As the Treaty of Lisbon wends its weary way through parliament, the familiar arguments for and against European treaties are rolled out. The populist press echoes to accusations that under the treaty Britain is sacrificing elements of its sovereignty, allowing supranational bodies like the Council of Ministers a measure of control in British affairs, and generally conceding to ‘foreigners’ powers that it ought to preserve for itself as a nation-state. Pro-Europeans are forced onto the defensive, arguing that the concessions are inconsequential and that Britain has negotiated opt-outs from the more significant provisions of the Treaty - or whatever else they can come up with.
What is seldom challenged is the assumption underlying the entire debate - at least as it is conducted in Britain - which is that the preservation of national sovereignty is an overriding priority, the sole, totemic touchstone by which the national interest is to be calculated. Rather as in Victorian attitudes to virginity, national sovereignty is on this view a pristine indicator of good, to be kept as far as possible intact; if, inevitably in a wicked world, it is infringed, such deviations from the path of virtue should be kept to a minimum, endured with gritted teeth while lying back and thinking of England.
However, the argument that it is always in the national interest to preserve national sovereignty to the maximum extent is plainly simplistic and fallacious. If it were true, then nations that followed that path, excluding all others from influence over their internal decision-making and refusing to co-operate with others over matters of common concern, would be those most successful in promoting their national interest. But the most prominent examples of such states are North Korea and Burma, or in Europe the former Communist regime in Albania - states that reduce their citizens to levels of misery unmatched in the civilised world. It is, of course, possible for states of continental dimensions, like China or the USA, to be so self-sufficient that they can effectively act independently of other states, but that is impossible for medium-sized states like Britain.
It is also easy to cite cases where the surrender of national sovereignty is indisputably in the national interest. Take the crucial area of Britain’s control over its armed forces, for example. In the First World War, at the critical juncture when General Ludendorff’s offensive in spring 1918 threatened to overwhelm the Allied armies on the Western front, the British put their forces under the command of the French supreme commander, General Foch, and the crisis was overcome. In the Second World War, the British forces in Europe in 1944-45 were placed under the command of an American, General Eisenhower. During the Cold War, British forces combined with those of other Western nations in NATO, under a joint command structure, to withstand the military threat from the Soviet Union. These initiatives all represented major sacrifices of national sovereignty, and all were unquestionably in the national interest.
The whole way in which our national peacetime life is structured also depends on mutual surrenders of sovereignty between states. Our economic system depends on the free entry of goods and services from foreign countries and the free export of our goods and services in return, by agreement between the states concerned; because of mutually advantageous concessions of sovereignty between Britain and Germany, for example, Britons drive BMWs and German companies take advantage of the financial expertise of the City of London. Here too, the idea that the national interest can simply be equated with the preservation of national sovereignty is unhelpful.
The states of the Eurozone have gone further, giving up control over their individual currencies and thereby over such important levers of power as the ability to set their own interest rates. They evidently calculate that the benefits of belonging to a single currency zone and a single market of some 300 million people outweigh in real terms the disadvantages of abandoning national currencies. They may have a point. Does anyone seriously think that the USA would be the economic powerhouse that it is if it were divided into several units, each with its own currency? For a medium-sized country like Spain, having a share in the full prosperity and power generated by 300 million people is, in terms of national interest, arguably worth more than having all of that generated by 40-odd million people, national sovereignty notwithstanding. Sharing control over part of a large cake can be preferable to enjoying exclusive control over a small one.
This notion of shared control is habitually decried in Britain as ‘allowing Brussels to interfere in our sovereign affairs’ or ‘parting with our hard-won freedoms’. Personally, I find it hard to see what freedoms we as British citizens have lost. (The British state has certainly lost some of its powers, but as it is an over-centralised construct ill-suited in many ways to the present day, I can live with that.) The fact is that our freedoms of religion, speech, assembly and the rest have remained unimpaired, or have been reinforced by European legislation safeguarding our rights as individuals.
In practical terms, I owe a significant extension of my freedoms to the increase in European co-operation resulting from the pooling of national sovereignty: I can take up an academic or research post in Germany or Austria as easily as a German or Austrian can, while my wife, who is a Belgian national, can come and live in London without enduring the paper-chase for visas and residence permits traditionally visited upon foreigners. British citizens who tried to live, work and manage their financial affairs in France or Italy will recall with a shudder the problems they faced, before the introduction of the free movement of people and labour within the EU made Provence, Tuscany and the Costa del Sol destinations of choice for Britons in search of homes in the sun.
More serious is the argument that the British parliament, our supreme elected body, has lost powers to Europe. That the House of Commons is perceived as having steadily lost its position at the heart of national life is very much to be regretted, though that is largely due to the failings of the British system itself, in particular the glacial slowness with which long-overdue parliamentary reforms are enacted, not to mention the vicious misrepresentation of politics and politicians peddled daily by sections of the British media.
The problem facing our parliament here is that its area of competence is limited to that of the nation-state it represents, and the model of the European nation-state no longer meets the demands and needs of a globalised world. It is, for example, plain that environmental problems can be tackled on a European-wide basis, but hardly by Britain alone; much the same applies to issues like international crime. It is, in other words, not a question of the European Union usurping the rights of the British parliament, but rather that in certain fields the British parliament is not the appropriate body for the task.
Some problems are indeed best dealt with at national level; others need to be tackled Europe-wide, others again at regional level. The evident success of the devolution of powers to parliamentary assemblies in Scotland and Wales – however much one may dispute the policies of the governing parties there – suggests that the devolution of power ‘downwards’ to regional bodies in the remainder of the UK may well be at least as necessary as its transfer ‘upwards’ to the European level. British reluctance to remove powers from Westminster means that vigorous regional self-government on the model of Bavaria or Hesse is unknown in the English regions.
Importantly, when powers have been transferred from Westminster to EU institutions, this has occurred with the consent of the British parliament, which makes such decisions democratically, as the elected body representing the British people. It is perfectly constitutional for a parliament to give up control over elements of national sovereignty, if its majority decides that it is in the national interest so to do. In 1707, at the time of the Act of Union - to take an extreme example - the Scottish parliament opted to give up its national sovereignty altogether, by deciding to unite with England to form Great Britain and thus to vote itself out of existence.
Scottish nationalists apart, few would dispute the enormous advantages gained by Scotland over the following centuries when it stood at the heart of the British Empire. Now, it appears possible that Scotland may reclaim the sovereignty conceded in 1707. That would be a formidably difficult task. In the same way, taking Britain out of Europe would be fraught with problems – not because those cunning foreigners have devised a fiendish constitutional trap to ensnare the dewy-eyed British, but because Britain is inextricably linked by connections of national interest to her European neighbours. In the last analysis, constitutional arrangements have to reflect real national interests, not abstract notions of national sovereignty.