Sovereignty – The historical perspective; or ‘les absents ont toujours tort’

Jessica Simor (Matrix)

[The following is the text of a speech given by Jessica Simor at the Matrix/UKAEL seminar “40 Years On – The Sovereignty Debate”, held today, 7 March 2013.]

Sometimes it feels not that progress is slow but rather, that nothing changes…and nowhere more so than in the context of the debate over sovereignty. The regressive nature of that debate seems to have got worse in the past few years, encompassing a general animus to anything vaguely ‘European’ – it is as if the ‘nationalism’ debate is no longer played out by reference to ‘foreigners’ in general but rather by reference specifically to “the Europeans” and anything vaguely “European”.

What European Unity symbolises for Britain and in particular the political elite is very different, certainly from Germany but also from traumatised Central and Eastern and indeed from France.  Hans Dietrich Genscher in a recent interview[1] describes how for Germany, sitting at the European table, meant “a return to the community of civilised nations”.  By contrast, for Britain, it meant “a farewell to Empire”.

When Churchill gave his visionary speech in Zurich on 19 September 1946 he specifically referred to Britain already having its own family: the Commonwealth of nations. He argued that this showed that a ‘Europe’ could form its own family of nations, which he said:

“could give a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship to the distracted peoples of this turbulent and mighty continent?”

With great vision, he saw that the essential basis for this was “a partnership between France and Germany.”  In his words there could be “no revival of Europe without a spiritually great France and a spiritually great Germany.”  In his words:

“The structure of the United States of Europe, if well and truly built, will be such as to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause. The ancient states and principalities of Germany, freely joined together for mutual convenience in a federal system, might take their individual places among the United States of Europe. I shall not try to make a detailed programme for hundreds of millions of people who want to be happy and free, prosperous and safe, who wish to enjoy the four freedoms of which the great President Roosevelt spoke,[2] and live in accordance with the principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter. If this is their wish, if this is the wish of the Europeans in so many lands, they have only to say so, and means can certainly be found, and machinery erected, to carry that wish to full fruition.”

From the earliest days then, Britain saw itself as outside; as having its own family.  This sentiment was carried into practice.  Britain rejected the invitation of Robert Schuman to discuss proposals for a European Coal and Steel Community in 1950.  It rejected in particular, a prior commitment to the principle of a supra-national authority, which the French and Jean Monnet in particular, insisted on.  Similarly, whilst Macmillan acceded to an invitation to join the Spaak Committee, which was set up to examine the idea of a European Economic Community, he sent only a senior official of the Board of Trade and not a Minister.  In October 1955 Britain decided to leave the Spaak Committee, being opposed to both a customs union and to having its atomic research subjected to supranational scrutiny.   The Spaak Report was finalised on 21 April 1956 and formed the basis for discussions, which led to the Treaty of Rome that was signed in 1957 and of course established the EEC and Euratom.

So Britain was absent.  Absent from the discussions that led to the decision making structures, as well as financing system, including for major areas such as the CAP, all of which remain in place today.

In 1960, the Conservative government under Macmillan applied for Britain to join the EEC but by then it was too late;  Britain’s membership was vetoed by France on 14 January 1963.

In Britain’s absence, France had become the U.S.’s chosen partner in Europe.  Also (in line with Churchill’s vision), France and Germany had become the axis of power within the EEC.  A week after Britain’s application to join, on 22 January 1963 DeGaulle and Adenauer signed a Treaty “on the organisation and the principles of the co-operation between the two states” (“the Franco-German Friendship Treaty” – the Elysee Pact), the 50th anniversary celebration of which was in January and you may recall, caused David Cameron to have to postpone his ‘Europe’ speech.

This Treaty is an active treaty; it mandates meetings between the French and German foreign ministers at least every three months, between the Chiefs of Staff at least every two months and regular meetings between the responsible authorities in the fields of defence, education and youth.  Article 4 provides that the “the two governments will consult each other, prior to any decision on all important questions of foreign policy and common interest, including “problems relative to the European Communities and to European political co-operation; East –West relations, issues relating to NATO and other international organisations”.   This co-operation has even extended to the writing of a joint Franco-German history coursebook published in 2006, which concerns the history of Europe since antiquity that is now used in French and German schools.   And perhaps most importantly, the joint declaration that precedes the Treaty explicitly states that the aim of both peoples is a “United Europe”.

This was never and has never been an aim of the British people, who have never in any emotional sense committed to the idea of a United Europe; on the contrary such an idea is rejected by all politicians by reference to principles of ‘sovereignty’. Indeed, David Cameron in his recent speech said this again.  He specifically questioned the commitment of Members articulated in the European Treaty to “lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, stating that this “is not the objective [of the UK]” and thatwe would be much more comfortable if the Treaty specifically said so freeing those who want to go further, faster, to do so, without being held back by the others.

In 1967 De Gaulle again said he would veto British membership, albeit that the five other nations, Belgium, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands supported it.  The 1967 news report from the BBC is interesting.  DeGaulle is said to have accused Britain of a “deep-seated hostility” towards European construction.  And apparently, for “all three political parties committed to joining the EEC,…the news of General de Gaulle’s continuing intransigence …was met with gloom in Westminster.”

In 1969 negotiations began regarding economic and monetary union (“EMU”). And in 1970 the Werner Committee reported a  path to monetary union.  Again, Britain was of course, absent from of all these discussions.

By the time Britain joined the EEC on 1 January 1973, CAP, the budgetary arrangements and EMU had all been largely fixed. Britain also joined at a time when its economic position was very weak; interest rates were 13% and Heath was warning of a three day week by the end of the year.  Far from joining at a time of confidence, Britain joined when in dire economic straits and hoping that the EEC would provide a potential solution. Even apart from that Britain would have had very limited negotiating power over her terms of entry.  Her terms of entry had to be re-negotiated subsequently, first under Wilson and then, of course, under Thatcher, who achieved the famous rebate.

Labour’s general election manifesto of October 1974 committed Labour to a referendum to decide whether Britain should stay in the Common Market on the basis of the renegotiated terms, or leave it entirely. In 1975 there were National Front rallies against integration with Europe.  A report for 25 March 1975 describes National Front marchers in Islington beating drums and chanting: “we’re going to get the reds”.  On 26 April 1975 the Labour party voted to leave the EEC.  However, at the referendum on 6 June 1975 67.2% of voters backed Britain staying in Europe (there being a 64% turnout). The question was: “Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?”. Home Secretary Roy Jenkins said: “It puts the uncertainty behind us. It commits Britain to Europe; it commits us to playing an active, constructive and enthusiastic role in it.”

Of course, it has not done so and 38 years later we seem to be having almost the same debates.  David Cameron has pledged a referendum on a re-negotiated Treaty, albeit that Herman Van Rompuy and the Dutch foreign Minister only last week said they will do everything to avoid a treaty change. Van Rompuy said that by even opening up the debate of a new Treaty so far in advance (combined with a referendum), the UK had restricted which countries would work with it in the union.  To quote his colourful language he said:

“How can you possibly convince a room full of people, when you keep your hand on the door handle.  How to encourage a friend to change, if your eyes are searching for your coat.”

Britain’s isolation was no more evident than a couple of days ago in its failure to exert any influence in relation to restrictions on bankers’ bonuses.

What is the reason for Britain’s inability ever over the past 40 years to have truly felt a member of the club?  Why has Britain failed ever to  sign up to the obvious benefits of a wider union, despite periods when it was able to push forward the project, most importantly the single market and enlargement.  The national debate has never moved onto the substance of laws or specific problems, and remaining always stuck in the language of principle: the principle of national sovereignty.

As Francis Jacobs in his Hamlyn lectures says:

 “whatever may have been the case in the past [when States were sovereign in international relations and in law making powers], it seems clear that sovereignty is no longer a viable concept for explaining either the role of the State in international affairs or the internal arrangements of a modern State. Internationally, it is not viable on the political level: no State today, even the United States, is able to act independently. Nor is it viable legally: all States actually accept today the constraints of international law, although they may differ about what it requires.”

Sovereignty remains however, a concept ripe for political exploitation. As William Paterson notes “the further European integration proceeds the more the logic of politicisation sets in as domestic institutions seek to defend their prerogatives.”  This is true in many countries but perhaps none more so than the UK,[3] where politicians elide the concept of national sovereignty with that of Parliamentary sovereignty.  The latter is of course, a concept that does not exist in any other EU state.   Every state in the EU apart from the UK has a Constitution enabling Parliamentary legislation to be struck down.   Politicians cannot therefore claim that they themselves possess any ‘sovereign powers’; yes the sovereign power to enact legislation but only subject to the reviewing power of the Courts and higher principles laid down in Constitutions.

British MPs by contrast, simplistically see themselves as inherently sovereign – this was nowhere more obvious than in the recent debate about Prisoners’ voting, where one MP after another got up in the commons to express outrage that anyone could gainsay their clear will. Chris Grayling explained to the Chamber that he would have to vote for prisoners to have votes because somehow ‘he was subject to international law’ but that MPs were free to defy international law.  MPs generally simply do not accept that Courts, let alone foreign courts, should have the power to adjudicate on the legality of measures they have enacted.  But of course the 1972 EC Act not only enabled but required UK courts to strike down legislation found to be incompatible with EU law.  As such EU law and Britain’s membership of the EU confronts head on what our Government and legislature consider sacrosanct: “their sovereign rights”.

To draw my thoughts to a close:

First, it seems to me that Britain is in a state of confusion, confusion that has been fostered by a shocking lack of informative debate and general ignorance.  It has served all political parties not to explain Europe but rather to blame it for decisions that it was in fact, part of.  Whilst Governments may find it frustrating to discover that in almost all fields decisions are now made at an international level that is not a reason for repatriating decision making.  The relevant question must be what matters are better decided at a national level.  That requires articulation of why a national rather than a supra-national body should decide specific rules.  Sovereignty does not provide any answer at all.  And yet this seems to be the only answer ever provided.

Vince Cable in his recent speech at Chatham house was asked what should be decided nationally.  His answer was in the negative; he could not see why matters like working hours should be decided at an EU level.   What he did not say, however, was that it would be better if these decisions were made nationally.   Working hours was also the only specific example given by David Cameron, again on the basis that he did not see why this should be decided at an EU level. It will be interesting to see whether the Government’s review of the balance of competences will manage to address that question and whether the answer to it will feature in any referendum that might take place.

Secondly, we can no longer be under any illusions about the dangers for Britain of using ‘sovereignty’ to play to the electorate or party members.  Britain’s recent 26:1 defeat on bankers’ bonuses show how isolated Britain has become.  David Wighton writing in the Times yesterday, said that for “certain parts of the City, it is life-threatening”. The defeat highlights the weakness of Britain in defending the City in the bigger battle to preserve its status as the financial centre of Europe.”  Britain failed to prevent damaging new regulation of EU hedge funds, mostly based in London, and the introduction of a financial transaction tax, which will harm the City even though Britain has opted out.

Finally, I should make the obvious point that if we do leave the EU our position will self-evidently be yet weaker.  Norway, a member of the EEA, has taken on 75% of EU legislation, has signed up to plethora of other agreement on borders, on immigration and on foreign policy.  Norway is effectively part of the EU but with no role in its decision making.   Surely that is not a recipe for either greater democratic accountability or greater knowledge and engagement with our continent, the importance of which we should not discount.


[1] (with Quentin Peel and Michael Sturmer – International Affairs (88): 6 (2012) 1205  No. 6 p.

[2] The Four Freedoms Speech was given on January 6, 1941. Roosevelt’s hope was to provide a rationale for why the United States should abandon the isolationist policies that emerged out of WWI.

” The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.—Franklin D. Roosevelt, excerpted from the State of the Union Address to the Congress, January 6, 1941″

[3] .  David Cameron in his recent speech gave as his fourth principle: the need to return of power to national parliaments.  In his view, national parliaments are and will remain the source of democratic legitimacy within Europe.

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