UK will learn that size matters when it comes to sovereignty
World View: Large states in Europe do not recognise how small they are alone
‘A dwarf is as much a man as a giant; a small republic is no less a sovereign state than the most powerful kingdom.”
So wrote the Swiss legal theorist Emer de Vattel in his 1758 work The Law of Nations, a seminal text in the theory and practice of international law and international relations. It is a suitable lens through which to assess the Brexit deal between the EU and the UK.
Sovereignty looms very large in the Brexiteers’ lexicon. But de Vattel recognises it is qualified by political power. Power matters once you bring states and nations into relation with each other. Ireland is just as sovereign as our powerful neighbouring kingdom. Throughout the Brexit saga Ireland has been empowered by EU membership, just as the UK withdrew.
That EU membership must be seen to matter became a cardinal principle of resisting the wider disintegrative logic of a Eurosceptic Brexit for an EU committed to hold together.
The resulting solidarity is recognised in the list of states benefiting from the EU compensation fund, where Ireland tops the pecking order. It is seen too in the Northern Ireland Protocol, which puts an EU border in the Irish Sea.
Such separation from the world’s largest regional trading space means, as Michel Barnier said this week, that some things have “changed for good”. There are, he says, “mechanical, obvious, inevitable consequences when you leave the single market and that’s what the British wished to do”.
Complaints about the loss of access, bureaucratic delays, held-up goods and interrupted supply chains this week are set to endure.
That rubs in the resulting imbalance, illustrating two aspects of how power works. It is classically defined as the capacity to prevent an actor doing what he or she wants to do, as seen here in this new exercise of power by the EU over British trade. Brexiteers say such restrictions and constraint are rather worth it for the greater freedom to use their sovereignty to exert their power as global Britain.
Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative Party leader, put it like this in an echo of older imperial power. “I just wish I was 21 again, frankly. Because, my goodness, what prospects lie ahead of us for young people now. To be out there buccaneering, trading, dominating the world again. . .”
His unguarded phrase neatly encapsulates the dilemmas of contemporary power in a contradictory world of deepening regional interdependence pitched against growing geopolitical and inter-regional rivalry.
The UK is weaker now than before, less well able to realise its sovereignty as a dominating power.
The ability to confuse and distinguish between the two senses of power is a real marker of this change. A study released this week by Robin Niblett, director of the Chatham House foreign policy think tank in London, entitled Global Britain, Global Broker: a Blueprint for the UK’s Future International Role, argues precisely that it should not seek to be a global power.
Rather it should seek a role in: protecting liberal democracy; promoting international peace and security; tackling climate change; enabling greater global health resilience; championing global tax transparency and equitable economic growth; and defending cyberspace.
Within the UK, Brexit has centralised the power returned from Brussels away from the devolved authorities to London
To pursue such goals the UK will need to invest in and leverage its “unique combination of diplomatic reach, diverse security capabilities and prominence in international development”.
The changing context of transatlantic relations after Biden’s victory, US-China rivalry and the EU’s geopolitical assertiveness seen in a recent EU-China trade deal mean “Brexit Britain will have to fight its way to the table on many of the most important transatlantic issues”, according to Niblett.
The EU-UK deal is on the harder end of the spectrum, illustrating Boris Johnson’s observation that Brexit’s whole point is to diverge from the EU.
However, divergence without also involves divergence within, as Northern Ireland and Scotland are differentiated from the English core.
Within the UK, Brexit has centralised the power returned from Brussels away from the devolved authorities to London, just as health competencies reinforce their differing approaches to the Covid crisis.
The resulting internal disintegrative logic will play out in May’s elections to the Scottish parliament, in which the SNP will seek a mandate for independence and to rejoin the EU.
Such change reinforces another far-seeing remark about dwarfs and giants in today’s world: the main difference between small and large states in Europe is that the large ones do not recognise how small they are alone. Power matters still but membership helps equalise it.