The unpopular Withdrawal Agreement vote inflicted the largest defeat on the Government in history. The Irish backstop within the Agreement, far from Brexit bringing back national sovereignty, will in reality undermine it.
The UK has always had an ambivalent view of the European project since it joined in 1973. One of its criticisms is that since the UK joined, it has morphed into a political union from an economic community. The media narrative has invariably been about what the EU has done to us, as opposed to what we have contributed to the bloc as a whole. Even during the referendum campaign, the argument against the EU was that faceless bureaucrats in Brussels were to blame for forcing our country to abide by rules and regulations – often downplaying the fact that elected Members of European Parliament (MEP)’s and Prime Ministers of the member states shape and change these very regulations. Since the UK voted to leave this institution many hours have been spent deciding how.
The result of this negotiation is the deal before the House of Commons, which suffered a record breaking defeat of 230 votes. A large reason for this was due to the Irish backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland tied to Single Market rules and customs codes in order to avoid a hard border through the island of Ireland. According to the agreement as it currently stands neither the UK nor EU can unilaterally decide to end this backstop, without the agreement of the other party. If the two sides can come to a trade deal then this never needs to be implemented, as May and the EU are at pains to point out. The result of this is, in effect, an insurance policy against a hard border. Nevertheless, there is potential for this to be implemented. This forces a key referendum campaign issue back to the surface: parliamentary and national sovereignty.
Whilst the UK is a member of the EU, it is bound to follow the rules and laws created by the initial legislation that passed through the house in 1972, the European Communities Act which Parliament voted to ascend to the statute book. In theory, the country could leave the bloc by repealing this act, a sovereign decision. However, additionally the Lisbon Treaty gives member states the sovereign right to leave the EU through the mechanism of Article 50. This is a mechanism the UK has decided on its own to invoke. If May’s deal had passed in Westminster, as well as in the European Council and the European Parliament, it would have become legally enforceable in international treaty law.
May is looking to negotiate changes to the backstop from Brussels, however the EU have said many times that the principle of a backstop is non-negotiable. As a result, it is difficult to see any significant changes being made which would facilitate the Agreement’s passage through the House of Commons.
For the sake of argument, imagine the deal with the backstop makes it through a meaningful vote and becomes law. Although the UK will have used its national sovereignty to formally leave the EU and all its institutions we will have a perverse situation whereby the UK, will be committed into a mechanism, which, if activated, will not allow it to leave by its own volition. The referendum campaign slogan ‘take back control’ in this scenario seems rather hollow a statement.
In fact, in leaving the EU’s Institutions the UK will no longer be there using its connections to states inside the EU to shape the laws of the EU. As a consequence, the UK will have less sovereignty than it did when a fully-fledged member. Both the Commission President Jean Claude Junker and the President of the Council, Donald Tusk have said this deal is the only deal on offer.
The implications of this for the island of Ireland remain worrying. The UK and Ireland joined the EU at the same time to ensure trade between the two would not be subject to friction, and the common travel area would not be impacted by a hard border between the two nations. As the former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair stated on Good Morning Britain on ITV on 3 December, this would be the first time in both our relationships with Europe that the UK and Ireland would be on opposite sides of the line.
This whole exercise in exerting national sovereignty has the potential to hand over greater sovereignty, over the issue of the backstop. Whatever the eventual result of the negotiations with Brussels, and the meaningful vote in Westminster, the prosperity of both sides of the border hang in the balance.
David Reece is a Global Politics and International Relations Graduate from Birkbeck, University of London.