Britain, the EU and the Sovereignty Myth

The argument that Britain needs to leave the European Union to reclaim its sovereignty is misguided says new paper, Britain, the EU and the Sovereignty Myth.

Research paper Published 9 May 2016 Updated 18 May 2023
Big Ben from Trafalgar Square, London. Photo: iStock.

Big Ben from Trafalgar Square, London. Photo: iStock.


  • The question of sovereignty lies at the heart of the UK’s upcoming EU referendum. Many in Britain believe that the process of EU decision-making has undermined British parliamentary democracy, and that leaving the EU is the only way for the British people to regain control of their sovereignty.
  • This ignores the fact that successive British governments have chosen to pool aspects of the country’s sovereign power in the EU in order to achieve national objectives that they could not have achieved on their own, such as creating the single market, enlarging the EU, constraining Iran’s nuclear programme, and helping to design an ambitious EU climate change strategy.
  • Apart from EU immigration, the British government still determines the vast majority of policy over every issue of greatest concern to British voters – including health, education, pensions, welfare, monetary policy, defence and border security. The arguments for leaving also ignore the fact that the UK controls more than 98 per cent of its public expenditure.
  • The British economy has prospered in the EU. The UK boasts higher economic growth and lower unemployment than most major developed economies. It attracts the most foreign direct investment in the EU, and is ranked among the most open places to do business in the developed world. British economic weaknesses, such as low growth in productivity, are self-inflicted.
  • However, a successful economy and free-movement rules have led to high levels of immigration from the EU. Overall, this has been positive for the UK economy, but it has exacerbated preexisting pressures on public services, may have restricted wage growth in some sectors, and is a source of widespread public concern.
  • Is it time, therefore, to return economic and political sovereign power entirely to Westminster? The risks of doing so are extensive. For example, the UK would be excluded from the process of EU rule-writing, making it a less attractive location for foreign investment. The UK is unlikely to strike better trade deals alone than it has currently through the EU. And the UK would have no say in the design of more open EU markets for digital, financial and other services. Leaving would also have a destabilizing effect on the rest of the EU, which will remain Britain’s largest market.
  • In contrast, the main risks to the UK of remaining are political. High levels of immigration from the EU would persist. However, it is inconceivable that the EU will enlarge to include Turkey in the foreseeable future, and the UK and other EU states retain a veto over this decision.
  • Nor need the UK fear the emergence of a more integrated eurozone, which will continue to feature profound differences in national outlook and is unlikely to enlarge quickly. EU decision-making overall is also becoming more intergovernmental rather than centralized.
  • Continuing to pool its sovereign power selectively in the EU would enable the UK to help design integrated EU responses to many challenges that it cannot resolve on its own. These include the challenges of energy efficiency and sustainability; energy security; internet governance; and the fight against terrorism.
  • In a world that is more interdependent today than it was when the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, the notion of ‘absolute’ British sovereignty is illusory. It is also worthless if it limits the ability of future British governments to ensure the security and prosperity of their citizens. Judging from the UK’s experience and its future prospects, the opportunities from remaining in the EU far outweigh the risks of doing so, and the risks of leaving far outweigh the opportunities.

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