave the EU. That way we will have more say in the rules we get whether we adopt them directly or via the EU.

    As EU members we are forced to adopt the common EU position at the top tables where it is an exclusive EU competence. That sometimes has very real implications for UK jobs and we have no say. More to the point, the EU increasingly abuses the institutions of the EU to assume exclusive competence and sabotages the appeal process.

    The EU is completely undemocratic in every imaginable way and if we stay in the EU it will gradually erase us from all the top global bodies, so we then end up adopting rules largely written by corporates and rubber stamped by UNECE and the IMO etc without ever having had any input or democratic oversight. THAT is why we should leave the EU. In this regard, we need sovereignty now more than ever. That basic right to say no. That’s not an old fashioned, obsolete idea. It;s that democracy thing.

    1. It is not correct that the EU just adopts global standards. Some standards are of course set by the more global bodies you quote, but many are not. And even those that are, like the Automotive ones you quote, have had very significant input and influence from the EU. To therefore say that the EU is a rule taker is not correct either. In many of the fields I work in, like Industrial Automation for example, and also in Automotive, the EU has always been a very significant leader in setting standards for the EU and globally and working on behalf of its 28 member states.

      1. The vast majority of technical regulation is not made by the EU. But it extends further than that. EU merely embodies global conventions – from disability rights, ILO labour rights right through to radio transmission regulations made by the ITU. Everywhere you look, regulation is the only the the EU effectively recycles. As to EU automotive standards, they are predominantly WP.29 and ISO. Some are CEN but they are subordinate to ISO. Being in the EU removes our right of opt out, weakens our voice and diminishes our influence.

        More to the point, the globalisation of rules and regulations is here to stay. EU may not adopt all its standards from global bodies but eventually it will, or at least thanks to the Vienna convention be entirely subordinate to global rules – which means anyone producing to global standards has automatic right of access. Sooner or later, the EU will be wholly redundant and an unnecessary stop in a chain of accountability that is already far too long. If we want to be leading in the creation of a global single market then we need to ditch the antiquated approach of the EU.

        I can see why you think what you think, but it’s always the same with euro-parochialism. Most of you have yet to realise the scale of the regulatory universe that exists over and above the EU – and precisely how much of an obstruction the EU is to developing globally harmonised standards. The sooner we are out the better – and the sooner we are out the sooner we will have at least some democratic protection against damaging policies that we don’t want. Sorry to break this to you, but subordination is not cooperation. Sovereignty matters now more than it ever did.

        1. As the UK’s representative on the Council Board of the IEC, one of the global standards bodies refered to by the last contributor, and someone who is also involved in national and Euroean standards, I have found that important decisions go in the direction of the biggest group of like minded countries – (each country generally gets one vote). Over the last decade or so the U.K. has been very successful in steering European standards policy, thus marshalling a significant number of votes for decisions which are in our interests. How are we so successful? Two things – discussions in the EU are in English (everybody else is having to work in their second language) and also the Brits are seen as having good diplomacy skills to pull together a common position. Consequently a disproportionate number of standards working groups are chaired by Brits. It’s difficult to imagine us being able to marshall similar numbers of votes from Asia-Pacific if we had too, and the US generally has just one vote. I would also mention that many standards nowadays mimic legislation in areas such as energy efficiency, sustainability of resources and pollution control. The EU acts as a thought leader in these areas and is often the first to introduce legislation which the rest of the world generally slowly follows (WEEE, RoHS and REACH are recent examples). This gives Europe the edge in setting the standards that support this legislation.

        2. If sovereignty matters so much to Pete North, how come the Flexcit paper he advocates argues that we should leave the EU, but then rejoin the EEA via EFTA, becoming even more of a rule-taker?

  5. A very interesting piece Juergen, thank you. It dismays me that both sides of the debate often argue about the (relatively small) amount of money we pay into the EU and what we ‘get back’ without any effort to include the historical perspective. I think much more should be made of the ‘peace dividend’ – 70 years of peace in Western Europe- a continent which would descend into warfare every 20 years or so before someone had the good sense to bind us together into a group of democracies. The value of this achievement is measured in lives rather than pounds or euros and we cannot let a bunch of soundbite politicians win, who hark back to very different days of empire when they imagine we could make it by ourselves. Sheer idiocy.

    1. That peace dividend, is indeed very undervalued in this debate David. Thanks for your comment.

      1. I’d just like to pick up on the “EU brought peace” argument because it’s quite an interesting one to make in all honesty. What is irrefutable is that the EU (and its predecessors) have existed during a time of relative “peace” on the European continent. However, the view that the EU is the cause of that peace ignores several hugely significant international dynamics that changed following the Second World War.

        1. The “German Question” was solved: After its extremely traumatic defeat in 1945, the territorial and cultural changes forced upon Germany removed Prussian militarism, the key driver of German aggression, from that country. Over the course of the two world wars an over-mighty Germany had attempted to carve out a hegemonic position for itself with military force. After 1945 it would never return to a position where this sort of action was culturally conceivable or economically possible.

        2. The end of multinational empires: Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Europe transitioned from being dominated by a group of pre-modern multinational empires to a series of more politically coherent nation-states. This process had largely come to an end by 1945, with the last true multinational European empires; the Soviet Union and its satellites and Yugoslavia, being dismantled in the 1990s. This process of transition was usually bloody and defined by civil conflict within the European continent, this usually drew in the other great powers and occasionally resulted in conflict between them.

        3. The Cold War: It is fair to say that, for the Western nations that were part of the proto-EU from its inception until 1991, conflict between them was effectively impossible. The existence of the NATO alliance, which formed the bedrock of Western security and defence in the face of an existential threat to all its members (Soviet Communism), shows just how far nations that had recently been at war with one another had to go in order to form a credible collective defence against the USSR. The presence of hundreds of thousands of American and British troops had also, essentially, made conflict amongst the Western nations an impossibility by the time the European coal and steel community came into existence in 1951.

        4. Nuclear Weapons: Likely one of the key reasons the Cold War never went “hot”, nuclear arms have been a game changer in international politics. Conflict between the great powers has not only virtually disappeared in Europe, but across the rest of the world as well. The last time it happened was when the USA fought China during the Korean War, but in 1950 there was still only one credible nuclear power in the world: the United States. Modern great power wars have become nigh-unthinkable because the costs of actually fighting one would be so high as to make fighting pointless in the first place.

        5. A reason to fight: Europe has been, for thousands of years, a hotbed of conflicting ideologies and militaristic regimes willing to fight for them. Looking back as far as the Roman Empire these dynamics have always been at play. Religion and political ideology essentially perform similar functions in Europe, setting “the rules of the game” culturally and politically. The great defining conflicts of centuries past arose when new ideas took root and threatened to expand their influence or overthrow old ones. The crusades, conflicts during the rise of Protestantism, the French revolutionary wars, the nineteenth century wars of national liberation and the two world wars of the twentieth century (and the Cold War confrontation) were all products of the rise of new ideas about how the state interacts with its citizens. To say that we’ve reached the end of this process is presumptuous in the extreme, but we’ve reached a point of relative stability in the process.

        To say that the European political union, that has only really existed in its current form for a quarter century, is the cause of European peace is to ignore a slew of other factors that are almost certainly more central to explaining our current period of relative peace. It is especially worrying because if we lose sight of what has really contributed to relative peace in Europe since 1945 then we’re almost certainly doomed to neglect those things and slide back into conflict.

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