Brexit proponents don’t want to assume human responsibility for global public goods

D+C Newsletter

Dear visitors,

do you know our newsletter? It’ll keep you briefed on what we publish. Please register, and you will get it every month.

Thanks and best wishes,
the editorial team


by Hans Dembowski

Why sovereignty must be pooled

If you’ve been following my writing on this blog, you probably know that I find the entire Brexit infuriating. Nonetheless, I’d like to repeat a few thoughts. The reasons is that Brexit is a paradigmatic example of what is wrong with nationalist populism: an out-stated obsession with – and insistence on – sovereignty.

A bomb went off on Saturday in Londonderry. It caused damage, but no one was killed and no one was injured. It is a warning sign nonetheless. Peace cannot be taken for granted in the part of the United Kingdom that was plagued by fragile statehood for decades, until the Good Friday peace agreement was concluded in 1998. The peace agreement was based on the insight that a hard border was no longer needed between the Republic of Ireland and the UK since both countries belonged to the EU and its single market. Pooling sovereignty, not insisting on it, was the way to reduce the tensions between the Irish nationalists, who are mostly Catholic, and the British Unionists, who tend to be Protestants, in Northern Ireland. No, we do not live in strictly homogenous societies anymore in which there can only be a single religious faith. We live in diverse societies, so we need pluralism.

Four centuries ago, sovereignty was an innovative concept. It provided the solution to the mess the Thirty Years War had caused in Germany. The Westphalian peace agreement ended the bloodshed. Its formula was that whoever was the lord of any particular country, would:

  • determine his people’s religious faith,
  • maintain a monopoly on the use of violent force and
  • raise taxes in order to be able to do so.

That was what sovereignty was about. This principle allowed Germany’s many states of different sizes to live in peace with one another. The economies were basically agrarian and actually did not need much cooperation among one another.

Today’s world is different. Not only Germany’s various regions are interdependent, all European nations are. Indeed, all countries on earth are because our species must now rise to challenges of a global scale. Even the most powerful nation states, on their own, cannot get a grip on climate change, international financial stability or terrorism, to name only three of them. It is worth mentioning, moreover, that our economies have become interconnected, with supply chains criss-crossing many borders.

Given that cooperation is indispensable, insisting on sovereignty does not guarantee peace anymore. Instead, pooling sovereignty has become a formula for peace. In the decades after the Second World War, various multilateral institutions were set up, including the UN or the World Bank, for example. The initial impetus was to safeguard peace. The devastation of the war had made governments aware of the need to ensure public goods in a sense of cooperation.

Safeguarding peace, by the way, was the purpose of first European treaties, which later evolved into the European Union. The founding member countries adopted joint policy-making on issues such as steel, coal, agriculture and nuclear technology. The implication was that no member country would be able to prepare for war without the others noticing immediately. The approach proved successful in terms of accelerating economic growth. Member countries prospered and their combined international influence increased. In view of such success, other countries joined, including the UK in the 1970s.

International cooperation delivers results, but it is burdensome too. Populist nationalism tends to take the advantages for granted and focus entirely on the downsides. The Brexiteers told the British public leaving the EU would only bring benefits. Britain, they said, was such an important market for German cars, that Germany’s Federal Government would make the EU grant the UK any favourable treatment its British counterpart might demand. At the same time, London would be sovereign to conclude its own trade deals around the world, limit migration and use tax money that so far was being transferred to the Brussels for the National Health Service. In short, Britain would still benefit from the public goods the EU provides, but no longer have to bear its share of bringing them about.

Two and a half years after the referendum, it is plain for everyone to see that this is not how things turned out. In difficult and complex negotiations, the EU did not fulfil British wishes. The simple truth is that it could not do so. Its obvious priority was EU coherence. Allowing one country to cherry pick what it likes would have set a bad example and ultimately led to the unravelling of the EU. The EU is certainly not a perfect union, but any country that wants to enjoy its benefits must fulfil duties accordingly. The EU cannot allow any government to free-ride.

As I argued in a blogpost in December, there is really no such thing as a reasonable, soft Brexit. Staying in the single market is an option, but it means accepting single market rules defined by the EU. Staying only in the customs union, would increase London’s scope for national legislation and limiting migration, but it would still not be sovereign to pursue its own trade policy. A hard Brexit, in turn, means foregoing all benefits of the EU.

Theresa May’s plan was to leave the EU, comply with its rules for a two year transition period during which new free-trade agreement would be negotiated. This plan was unconvincing for several reasons. The most important one is that it didn’t resolve any of the most important questions. In what sense would such a UK-EU free-trade agreement differ from the single market? And what limits to sovereignty would London accept? What would its contribution to public goods be? And what about accepting regulations that Britain had no say in bringing about? The deal May planned to strike with the EU would have postponed most of the hard decisions.

The insistence on national sovereignty is something all right-wing populists share, whether in UK or elsewhere. They all claim that their nation is suffering because of international agreements and multilateral decision-making. They all pretend that the burdens of cooperation are unacceptable and that the benefits of cooperation can be had for free. Such an ethnocentric perspective made sense in Germany after the Tirty Years War. In today’s interconnected world, it is absurd.

What humankind needs is more, better and more equitable cooperation. Putting one’s own nation first, can only enter the problems, but offers no solutions to any of the great challenges we face as a species.

Northern Ireland, moreover, shows that pooling sovereignty can ensure domestic peace today. One century ago, the Irish Republic claimed independence from Britain in a revolutionary war. Northern Ireland, however, stayed part of the United Kingdom, but kept being rocked by sectarian violence. Terror attacks occurred in England too. As stated above, the Good Friday agreement brought peace based on the fact that the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland had become largely irrelevant because of the EU single market.


Add comment

Add comment

Log in or register to post comments