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Has Brexit really enabled the United Kingdom to regain its sovereignty?

Author: Margault Lepeytre

Editors: Siddharth G. Khare and Soline Germond

Many promises were made to the British people by the Brexiters, a significant one being 'taking back control'. In order to gain greater control over their destiny and greater sovereignty, the British people decided in a referendum to break away from the supranational organisation that is the European Union. So, three years after the official exit from the EU, has the kingdom really regained its sovereignty?

Initially, the Brexit project was fuelled by concerns about immigration and social protection. These questions are raised in all other EU countries, and are domestic issues: how do nation-states cope with the imbalances of globalisation? However, open borders do not mean the abolition of borders. This reality seems to have been overlooked, and it has huge implications for the UK economy. Indeed, this nationalistic blindness has curbed immigration from Eastern Europe, causing labour shortages to the extent that there are now more vacancies than unemployed.

“Brexit has allowed us to regain control of the borders.” Has it? The absurdity of the customs rules between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland does not suggest so. In order not to revive the conflicts that, until 1998, opposed the Protestant unionists of Northern Ireland, loyal to the United Kingdom, and the Catholic republicans who favoured reunification of the island, the Northern Ireland Protocol was signed between Europe and the British. This protocol ensures that a physical border on the island of Ireland will not be established following the UK's formal exit from the EU. The UK's borders are therefore porous. Taking back control, yes, but not really.

In an interconnected world, with major powers like the United States and China or the EU in some areas, the ability to make decisions independently does not ensure sovereignty, especially for a small country. The UK's geographical position is such that its international relations in terms of trade in goods and services will always be very closely dependent on the standards and regulations in force in the EU. The EU's strength in relation to China and the US is its market size. By conditioning access to its market on certain standards and values, the EU can put pressure on third countries or multinational companies; therefore, the larger its market size, the greater its bargaining power.

As Mario Draghi, who was President of the European Central Bank, well described in his 2019 Bologna speech, true sovereignty lies not in the power to make law according to a legal definition but in greater control of events in order to meet the basic needs of citizens, defined by John Locke as "peace, security and the public good".

Where the Brixeters have lied about the UK's ability to regain control and sovereignty is that they have (knowingly) failed to explain to the population that the notion of sovereignty, in the face of current global challenges has become a fiction.

Since sovereignty is the fact that a state is not subject to any higher authority, in a globalised economy and in the geopolitical reality in which the UK evolves (with the UN, NATO, etc.), it is not by leaving the EU that a country gains in sovereignty, since they are precisely weakening themselves to face this globalised economy. You are stronger to negotiate with the US or China as a group of 27 than on your own. This is what the UK is learning the hard way. Liz Truss, who thought she was accountable to no one for pursuing the reform policy she wanted, has realised that it was not the European Central Bank that prevented her from pursuing her policy but the British Central Bank.

Many European analysts had been betting on the UK imploding and the latest IMF forecasts can hardly contradict them, contrary to those promised by Boris Johnson. The UK is expected to be the only major economy to go into recession this year with GDP down 5 percentage points and investment down 10 percentage points. It is the worst performing " big country " in the world, doing even worse than Russia under sanctions...

Conversely, and although it may seem paradoxical, Brexit has strengthened the European Union. It has proved that interdependence between countries is synonymous with power. The current situation in the UK is an advertisement for Europe: inflation, soaring energy costs, debt, repeated strikes, ailing SMEs; the British Chamber of Commerce is now saying it straight out: this situation is not so much a consequence of the war in Ukraine as it is a consequence of Brexit. On the other hand, the Europe of 27 is more coherent and is no longer permanently held back by the British. Europe is therefore more efficient, the mutualisation of debts, the post-covid recovery plan, the greenly, all this could not have been done so quickly with the British.

Seven years after the referendum, more leavers regret their decisions than remainders. This figure shows that if there is not a political class in every country that puts the European project above partisan considerations, personal rivalries and immediate power struggles, we will be witnessing an inevitable failure.

In Europe, all the extremes that suggested a withdrawal no longer dare to talk about it. ‘Adieu le Frexit', 'Addio all'Italexit'. Brexit is the failure of the British government and if the European Union has made a mistake it is to have allowed, at the time of the debates, a member state to take the European project hostage in a unilateral way and to have choreographed the possibility of European disintegration.

Thus, sovereignty remains one of the most structuring principles of humanity. Brexit will have shown that cooperation, interdependence and open borders do not eliminate sovereignty; on the contrary, these phenomena are likely to reinforce state authority. The United Kingdom forgot that union does not mean the loss of sovereign powers, and that is what led to its downfall. Sovereignty is not limited to the freedom to pass laws. Contrary to what Eurosceptics say, only 13% of British laws are of European origin. EU countries retain full freedom over their sovereign powers - justice, defence, and police.

The UK is a great country and its immense history shows that it will bounce back, probably starting - ironically - by re-establishing intimate links with the European Union.

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