Sovereignty or Power
On 29 March 2019, unless the European Council unanimously decides otherwise, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union and a new trading arrangement between the EU and the UK will come into effect. If no bespoke deal is approved, trading arrangements will be conducted on World Trade Organisation terms. The UK will also lose any arrangements to which it is a party through the EU: there are more than 750. This is one reason the UK’s negotiating position with the EU is asymmetrical: even if ‘no deal’ harms both sides’ trade, it will be much worse for the UK.
The prospects of a bespoke deal look dimmer by the day. Some people are sanguine about this. Many more are worried. A group of MPs were reported to want ‘to give parliament the ability to veto’ a ‘no deal’ Brexit. It is unclear what these MPs have in mind. Perhaps they anticipate revoking the Article 50 notification. But it is debatable whether this can be done unilaterally; as a question of European law, it falls to be decided by the European Court of Justice. Perhaps they merely hope to change the UK’s negotiating strategy. But the clock has been ticking for months and two years is a very short period in which to negotiate a deal. Angela Merkel's expressed hope that trade talks can begin in December is hardly cause for rejoicing. It took ten years to hammer out Switzerland’s agreement with the EU. Even if a deal is negotiated, the European Council can reject it.
During the Brexit referendum, a distinction was made between sovereignty and power. An institution can, like the Moldovan Parliament, be sovereign with limited powers; another, like a multinational company, can be powerful without being sovereign. The Westminster Parliament, some Leavers argued, was no longer sovereign: hence the language of ‘taking back control’. They weren’t swayed by forecasts of a loss of international influence because they were concerned with sovereignty, not power.
Parliament, as a sovereign body, can legislate as it likes. The effects of its legislation are a function of its power. The Article 50 notification may take back sovereignty; it gave away power. The MPs who would like Parliament to veto a ‘no deal’ Brexit are like King Canute’s courtiers who told him he could command the tide to turn back. There are 498 MPs who voted to trigger Article 50; some still have not grasped the implications of that vote.