If we lived in a world of disconnected nation states, we might not need an EU — except for the small matter of avoiding war. I could argue that this applied for much of European history in that wars were relatively limited affairs (because most of Europe was close to subsistence farming, so there were not the human or financial resources to mobilise for a large war without facing starvation at home). But increased wealth and mechanisation of production and warfare change these things profoundly in the twentieth century.
But even then, royal households inter-married to build alliances and connections. Sovereignty didn’t mean total control of one’s own patch and ignoring the rest of the world: a strategic wedding might cement an alliance, wisely trading a little independence for stability. An example is the way intermarriage meant James VI of Scotland was also heir to the throne of England, so when he came to the English throne wars between Scotland and England stopped (apart from the two Jacobite rebellions — which were focussed on who should sit on the throne). What was lost in the two kingdoms coming together was more than compensated for by ending the damage caused by war.
The EU takes this to a new level, providing a far more sophisticated way for nations to cement alliances than forcing their royalty in to loveless marriages. An arrangement entered into to swap a little autonomy for a lot of peace and prosperity sounds like wise governance — especially when the checks and balances in the EU processes make it hard for any one nation to be trampled. Outbreaks of patriotic energy around football competitions or Eurovision are vastly saner than actually attacking eachother.
What adds a whole extra layer to the idea of sovereignty within the EU is the effect of globalisation. Growing interdependence greatly reduces the ability of individual nations to control their own destiny (unless they are very large nations). In October 2015 the Chinese government agreed to invest in the new Hinkley Point nuclear power station leading some to suggest that this was a far bigger loss of sovereignty that anything even the most convinced eurosceptics link to the EU, but this was barely commented on. People just took it as how the world works.
It is inevitable that economic might in this century will shift to the most populous nations. This is a good thing, as it means their people coming out of poverty. But it greatly diminishes the relative standing of individual European nations. In order of decreasing population: China now has 1367 million people, India has 1251 million, the USA has 321 million and Indonesia 256 million. The first EU nation in that list is Germany, at number 17, with 80 million. But the combined population of the EU is now 752 million. That puts us collectively in third place, ahead of the USA, and gives us collectively significant clout.
The histories of the nations of Europe are deeply intertwined. At times they bicker like an old married couple, but the connections run deep. As part of the EU we are in a structure that provides safety and stability for the exercise of our sovereignty that we would not have outside. That deal with China shows a connection that is purely economic: at least the governance structures of the EU are deeply democratic, so we have a say as we pool sovereignty, rather than being dictated to.
The patriotic case is deeply intertwined with this. The crude summary is to ask whether we stand tall in the EU or are dominated by the markets and larger nations outside the EU.
The more sophisticated version is that the Samuel Johnson was right to say that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”, shallowly standing behind national pride because they have nothing else to be proud of. But there is a richer patriotism of the person who is proud of what their nation brings. This is now not “my country is best” but “my country brings something of great value”. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins: it is far from universally good. The gay world subverts that by being saying there is something of value in what we bring: we can be proud of who we are, and this doesn’t do anyone else down. In exactly the same way we cab be proudly British and proudly European. What would be truly shameful is to slink away from our European partners as if we held nothing of worth.
“Taking our country back”
We never lost it. Hard-wired into the EU institutions is the idea of subsidiarity — of doing centrally only the things best done centrally, pushing power away from Brussels and taking decisions as close as possible to those affected by them. This is not a creeping megalomaniacal superstate, it is an umbrella intended to let diversity flourish. The things where we share sovereignty are the things were it is in our interests to work together.
One trend of globalisation worldwide is for power to move from national governments to supernational and regional bodies. Something some of our political classes dislike is that EU model of subsidiarity would push for the devolution of power from Westminster. Tony Blair’s government was on the right line with regional assemblies. The pressure is enough to mean that even the present government is trying devolution, though in a botched and piecemeal way (as if they can’t concede that Labour had a point), but this is a global trend we resist at our peril, and will move power from Westminster to the wider country.
The snag is that, outside the EU, we would be buffeted by powerful economic forces without the protection of the Brussels. Here we would lose much more of our country — in loss of power, and economic hardship — than we lose by a limited pooling of sovereignty.
If we had never been in the EU things would be hard enough. Like Norway, we would almost certainly be in the slipstream of the EU: influenced but not in the room when things are discussed and agreements are made. In fact it would be much worse. In the first place, we would need to make a trade deal with the EU — much larger than us and with little incentive to be generous. In the second place, for many years, major trade deals have been negotiated on our behalf by the European Commission which means the British civil service is critically short of experience and expertise in this field, leaving us woefully ill-equipped for the mammoth task of replacing agreements reached over four decades in just the two years of transitional arrangements as we leave.
Fantasy and reality
Leaving the EU offers us a fantasy of “sovereignty” and a reality of being dominated by much bigger economic powers, and learning the hard way that the “empire on which the sun never sets” is a thing of the past.