The Irish referendum vote against enlargement, the Danish rejection of the euro and Bitish euroscepticism all suggest that the EU fails the test of legitimacy. It can and should passby Chris Patten / July 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
Sovereignty is a notoriously slippery concept. In feudal times, the position was clear enough. Sovereignty rested with God. Later, God was good enough to delegate. Sovereignty resided with the king. But absolute monarchy never recovered from the blow that struck off Charles I’s head. Parliament became sovereign. And sovereignty was no longer an expression of the will of God, but the will of the people.
But what does it mean to say that parliament “is sovereign”? The concept of sovereignty is a difficult one because there is often confusion between sovereignty de jure-the supreme legal authority; and sovereignty de facto-the ability to induce people to take a certain course of action. The distinction between the two is illustrated by the members of the French Convention who on 2nd June 1793, in the exercise of their sovereign authority, ordered the arrest of the leaders of the Girondin party but only after their president had led them to the exit to escape the mob.
There has been a tendency in Britain to treat sovereignty as a thing. A birthright of every Briton-handed down through the generations like a sacred flame, indivisible and unalterable. Every question about how best to represent the national interest in Europe can be resolved by applying a simple test: does the proposal require Britain to surrender any more of her birthright? In this conception, the country is giving itself away, piece by piece: “drifting ever closer to its own destruction” (to quote from last year’s Tory party document “Believing in Britain”).
Yet “sovereignty” in the sense of unfettered freedom of action, is a nonsense. It is often preferable to accept constraints on freedom of action in order to achieve some other benefit. Britain is severely constrained by her membership of Nato. She is committed to intervene in the common defence if another member is attacked, and accepts a foreign (US) commander for such an operation. As Margaret Thatcher said at the time of the 1975 referendum: “Almost every major nation has been obliged by the pressures of the postwar world to pool significant areas of sovereignty so as to create more effective political units.”