At 11 p.m. Friday, the people of Britain will experience a dramatic decline in their country’s sovereignty.
This might not be immediately obvious to them. First, because many who supported leaving the European Union – which Britain will do formally on Jan. 31 – were led to believe Brexit would result in a “taking back” of British sovereignty from Brussels, rather than the sharp decrease in national autonomy and self-determination it will actually produce.
Second, because the effects of this change won’t be felt until after Dec. 31. That’s when the 11-month transition period ends, London stops paying dues to what will then be a 27-country bloc and Britain loses any ability to control the laws and policies that govern much of its trade, commerce and business practices, as its people lose their ability to democratically influence the terms that govern their movement, their public services and their working lives aboard.
What happens next will provide the world with an important lesson in the modern meaning of sovereignty: the ability to determine your own affairs and not be under the control of a higher power.
When people started desiring national sovereignty – a concept customarily traced back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – it was mainly a matter of raising a flag, raising an army, minting a currency, kicking out the popes and emperors and building a lot of fortresses and walls.
People soon realized it wasn’t the walls that provided their autonomy and self-determination – it was their opposite, the treaties and federations and co-operative agreements that allowed you to live at peace with your neighbours, buy and sell stuff with them, settle disputes using legal agreements and get help defending yourself. With only walls, you’d be poor and weak, and you’d soon depend on the decisions and actions of others. In the past two centuries, the world has become even more like that.
Britain will remain a sovereign country, as it has been all along. It is, after all, a country whose sovereign, and her tempestuous family, have provided the world with Britain’s only interesting non-Brexit news.
Tea will be made, life will go on. But an extraordinary amount of that life will be shaped by forces outside the control of the British.
Here in Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ministers have spent the week making it loudly known that any post-Brexit trade and investment deal between Britain and the remaining 27 EU countries will require the newly independent country to abide by all significant EU laws and regulations in the way it manufactures things, treats its labour, manages the environment and so on – regulations that cover a large percentage of any country’s policies. That’s not a controversial demand; these are the terms non-EU members Norway and Switzerland already abide by.
Once outside the EU, the British government will have no way to influence or alter those laws, and the British people won’t be able to vote for parliamentarians to change them. Before, Britain could choose to opt out of some laws it didn’t like – such as the one requiring airlines to give stranded passengers a night in a hotel. Now, that will be harder. Trade deals with Canada and the United States, in the unlikely event that they’re negotiated within half a decade, won’t compromise British autonomy as much – but then again, those deals at best will provide a small fraction of EU trade.
And that only describes the situation in England. The province of Northern Ireland, under the terms of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s deal, will be “outside the fence” – part of the EU economy and legal space, so effectively walled off from Britain, in a decision it had no say over – a blow to regional sovereignty that infuriates citizens.
Scotland will find itself cut off from what it had generally considered its main government in Brussels, and will have good reason to want to become a sovereign country. And so Brexit may succeed in both unifying the island of Ireland while de-unifying the island of Great Britain – all because so many people will experience it as a loss of sovereignty.
The last time Britain experienced such a dramatic loss of autonomous authority was the 1956 Suez Crisis, when the U.S. and its allies forced London to give up political and economic control of its former colonies, ending its imperial era. That was humiliating, but for the good, economically – the British Empire had been a money-loser, and Britain fared better without that burden.
This time, the loss will cut deeper, as it lacks a similar fiscal upside. This British decade will provide a useful lesson for those who seek sovereignty by erecting walls.
Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international-affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.