In our quest to follow and explore the arguments over the EU referendum, our attention turns to sovereignty and democracy. Can we unravel what they mean and more importantly, what they mean to us?
These could be treated as different topics but it will hopefully become apparent in this piece why both should be considered together.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines sovereignty as “supreme power or authority”. In simple terms, in any given community, who decides? National sovereignty is therefore “the authority of a state to govern itself or another state”.
Britain is a parliamentary democracy, therefore, Parliament decides on policy and law. We also have a constitutional monarchy, the monarch being a non-political figure, personifying the state as nominal head of the constitution. This brings other bodies with an influence over how a country operates under one umbrella.
At local level, Britain has councils, organised on a geographical basis, typically by town, city or county. These have power to apply local taxes and deliver local services. The decision makers represent voters who elect them in or out over a fixed term.
At national level, Parliament decides, again representatives being elected and capable of being dismissed after a maximum period of 5 years, which brings us to democracy, which is defined as “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives”.
There is another part of the constitution or the state, which is the legal system which provides an element of certainty in how government decisions are enacted. In the event of any disputes under democratic law, a court will decide how the law should be interpreted.
There are a variety of courts in the legal system, relating to different areas of law; such as criminal and civil which is further subdivided into, for example, family and employment. After legal decisions have been made, in each area of law, an appeal can be made, the ultimate British body since 2009 being the Supreme Court. Prior to 2009, ultimate responsibility for interpretation was the House of Lords.
Having identified the systems pertinent to Britain, we can explore how the principles of sovereignty and democracy have changed.
Any community can share sovereignty or how to allocate the ability to make a decision. Residents of a county are also residents of Britain. Although legal systems exist in the United Kingdom, there is one parliament and one Supreme Court.
As members of NATO, we agree to act in each others interests militarily, as defined by treaty. As such we share or pool sovereignty in some areas with NATO members. The same applies as members of the United Nations in agreeing to international law.
In principle, sharing sovereignty with the European Union is the same. The big difference comes in the scope of decisions to be made. To understand how, a brief look at history helps.
In 1972, Britain joined the European Economic Community, a customs union which had abolished tariffs between member states. By 1979, the first directly elected European parliament was formed, more of which later.
The Single European Act came about in 1986, setting out a framework for completion of the Single Market 5 years later. This had the effect of weakening the parallel European Free Trade Area (EFTA) encouraging wider membership.
At the same time, European Political Cooperation (EPC) was codified extending the reach to other policy areas and Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) to more areas, ostensibly to speed up the introduction of legislation. A lurch to common foreign policy accompanied.
More treaties brought more shared sovereignty. Maastricht (1992) introduced the path towards monetary union, along with European citizenship, foreign and security policies too. Amsterdam (1997) and Nice (2002) went further.
The Lisbon Treaty (2009) was the latest stage. At first this included an attempt to bring an EU constitution until referenda blocked that objective. However, it brought the European Union structure to what it is today.
Amongst the Lisbon Treaty measures, QMV was extended to at least 45 different policy areas for the Council of Ministers. The Charter of Fundamental rights became legally binding. Sovereignty became shared in more areas.
So how does this look in practice?
Laws are effectively put forward by the European Commission which equates to the civil service in Britain. The difference is that in Britain, the elected politicians frame legislation, with the support of the civil service. Commissioners are appointed from across the EU. Jobs are rotated around the countries.
The Council is a collection of government ministers from each state, the prime ministers or departmental ministers. Their decisions are made largely by QMV. Decisions have to be agreed by at least 15 out of 28 members representing at least 65% of member populations. Here, Britain has 12.7% of voting power, the Eurozone has 67%.
The role of the European Parliament is to vote on new laws proposed, effectively having the right of veto. They also have powers over the EU budget.
The EU also has its own court which can override national law for members. Its judgements are passed down into national law. This makes Britain’s the Not So Supreme Court.
The EU’s responsibilities are defined by ‘competences’, some are exclusive to the EU, such as fisheries policy, aspects of the customs union, monetary policy for the Euro zone and international agreements.
Others are shared with member states, including notably justice, consumer protection, agriculture, employment, foreign security and defence policies. Supporting (and coordinating) competences include health, culture and education.
Between them, the Commission, European Court and Council pass down around 2,500 directives and decisions annually.
The same sort of democratic principle applies when looking at different aspects of the EU. Britain is a country whose economy has a high degree of service base, low degree of agriculture in comparison and a significant element of oil and gas. On each of those criteria, Britain will not be in a significant majority for the foreseeable future so can be outvoted.
Looking at how democratic the European Parliament is, there is s higher weighting for smaller countries. That translates into Britain having 12.3% of the EU population and 9.8% of the vote in the European Parliament, not so bad perhaps.
From a different perspective, Britain has 1 seat for every 840,000 of her population. For each MEP from Luxembourg or Malta, they represent less that 1/10th of that figure at around 75-80,000.
The figure looks worse when taking yet another view that of the net budget contribution. Remembering that figure of our population being 12.3% of the population, our gross contribution is around 10.6% of the total EU budget. Expenditure in the UK is around 5.4% of the budget, making us net contributors.
Of the net financial contribution, Britain accounts for around 14% in return for that 9.8% vote. The level of EU taxation does not correspond with our level of representation, nor does it represent the level of our population. We are in no position to insist on change.
Adding another dimension, there are a number of majorities in the European parliament, most notably the Eurozone but also in countries with who we operate a trade deficit, countries without oil, countries without the same level of services and countries with less access to the sea. Most European trade is done over land with implications to our fisheries and to haulage regulations which also covering shipping.
A significant proportion of British laws are made in the EU where we have less than 10% of the power.
The democratic deficit is very real. Our choice is whether we continue to share, or decide to regain sovereignty. This referendum campaign gives the opportunity to assess whether the sacrifice of self-determination is worth whatever benefit we derive.