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The myth of full British sovereignty


Werner Jeanrond is Master of St Benet’s Hall in the University of Oxford

In the ongoing debate on Britain’s place in Europe, references to full sovereignty abound. Is it right for Britain to have handed over aspects of sovereignty to ‘Brussels’? Should the British people try to regain absolute sovereignty by withdrawing from Europe? Is it even possible to have full control over one’s sovereignty today?

Listening to these and similar concerns, I cannot help wondering what kind of a world those people long for who seek full sovereignty in our globalising context. Is this merely an expression that they do not feel at home in today’s world and therefore blame everything bad on ‘Brussels’? How else should one interpret the dramatic calls for reforming ‘Brussels’ – calls however not matched by any demand for reform in Britain itself? How come that nobody calls, for instance, for a reduction in the numbers of civil servants in Whitehall (405,000) when in fact the entire European bureaucracy, Commission, Council and Parliament together (42,500) is much slimmer?

Back to the call for full sovereignty: surely, it ought to surprise us in Britain that one of the strongest expressions of such a call emerges from media controlled by non-British and non-European owners. Hence, those who daily urge us to claim back full sovereignty do neither share British nor European interests. Rather they pursue their own particular power agenda under the pretence of leading Britain back to (a long gone world of) imperial glory and absolute self-determination. Of course, they do not care at all to highlight the point that the European project once came about because intellectual and political leaders realised seventy years ago that full sovereignty remained an illusion and that only new and ever more adequate forms of cooperation in Europe and beyond would be able to safeguard a peaceful political, social and economic development for all European countries.

SovereigntyFull national sovereignty is and remains impossible in our world – not just for Britain. The issues associated with, for example, transnational companies, environmental resources, disease vectors, organised crime cannot be solved by one country.

The ongoing row about Google’s tax responsibilities illustrates the need for better transnational forms of cooperation. Moreover, controlling international corporations more generally, including our banks, make it imperative to establish political, social, educational and economic cooperation beyond the borders of any country. No national parliament on its own can ever hope to control transnational corporations. Nor could it take sufficient steps for the protection of the environment. ‘British laws for British people’, as the battle cry would like to have it, won’t any longer solve many British problems.

Likewise, the current move to define human rights in terms of a merely British bill of rights seems yet another effort in denial that today all British people are global citizens whether they like it or not. Why this strong desire to withdraw into a self-imposed isolation from being a responsible and dignified player in a European and global orchestra?

puzzleReforming the institutions of the European Union is a noble act. Who would not wish to support it? All human institutions – European and British alike – are in constant need of reform. Calling only for the reform of the one exposes a schizophrenic agenda. Asking for full national sovereignty today reveals a nostalgic desire to live in a world long gone and plays to the tune of media and corporate managers that neither care for Britain’s nor for Europe’s future. Blaming ‘Brussels’ for all the ills of this world is simplistic and childish. Limiting the search for adequate concepts of human rights merely to British legal imagination evokes unsavoury echoes of the not too distant European past.

What is needed is a critical and self-critical debate on better and more appropriately shared forms of national and multinational cooperation on all levels that affect human life in Britain, in Europe and beyond. Enlightened wisdom and experience have a lot to contribute to this debate. The Abrahamic faiths acknowledge that only God can be truly sovereign, and God’s sovereignty has been manifest in love, hospitality, and care for the suffering, exploited and oppressed.

About the author

Professor Werner G Jeanrond is Master of St Benet’s Hall in the University of Oxford. Born at Saarbrücken in 1955, he studied theology, German, and education at the Universities of the Saarland, Regensburg and Chicago. He taught systematic theology at Trinity College Dublin, the University of Lund in Sweden, and the University of Glasgow before taking up his present appointment in 2012. His books and articles in theology and hermeneutics have been translated into many languages. A Theology of Love was published in London in 2010 with translations into Swedish, Danish, Italian, Spanish and Chinese. Presently, he is completing a book on Reasons to Hope.

5 Responses on “The myth of full British sovereignty

  1. John Gaines says:

    Throughout history, nations have relied on relationships with other countries, whether it was political, economic, trade, or military, or a combination of some or all of the above. But, our present relationship with the EEC, is akin to a medieval serf, & the Lord of the Manor. This is shown by our beggar PM, going around Europe, begging for scraps, and that is all he got, not radical reform, but minor tinkering around the edges. As to the amount of Civil Servants, your figure is mythical. Whitehall is a small area of London, where my wife worked in MOD, some years ago. There is not enough space there for 405,000 perhaps you mean in the whole of the UK? But, you forget, these Civil Servants administer a country of about 62 million, and some of them are just employed to administer the dictates of the EEC, The 42,500, by comparison, are really just administering themselves, and passing instructions on to the serfs (EEC countries) So, your comparison is totally flawed.
    Going back to our Imperial past, from that has sprung the Commonwealth, which is global. If we were to help it develop a trade arm, then it has the potential to dwarf the EEC. Then, the UK would be the logical link between it and the EEC. The EEC members would be clamouring for trade deals. We would then as a nation, be able to trade with EEC member states, but not be ruled by a corrupt organisation. And we would save the £50 million every day, that it costs us to be members, of the EEC. It is a no brainer really, VOTE LEAVE, is the only sensible option.

  2. Guy Wilkinson says:

    Thank you – great article. And on the sovereignty point we might remember that we could be required to go to war with Russia, not by our own Parliamentary decision, but by our commitment to NATO’s doctrine of ‘one and all’. That’s what mutual;ity and solidarity are all about

  3. Aubrey Bufton says:

    Wonderful article. Sad to see the response by John Gaines replays the British Empire, sorry Commonwealth, argument of Sovereignty, that the ex-colonies will support and provide for the old Imperial power at the expense of their own sovereignty. Also, where is the Sovereignty of the UK when tax-dodging foreign owners of the right-wing press dictate their own views to the unthinking and unquestioning masses ? Also, our commitment to NATO means that Britain’s Sovereignty is dictated by the whim of the United States president, which so far has been fairly reasonable, but with the lunatic Republicans led by Donald Trump could lead us into very dangerous territory – came close with Ronald Reagan and his ‘Star Wars’ program against the ‘Axis of Evil’.

  4. Guy Wilkinson says:

    There is also the little matter of those Commonwealth members whose militaristic and human rights records are about as dismal as they come. Pakistan suspended until 2008 and still having amongst the worst record of anti Christian persecution – not to mention the little matter of nuclear confrontation with the biggest Commonwealth member; Fiji suspended until 2014 for undemocratic behaviour; let’s not even mention Zimbabwe; Uganda and even Kenya have pretty poor electoral records. And so one could go on. At least the EU rescued Portugal, Spain and Greece from dictatorships; and has provided a safe haven for the former Soviet dictatorships. Through the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights we have a secure mechanism to ensure democracy – also a condition of membership of the EU.

  5. David Orton says:

    The UK has a long tradition of democratic government.
    Of course sovereignty of the UK has never been absolute and cannot be so. There are numerous international agreements with bodies such as, UN,Nato,WTC, that place obligations on the UK. But only under the EU treaties has the UK been subject to qualifying majority voting of 28 countries. It is to regain this loss of decision making powers, that the UK should leave the EU.
    If the EU implemented the christian conception of subsidiarity, membership would be more satisfactory, but the Brussels oligarchy only transfer powers to the centre, not to local communities.
    In passing, why does Prof Jeanrond not recognise the different functions of the British civil service and the Brussels Bureaucracy and consequently the different numbers?

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