Opinion

The UK’s sovereignty myth

Those who argue that Brexit would let the UK “take back sovereignty” overlook the impact of trade on domestic law-making.

By: and Date: March 17, 2016 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

This op-ed has been published in KathimeriniPúblicoDie ZeitFinans, Nikkei Veritas, Nikkei  Asian Review. L’OpinionHospodarkse Noviny and Il Sole 24 Ore, Dienas Bizness and El Economista.

Kathemerini

Publico

Die_Zeit-Logo-Bremen.svg

Finans (Denmark)

nikkei

nikkei

HOSPODARSKE_NOVINY_logo

Il Sole logo

el economista logo

Dienas Bizness logo

 

Even if the UK leaves the EU, it will continue to be subject to EU regulations as long as it trades with European countries, as the products or services it exports would have to meet EU rules.

It would still belong to geographical Europe, and remain highly connected with the continent. Cutting trade ties altogether is not an option.

Trade with the European single market is crucial to the UK’s economic prosperity. 52% of the UK’s trade in goods is with other European single market countries, and 42% of trade in services. Even 30% of trade in financial services is with the EU.

This means that if there is a Brexit, the UK will still need to trade with the remainder of the European single market, which is currently made up of the 28 EU countries and four members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

The benefits of the single market go well beyond standard trade agreements, which focus on reducing tariffs. At its core, the European single market project is about non-tariff barriers to trade, relating to standards and the application and interpretation of rules. These standards apply not only to products, but regulation on workers’ rights and health and safety.

Countries like Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein, which are not in the EU but are part of the European Free Trade Association, find it crucial for their economic prosperity to belong to the same market, as over 50 percent of their total trade is with the EU. They agree to apply EU rules and usually accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

Membership of the European single market offers economic benefits, but it comes with a cost for the four EFTA countries: the rules of the single market are decided by EU members alone. The EU shares its single market with these countries, but the decision about rules requires approval by the European Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

Non-EU countries have no say in that process. True, there is a difference between Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein on the one hand and Switzerland on the other. The former accept all the EU Single Market rules, whereas Switzerland only accepts EU rules in some domains and negotiates bilateral agreements with the EU in others.

But the fact remains that the four EFTA countries are highly dependent on the EU single market because of geography. In reality, staying outside the EU gives them little or no autonomy in shaping its rules.

The UK is, of course, a bigger and more influential country and would likely have greater leverage in negotiations than the EFTA four. The question is whether that influence would be bigger inside or outside the EU.

At the moment, being an EU member, the United Kingdom is a full participant in drafting EU single market rules that apply to the entire single market.

It is not just one among 28 participants: with the EU Commissioner for financial services, the UK holds a key position in the decision-making process in an area of vital interest. More generally, the UK is second only to Germany in terms of top-ranking positions in Brussels.

And while UK influence in the European Parliament has somewhat declined, especially since the withdrawal of the Conservative party from the European People’s Party (EPP), the UK still has significant clout.

Leaving the EU also would mean that the UK would have to negotiate bilateral trade deals with all the EU’s preferential partners (perhaps soon including Japan and the United States) if it wants to keep the same market access to these countries as it currently enjoys.

Negotiating such trade agreements is a long affair. Since the turn of the millennium, the average time taken to conclude a trade agreement was 3.5 years in the U.S., 5.6 years in Canada and almost 7 years for the EU. Certainly, trade would suffer in that period.

In short, being a member of the EU gives the UK strong influence and the ability to exercise sovereignty at EU level. If it left the EU, the UK would face a choice between negotiating with the EU and the rest of the world about the terms of the trade agreements, or turning towards isolation.

Isolation might mean “sovereignty” in some sense, but it would come at a high cost for a traditionally open economy like the UK. Continuing to trade with countries in Europe and elsewhere would require lengthy negotiations. Compromises in terms of regulation and product standards would be inevitable. Some would view this again as a loss of sovereignty.

Ultimately, pooling sovereignty by being a member of the EU is the best way to shape trade, inside and outside Europe, according to UK interests. It is simply a myth that leaving the EU would give back sovereignty in a meaningful way.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to communication@bruegel.org.

View comments
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Can roaming be saved after Brexit?

The referendum where UK voters chose to exit the European Union has many unanticipated consequences. One that is gaining visibility in the UK just now is the impact of Brexit on mobile roaming arrangements. How might the UK maintain roaming arrangements with the EU in the event of a hard Brexit?

By: J. Scott Marcus and Robert G. Clarke Topic: Innovation & Competition Policy Date: September 21, 2017
Read article More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Surprising priorities for Europe and China

Bruegel’s Alicia García-Herrero and Robin Niblett of Chatham House discuss a new joint report on EU-China relations. How easy was it to find common ground with Chinese partners? And what should be the priorities for economic cooperation between Europe and China?

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: September 13, 2017
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

EU-China economic relations: looking to 2025

This event will see the launch of a report on EU-China relations and discuss issues such as trade and investment, industrial cooperation and innovation and global governance

Speakers: Victor Chu, Ian Davis, Alicia García-Herrero, Dame Clara Furse, Tony Graziano, Anatole Kaletsky, K.C. Kwok, Lawrence J. Lau, Ina Lepel, Hanna Müller, André Sapir, Robin Niblett, György Szapáry, Jean-Claude Trichet, Zhang Yansheng, H.E. Ambassador Yang Yanyi, Liu Xiangdong, Gunnar Wiegand, Guntram B. Wolff, Huang Ping and Elena Flores Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: September 13, 2017
Read about event

Past Event

Past Event

Bruegel Annual Meetings 2017

The Annual Meetings are Bruegel’s flagship event. They offer a mixture of large public debates and small private sessions about key issues in European and global economics. In a series of high-level discussions, Bruegel’s scholars, members and stakeholders will address the economic policy challenges facing Europe.

Speakers: Carlos Sallé Alonso, José Antonio Álvarez Álvarez, Agnès Bénassy-Quéré, Pervenche Béres, Matthias Buck, Grégory Claeys, Zsolt Darvas, Jean Luc Demarty, Maria Demertzis, Anna Ekström, Lowri Evans, Ferdinando Giugliano, Sandro Gozi, Peter Grünenfelder, Reiner Hoffmann, Levin Holle, Kate Kalutkiewicz, Steffen Kampeter, Peter Kažimír, Emmanuel Lagarrigue, Matti Maasikas, Steven Maijoor, Reza Moghadam, Nathalie Moll, James Murray, Johan Van Overtveldt, Julia Reinaud, André Sapir, Dirk Schoenmaker, Mateusz Szczurek, Marianne Thyssen, Jean-Claude Trichet, Reinhilde Veugelers, Nicolas Véron, Ida Wolden Bache, Liviu Voinea, Guntram B. Wolff and Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate, European Macroeconomics & Governance, Finance & Financial Regulation, Global Economics & Governance, Innovation & Competition Policy Location: Square - Brussels Meeting Centre Date: September 7, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Africa and Chinese rebalancing

What’s at stake: China and Africa have developed close economic ties over the past 20 years. The need to rebalance the China-Africa relationship was also a prominent topic in the context of the recent Kenyan elections. But if the drivers will shift relatively more towards domestic consumption, what will the impact be on Africa? We review recent contribution to this debate.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: August 28, 2017
Read article

External Publication

Economic Implications of Further Harmonisation of Electronic Communications Regulation in the EU

One of the ways in which the European Commission has sought over the years to strengthen the European single market is by means of increased harmonisation of the regulation of electronic communications. To the extent that the European Union functions as a confederation of somewhat autonomous member states, however, there are both practical and political limits to the degree of harmonisation that is realistically desirable or achievable.

By: J. Scott Marcus and Christian Wernick Topic: Innovation & Competition Policy Date: August 11, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

The EU and the US: a relationship in motion

Europe’s post-crisis recovery has been disappointing in comparison with the USA. But lower rates of inequality are staving off populism and bolstering support for globalisation. With the USA an increasingly unpredictable partner, the EU must address internal imbalances and build alliances to defend the multilateral order.

By: Maria Demertzis Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 28, 2017
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Europe's global positioning and its trade implications for Asia

This event, taking place in Hong Kong will discuss Europe-Asia relations in the context of global developments.

Speakers: Alicia García-Herrero, Peter Mandelson, David Tweed and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bloomberg Hong Kong Office 25/F, Cheung Kong Center, 2 Queen's Road, Central, Hong Kong Date: July 7, 2017
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

External Publication

Review of EU-third country cooperation on policies falling within the ITRE domain in relation to Brexit

What is the possible future relationship between the EU and the UK in light of Brexit? The report provides a critical assessment of the implications of existing models of cooperation between third countries and the European Union on energy, electronic communications, research policy and small business policy.

By: J. Scott Marcus, Georgios Petropoulos, André Sapir, Simone Tagliapietra, Alessio Terzi, Reinhilde Veugelers and Georg Zachmann Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 5, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Global trade and Europe

Multilateral trade has generated a huge amount of wealth, and lifted many around the world out of poverty. But there is also growing awareness that globalisation is creating “losers”, and this risks feeding a backlash against multilateral trade. We explore the benefits and risks of multilateral trade, and ask how Europe should behave in a shifting context

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: June 30, 2017
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Can EU actors keep using common law after Brexit?

English common law is the choice of law for financial contracts, even for parties in EU members with civil law systems. This creates a lucrative legal sector in the UK, but Brexit could make UK court decisions difficult to enforce in the EU. Parties will be able to continue using English common law after Brexit, but how will these contracts be enforced? Some continental courts are preparing to make judicial decisions on common law cases in the English language.

By: Uuriintuya Batsaikhan and Dirk Schoenmaker Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: June 22, 2017
Read article More by this author

Parliamentary Testimony

House of Commons

Exiting the European Union Committee

On 19 April 2017 Zsolt Darvas appeared as a witness at the Exiting the European Union Committee, the House of Commons, United Kingdom.

By: Zsolt Darvas Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, House of Commons, Testimonies Date: June 20, 2017
Load more posts