shamelessly self-interested and probably contrary to his real views on the EU
his concerns that EU membership is incompatible with British sovereignty
The “decisions which govern all our lives”, Mr Gove argued, should be taken uniquely by “people we choose and who we can throw out if we want change”.
The Johnson-Gove argument goes something like this: unlike many continental countries, Britain has an unbroken tradition of liberty and representative democracy (a “golden thread”) dating back to Magna Carta and shared by other Anglophone nations. This tradition is almost uniquely uncompromising about accountability, steadfast in the conviction that power should rest only in the hands of leaders elected by and answerable to a nation constituting a demos, a community of shared assumptions and experiences. Thus the EU, accountable to foreigners as well as Britons, breaks the sacred bond of mutual power between decisionmakers and those on whose behalf they act.
The flaw in this case lies in the tradition’s idealistic definition of sovereignty. For Mr Johnson and Mr Gove, being sovereign is like being pregnant—you either are or you aren’t. Yet increasingly in today’s post-Westphalian world, real sovereignty is relative. A country that refuses outright to pool authority is one that has no control over the pollution drifting over its borders, the standards of financial regulation affecting its economy, the consumer and trade norms to which its exporters and importers are bound, the cleanliness of its seas and the security and economic crises propelling shock waves—migration, terrorism, market volatility—deep into domestic life. To live with globalisation is to acknowledge that many laws (both those devised by governments and those which bubble up at no one’s behest) are international beasts whether we like it or not. If sovereignty is the absence of mutual interference, the most sovereign country in the world is North Korea.
This is precisely why the two models for a Britain outside the EU often cited by Eurosceptics (including Mr Johnson), Norway and Switzerland, constitute such weak arguments for Brexit. Under the Johnson-Gove view, these countries are quite dramatically more “sovereign” than Britain. But in practice their economies and societies are so intertwined with those of their neighbours that they must subject themselves to rules over which they have no say. This exposes a false choice: in an increasingly interdependent world, countries must often opt not between pure sovereignty and the pooled sort, but—however distasteful the choice may seem—between the pooled sort and none.
The premise put forth by the souverainistes is that Britain, unlike the EU as a whole, is a coherent demos: a discrete civic unit with a distinct sense of right and wrong, a shared corpus of civil assumptions and most of all a common dialectical realm (as Benedict Anderson noted, the rise of nationalism in the 19th century was associated with emergence of a mass media, making the “imagined community” of nationhood possible). In other words the British electorate can, in its collective wisdom, reach judgments about politicians and policies in a way impossible among the EU population as a whole, with its 24 languages, 28 national media landscapes, multiple legal systems and vast range of historical and ideological hinterlands. Hence, not without reason, the Eurosceptic offence taken at comparisons of the democratic legitimacy conferred by European Parliament to that conferred by national parliaments.
Much of this holds true. But to what extent? The media is fragmenting and internationalising. The citizens of a given country do not all watch the same television programmes and read the same newspapers any more. Across Europe there is evidence of growing political polarisation along cultural lines: for all their differences in experience and outlook, voters in declining, post-industrial parts of England and France have much more in common with each other than with those in cosmopolitan London or Paris. Language divides people less all the time. Sub-national allegiances are growing in strength (note Scotland’s slide towards independence) and form an increasingly appropriate and effective basis for government (consider all the recent literature on the “age of mayors”). So while one can still argue that power exercised at a national level is more democratically valid than that exercised at a supra-national one, that case becomes less pressing with each passing year.
The EU is Britain’s to run, if only it could overcome its insecurity about scary foreign bullies. In an interconnected and ineluctably integrated 21st century, it is that, far more than the Eurosceptics’ purity games, that is real sovereignty.
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