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.
Full 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?
Reforming 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.