Brexit, Nation and Sovereignty

Brian Girvin's picture

H-Nationalism is pleased to publish a further contribution to its ongoing 'Brexit, Nationalism and the Future of Europe' forum, which discusses the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union and its impact on nationalism and the future of Europe in a multidisciplinary perspective. Please feel welcome to add to the discussion by posting a reply. Today's contribution ‘Brexit, Nation and Sovereignty’ is by Michael Keating, Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen and Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change

The central promise of Brexit is to ‘take back control’ or, in more formal language, restore national sovereignty. Somewhere on the way, parliamentary sovereignty was transmuted into popular sovereignty, with the referendum providing a binding mandate. Whether it was popular or parliamentary sovereignty, the argument is based on the existence of a unitary nation state with a singular people (demos) and defined purpose and future (telos). This is the Westminster view of the constitution. Viewed from the periphery, however, the United Kingdom is a plurinational union without a single demos in which the relationship among the constituent parts has long been contested. Since the end of the last century, it has been in transformation from a unitary state to an asymmetrical quasi-federation, where sovereignty is shared and whose final destination (telos) is unknown. On this interpretation, it is a rather good fit with the European Union, which shares the same characteristics.  The different referendum results, with Scotland and Northern Ireland opting for Remain, has highlighted these contrasting understandings. There has been a series of clashes, ostensibly about detail and implementation, which in fact go to the heart of conflicting understandings of nation, self-determination and union.

One reaction to the result in Scotland was to demand another independence referendum but this faltered when, at the snap 2017 election, the Scottish National Party lost support and seats. Thereafter it pursued a differentiated Brexit, allowing Scotland to remain, as far as possible, within the Single Market and European policy programmes. This was refused on the grounds that ‘The British people voted for Brexit’ and that the United Kingdom would leave together.

Further tensions emerged when the UK Government’s initial Withdrawal Bill proposed to take back to Westminster all matters currently subject to EU law. Some of them could later be ‘released’. Seen in London as a technical convenience, this was rejected by the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales as an attack on the principles of devolution. Although the UK Government then backed down sufficiently for the Welsh Assembly to give its consent to the Withdrawal Bill, the Scottish Parliament demurred. So for the first time, Westminster over-ruled the Scottish Parliament, setting aside the legislative consent convention that under-pinned the more federal reading of the constitution. Further over-rides are likely as other Brexit-related legislation makes its way through Parliament.

The case of Northern Ireland is even more striking, especially the argument about the border. The Northern Ireland peace settlement rests on two pillars. One is power-sharing between the unionist and nationalist communities. This has been a mixed success and the institutions have been suspended for the last two years. The other pillar concerns the territorial expression of the two political identities. Nationalism and unionism once represented incompatible claims to sovereignty and authority within fixed borders. With the combination of the Good Friday Agreement and the European Single Market, this had almost ceased to be an issue.  People, goods and services move freely, and the border itself has become invisible. All-Ireland markets and bodies have emerged and everyday life in the border region has been transformed.  

With the UK leaving the EU and Ireland remaining, the border becomes an EU frontier demarcating the EU Single Market and customs union. Both sides agree that this is a problem but not on the nature and scope of the problem. The UK Government has a narrow reading of the Good Friday Agreement, which actually contains few mentions of the EU. UK priorities largely concern movement of goods, regulation and customs and the Government has been working through detailed lists of matters that might be affected. It has long seen the problem as a technical one, to be solved by technology and has focused on avoiding a physical border. The Irish reading is more extensive, based on the development of the Good Friday Agreement and Single Market over the last twenty years. It is this interpretation that features in the Irish protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement, which details over twenty ways in which the EU underpins the Northern Ireland settlement. Irish opinion is more attuned to the cultural and political resonance of borders and their historical charge. The border is not just its physical manifestation, but a functional reality and a symbolic barrier.

To reassure Brexiters, the Government has tried to limit the duration and the scope of the backstop. Neither is really possible. If it is a backstop, it must remain as long as it is needed. Even more important, whatever long-term overarching UK-EU agreement succeeds it, this will have to contain the substance of the backstop if it, too, is to keep the border open. So we are back to the broad and narrow interpretations. The political declaration on the future relationship, thin as it is, provides no help; there is only one vague paragraph on Ireland. The issue might be fudged a bit more in an effort to rescue the withdrawal agreement, but it will not go away.

The UK Government persists with its ideas about technological solutions. The EU Commission suggested that technology could be used to manage a ‘border in the Irish sea’ so as to keep Northern Ireland in the Single Market and customs union. As critics have pointed out, the technology does not exist, but that is not even the main difficulty. The real problem is that both solutions are about managing new borders rather than avoiding them. The basic issue is not about inspecting animal carcasses in the port of Larne, but about the boundaries of identity and political community.  Nationalists see a land border as a new form of partition. Unionists see an Irish sea border as a threat to the union. The genius of the GFA was to take this highly charged issue out of debate while providing security to both communities. The mere talk of borders brings it back.

The European project is about pooling sovereignty. It is about getting around borders and downplaying their importance, not about moving them to a different place in search of the ‘right’ territorial fix. It allows for a fluid order in which the relationships among state, nation and borders can be negotiated at both the collective and individual level. This is not because of any particular policy pursued by the EU or the attitude of the European Commission and Council, which have been rather attached to the traditional nation state. It is, rather, because of the way in which identities, functional systems and policy-making have escaped the monopoly of states and migrated to new and not always contiguous spatial levels. In the long process of resetting the relationship of the UK with its continental neighbours, its component territories will continue to be drawn in different directions.