Even before Boris Johnson had officially declared he would campaign for the “Leave” camp in June 23’s referendum on the United Kingdom’s possible cutting of ties with the European Union, a media circus was already well up and running. But once the Great Blonde Mop of Hair made his case in the print and online pages of The Daily Telegraph, there was no shortage of words of both praise and scorn for the man and the argument he had put forward.
Boris began his article by trying to make clear that “there is nothing necessarily anti-European or xenophobic in wanting to vote Leave on June 23”. Such a course of action, he claimed, would only be an indictment of the “slow and invisible process of legal colonization” of the British (and other EU member-states, I would add) polity “as the EU infiltrates just about every area of public policy”. Ever since “the panicked efforts of Delors, Kohl and Mitterrand to ‘lock’ Germany into Europe with the euro”, Boris notes, “we have seen a hurried expansion in the areas for Qualified Majority Voting”, making it “so that Britain” – and, I would again add, other EU member states – “can be overruled more and more often”. The legislation that comes out of the EU’s machine is, Boris warns, “unstoppable” and “irreversible”, for “it can only be repealed by the EU itself”. And “the more the EU does”, he says, “the less room there is for national decision-making”. “There is only one way”, Boris concludes, “to get the change we need”, “extricating ourselves from most of the supranational elements” of the EU: “that is to vote to go, because all EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says no”.
The Economist’s Bagehot blog found Boris’s reasoning to be “shamelessly self-interested and probably contrary to his real views on the EU”. But one line in particular seemed to irritate Bagehot’s anonymous author: that in which Boris claimed the EU’s legislative encroachment led to the “impotence” of the UK’s “elected politicians” and “a loss of sovereignty”, by which he meant “the inability of people to kick out, at elections, the men and women who control their lives”. To The Economist, this idea is the by-product of a conviction “that power should rest only in the hands of leaders elected by and answerable to a nation constituting a demos”, born of an “idealistic definition of sovereignty”.
At first glance, its argument seems persuasive. After all, the Bagehot post author is right in claiming that no country, by its own, can have any “control over the pollution drifting over its borders”, much less over “the security crises propelling shock waves – migration, terrorism, market volatility – deep into domestic life”. Globalization, it is true, makes it so that states have become so interdependent of one another that no single one can be self-sufficient and avoid being affected by others, in turn meaning that without other states no one country can do anything serious about many of the issues that concern their citizens. But to then claim that “if sovereignty is the absence of mutual interference, the most sovereign country in the world is North Korea” and that “in today’s post-Westephalian world real sovereignty is relative”, denotes a much more egregiously flawed “definition of sovereignty” than the one The Economist attributes to Boris Johnson and those who happen to agree with him.
The problem with The Economist’s argument lies in that it confuses sovereignty with power. Globalization, by itself, does not reduce a country’s sovereignty. A country is not any less sovereign by not being able – by being powerless – to put an end to globalized terror. But it is less sovereign if it hands significant powers to enact anti-terror legislation to foreign bodies, and if its citizens find themselves subjected to such laws that run against what their elected representatives believe to be the best for their own country. And that loss of sovereignty matters, for it encompasses a loss of accountability.
As Michael Gove (criticized alongside Boris in the Bagehot post) argued in his own statement on why we he’s backing the “Out” campaign, the loss of sovereignty and therefore accountability necessarily implies the loss of “the ability to choose who governs us, and the freedom to change laws we do not like”. In other words, it means that policymaking becomes less representative and democratic, thus making legislators less concerned with the will and needs of the people who will be subjected to the laws they produce and enact, needing only to focus (more than they already excessively do) on the will and needs of the interest groups that have privileged access to them.
And contrary to what The Economist claims, the fact that in “today’s post-Westephalian world” every country needs to negotiate and compromise with other countries in order to achieve any solution to some of the major problems each of them face, does not make sovereignty and the accountability it allows for any less important. For if it is true that governments and representatives of different countries must agree and therefore compromise on a number of matters with one another, accepting some things they disagree with in order to get other things they do wish to see enacted, that compromise is a sovereign decision, for which the governments and representatives that reached it are accountable to their own people. The latter are then free to reward them if they are happy with the result or, if the content of said compromise is somehow noxious to them, they can punish them and perhaps vote them out in a future election. But if, however, those same governments and representatives are legally unable to reject a piece of legislation which has been presented to them by their foreign peers, and that they consider to be against their country’s best interests, the voters have no way to make their voices heard and their opinion weighed.
That’s the problem with the increasing number of issues now under Qualified Majority Voting in the EU. If and when a country has a “veto power” on a given subject, nothing impedes their political representatives from reaching any sort of compromise with their counterparts; they may very well reach the conclusion that some policies they disagree with should nevertheless be introduced, thus satisfying the wishes of other countries and their representatives, because it will allow them to reach another agreement on another issue that they find even more important. But if and when that ability to veto legislation is taken away from them, that enactment of a piece of legislation that they consider negative is not a choice, but something forced upon them and – more importantly – the voters, who have no choice but to put up and shut up, without any power to punish or reward those responsible for that policy, since those who are accountable to them had no say in its enactment.
This continuous erosion of national sovereignty within the EU has been detrimental not just to the health of democracy in each of its various member states. It has, in fact, been detrimental to the EU itself: the euro crisis has shown how the democratic will of each of its members can enter into conflict with one another; each of them is equally legitimate, and in all likelihood, each of them is left unhappy: depending on whether they are – for instance – Greek or German, they either protest the lack of solidarity of the other member states, or complain about paying for the “lack of industriousness” of those who complain about their “selfishness”; either way, they blame the EU for forcing them to accept policies they do not agree with. The EU was a stabilizing element in the European continent for decades because it served the interests of those who’d joined it. By taking too many steps too far towards “an ever closer union”, the EU member states – every one of them, not just the UK – lost their ability to protect those interests. And by making itself unable to serve its members’ interests, the EU is making it ever more likely that one day, those countries and their people will no longer be interested in being a part of it.
One may find Boris’s argument that by voting to leave the EU, the UK would get a better deal in a second negotiation ludicrous and deserving of the mockery the Prime Minister threw at it in the House of Commons on Monday. One may think leaving the EU and the uncertainty that would imply, or the international isolation it might produce, would be an even less desirable outcome than the loss of sovereignty and accountability that have come with the “European project” (if my native Portugal held a referendum on leaving the EU or not, I honestly do not know how why would end up voting). One may think that Boris is only taking this position in order to destroy Cameron and replace him as Prime Minister. One may even believe that Boris himself is nothing but a clown. However, his case for the importance of sovereignty and democratic accountability in the legislative process should be taken seriously.
Bruno Alves lives in Caxias, Portugal, but sometimes wishes he didn’t. He writes about politics, film and TV for O Insurgente, is an op-ed contributor to the Lisbon daily Diário Económico and a weekly commentator for its cable TV channel ETV, and has written for the American online film magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room, for These Footbal Times and for the British website CapX. Bruno welcomes both writing job offers and insults at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can also find him on Twitter @ba_lifeofbruno.