Somebody needs to explain sovereignty to Johnson before it is too late

UK’s recent narrow understanding of sovereignty belongs to a receding Trumpian world

This week British and European Brexit negotiators are in Last Chance Saloon. Or perhaps, given their sudden need to self-isolate, one should say that they find themselves in two saloons at opposite ends of Dodge City.

The relative silence now surrounding the talks augurs well. It would be tragic for everyone if they were to fail because the UK doesn’t fully understand its own negotiating demands.

Last week, the British negotiator, David Frost, tweeted that the UK would not budge from its insistence on sovereign control over three things: its laws, its trade and its fish. Hopefully, it is will dawn on London that the European Union’s negotiating position is entirely compatible with those stated British objectives.

It is now urgent, following the departure of the Cummings cultists, that someone has the gumption to explain this to prime minister Boris Johnson before it is too late.


The quest to enhance sovereignty has been and remains at the heart of the Brexit project. However, sovereignty is complicated. It is not an heirloom to be to be secretly buried at Stonehenge and to be dug up for inspection only during the summer solstice. Rather, real sovereignty must be deployed with pride and confidence. And the necessary corollary of valuing one’s own country’s sovereignty is recognising that others equally value their sovereignty.

British laws

Consider first sovereignty over British laws – admirable as a guiding objective but misleading as an absolute principle. The UK is negotiating trade deals around the world, seeking to replicate the trade access it already had as part of the EU.

Each of those deals necessarily involves some constraint on British sovereignty. The trade deal with Japan, for example, involves legal limitations on Britain’s use of state aid, an imposition apparently deemed intolerable in the Brexit negotiations. Indeed, the UK’s entire engagement with the wider world represents a sensible sharing of its sovereignty.

Were it not willing to do that, it would not belong to, say, Nato or the World Trade Organisation.

Moreover, the EU collectively, as well as its member states individually, is likewise sovereign. The EU has the right to determine the laws governing the access of goods, including British goods, to its market. As the most open trading entity in the world, the EU is willing to use its sovereignty to enter into reasonable trade deals with others, including with the UK. However, it is unmoved by any suggestion that UK sovereignty has some special sacred status.

A Brexit deal that respects the sovereignty of both parties is to be had in the coming days

Then there is the somewhat curious demand for sovereignty over British trade. If the UK wants control over British trade with the EU, it already has that. Nobody can force the UK to accept any compromises in the Brexit negotiations if – a very big if – it is prepared for the immense economic damage it will incur as a result.

The real question is not whether the UK has so-called trade sovereignty but rather whether it will exercise such sovereignty sensibly. To turn down a fair Brexit trade deal, far from demonstrating national control, would signify national impotence.

If, on the other hand, the issue is the UK’s trade with the rest of the world, the UK can reach no meaningful trade deals that do not limit British sovereignty. National control over trade is a contradiction in terms. Absolute control over trade stops at Dover and Heathrow. There is only one way to achieve such control. Don’t export anything.


The fisheries issue has become a totemic issue because it represents the only area in which Britain, alongside the damage to every other aspect of its national economy, is set to register a Brexit win. The EU accepts that. But here again sovereignty runs into the complex reality that the EU also has sovereign interests.

If Johnson insists on a maximalist outcome on fish, he cannot object if the EU, in order to protect the legitimate interests of its own fishing communities, exercises its equally legitimate sovereign rights on other issues of importance to the UK.

Johnson has only days to decide, belatedly, whether to fish or cut bait. The UK’s recent and narrow understanding of sovereignty belongs to a receding Trumpian world. It is at odds with Britain’s record of effective international engagement in pursuit of its interests. It would hole the Great Ship Going Global below the waterline.

Fortunately, a Brexit deal that respects the sovereignty of both parties is to be had in the coming days. The first step must be to understand and accept what that sovereignty means.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco famously portrays the hands of Adam and God almost touching. The UK and EU are tantalisingly close to a Brexit deal. The small but significant gap is bridgeable provided the UK does not withhold its hand to protect an illusory notion of absolute autonomy.

Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Brussels and Rome