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Why the UK needs the EU (and vice versa)

Making the case that the United Kingdom (UK) needs the European Union (EU) and vice versa is at the forefront of current electoral debates in the UK. During a passionate electoral hustings event at the University of East Anglia last night, candidates clashed over visions for a federal European Union (Andrew Duff, MEP, Lib Dem), an intergovernmental EU (Geoffrey van Orden, MEP, Conservative) and no engagement with the EU (Mark Hughes, UKIP). The stakes couldn’t be higher. As Rupert Read (Greens) and others highlighted, issues such as climate change, environmental pollution, international crime, human trafficking or terrorism do not stop at national borders. The only way to deal with these issues is to bring countries together. Here, I argue that this state of affairs has profound implications for the idea of sovereignty, or self-rule, of nation states within the European Union. Given that increasingly global or international issues challenge nation states, the EU arguably brings back sovereignty that has been lost to globalization on a number of key issues.

One does not have to look far to realize that an increasingly multi-polar world challenges individual nation states. As Richard Howitt (MEP, Labour) argued last night, the UK can do much more than “trade with Europe”. For example, even though major UK parties understand the urgency of climate change and have committed to act, Chancellor Osborne has remarked that forging ahead alone may put the UK at a disadvantage in international energy markets. Because of such rationales, the UK strongly supported creating and strengthening EU-wide climate policies from 2005 onwards.[1] Doing so within the framework of the world’s largest common market, these policies including emissions trading can have significant impacts while reducing risks for individual member states. Without being an EU member, the UK would have struggled significantly to pursue this agenda internationally, as the stagnant international negotiations on climate change so painfully show.

To stay relevant and ‘gain’ sovereignty, EU member states must thus collaborate more, not less. The current crisis in Ukraine is a case in point – highlighting for Andrew Duff that European security depends on European solidarity. As the EU has struggled to generate and use its international clout to de-escalate the Crimea crisis, other international actors, notably Russia and the USA, have stepped in. This shows the lack of  prior EU engagement and preparation to address such crises. Of course, calls by David Thornton, UKIP chairman for South Norfolk at yesterday’s debate to “cut all foreign aid” go squarely against what is needed to generate stability around the EU’s borders and beyond. As Professor Elena Korosteleva argued at a recent UACES conference in Birmingham, UK, the future for engaging with non-EU countries may lie in ‘adaptive governmentality’, or the idea that close collaboration with other countries through multiple channels such as business partnerships and educational exchange help generate strong cultural ties with non-EU countries that will go a long way to prevent related conflicts. Yet, individual EU countries and their international counterparts will find it exceedingly difficult to generate such strong ties on a bilateral basis. A coordinated EU foreign policy is likely a better way to achieve this goal, and to generate the stability that is required to make truly sovereign – rather than reactive and ad-hoc – decisions on the international stage.

These are just two examples to show that thinking about sovereignty within the nation state is problematic. But as yesterday’s debate highlighted, the erroneous belief that the UK will somehow have more control on its own fuels current calls for an EU exit. In a globalized world, reality of course differs starkly from this nineteenth-century vision. It is a nostalgic vision that argues for going back to a past that is no longer among the future options nation states face. As Dr Nathaniel Copsey argues in his forthcoming book on the future of the EU, this position is akin to the one favoured by the French living in Algeria in the 1960s. Despite the growing troubles in Algeria, they refused to face the future and were asking for the impossible, namely a return to the past or to what General De Gaulle called  “l’Algérie de Papa”. Crucially, longing for the past may cloud our vision of future possibilities.

What, then, does this mean for the concept of sovereignty or ‘self-rule’? As Lord Anthony Giddens argues in a recent book on the future of the EU, the nineteenth-century vision of sovereignty is becoming increasingly irrelevant or at least contested.[2] He stresses that we should instead focus on sovereignty+, the idea that sovereignty is about being able to make real choices in a multi-polar and globalized world by uniting common interests. The EU, with all its flaws, may after all be the ‘least worst approach’ to bring back sovereignty to the UK by generating sovereignty+ in order to engage productively and forcefully on the world’s most pressing issues.


[1] Jordan, A. et al. (Eds.). (2010). Climate change policy in the European Union: confronting the dilemmas of mitigation and adaptation? Cambridge University Press.

[2] Giddens, A. (2014). Turbulent and Mighty Continent: What Future for Europe? Polity Press.



One Response to Why the UK needs the EU (and vice versa)

  1. Pingback: Why the UK needs the EU (and vice versa) by Jonas Schoenefeld | EuroDale

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