Debating the EU: Sovereignty, Autonomy and Power

The ever louder debate over the European Union is hampered by confusion and misunderstanding about state sovereignty, says WILL BROWN. The left is often befuddled itself which does nothing to help it confront the real issues.

In a recent letter to the Guardian, Keith Hayward introduced a welcome dose of clarity and precision to the debate over Britain’s relationship with the European Union, arguing that there is a great deal of confusion about what sovereignty means.

EU flagAs he explains, there is a clear distinction to be made between sovereignty and autonomy, one that is vital if we are to assess the rival claims of the ‘Brexit’ and ‘Remain’ camps, and the implications of EU membership, particularly for the left. Unfortunately, most commentators, the media and indeed our elite-educated politicians seem unable to understand this.

Hayward notes that sovereignty is both a political and a legal term, whereas autonomy is a more pragmatic, realpolitik idea.

Sovereignty is fundamentally about the location of authority – where does the ultimate right to rule over a given territory and population reside? This involves both an ‘internal’ dimension (recognition of that right from the population of the state concerned), and an ‘external’ one (recognition by other, foreign states and actors).

Recognising a state as sovereign means that ultimate legal authority lies with the state – the ‘right to decide’ on its laws, to sign an international treaty, to go to war, to decide how to vote in the United Nations – and that no external authority is superior to that.

The very fact that it is the UK that has the right choose whether to join or leave the EU, indeed the very fact that we are now making that decision in a referendum, confirms that sovereignty. No-one, no EU member state, EU Commission, nor other legal authority is currently questioning that ‘right to decide’.

However, there are a number of complicating factors here.

First, because ours is a liberal democratic state, this right of the state is subject to the will of the people who give their assent or otherwise through elections, or in this case, a referendum. The exercise of sovereignty by governments of liberal democracies is therefore subject to some level of popular control, however imperfect the systems giving expression to that popular will may be.

Secondly, states can and do voluntarily ‘give up’ aspects of sovereignty to international organisations and through international agreements. Sometimes this is known as ‘pooling’ sovereignty. In most cases this is done in order to achieve some aim, such as trade liberalisation or collective defence and security. The EU is probably the most extensive and complex example of pooled sovereignty.

Often it is these kinds of actions – agreeing to set up and abide by the World Trade Organisation trade rules, say, or to join the EU and abide by its commercial or labour regulations – which leads people to argue that sovereignty has been ‘lost’. However, what they forget is that such actions are taken voluntarily, they are sovereign decisions of the state concerned, and they can be reversed – we can choose to leave the EU.

Room for manoeuvre

The issue of autonomy is very different. Autonomy is not about the right to take decisions – the location of authority – but about what choices are open to a particular state, its ‘room for manoeuvre’. These might be choices about macro-economic policy – can the state choose between austerity and anti-austerity policies, for example, and what are the costs and benefits of each course of action?

Such choices – the state’s autonomy – might be limited by the resources it can draw on or by the international commitments it has previously agreed to. If you are member of the Eurozone – as Greece discovered at great pain – you can’t choose anti-austerity policies and remain in the Eurozone.

You can choose anti-austerity policies if you leave, but there may be enormous costs. Trying to decide a course of action within such a very restricted autonomy split Syriza. But it was the Greek government, sanctioned in elections and referendums, who exercised this (sovereign) right to choose between these admittedly unattractive alternatives.

For the UK, issues such as immigration pose similar choices. The UK has the right to choose to block immigration from EU countries but it can’t do that without leaving the EU. Its autonomy, or room for manoeuvre, is limited by its membership of the EU.

However, regaining autonomy over this issue by leaving, means potentially huge costs in other areas – loss of trade access to the EU being a major one. Crucially, though, this is not an issue of sovereignty, it is about the costs and benefits of different sovereign decisions. Because the EU bundles up a whole range of such choices in one go, evaluating the impact of staying or leaving is very complex.

The third point in this triangle of related issues is power. Here I am limiting the definition of power simply to the ability of a state (or government of a state) to achieve particular outcomes.

Power defined in this way is different from autonomy. If autonomy is about the range of choices open to a government, power is about the ability to make those choices effective in terms of realising their aims. The UK might have the autonomy to choose to restrict migration if it were outside the EU, but it may not have the resources to make those restrictions effective, to actually block immigrants from coming here.

At the moment we can call on the co-operation of EU member states – France at Calais, Greece in the Mediterranean – to help block immigration. If we leave the EU we might not, and we might in fact have less power in this sense. To take another example, the US is the most powerful state on the planet by most estimations but even it struggles to achieve control over migration across the Mexican border.


This leads us to some of the connections between these three terms. First, the more power a state has, generally the more options will be open to it – that is, it will have greater autonomy. A rich country with large amounts of inward investment, vibrant export sector and healthy balance of payments will most likely have more macro-economic choices than a poor country with limited exports and few other sources of earning foreign exchange.

However, limitations of power – a limited ability to achieve particular outcomes – is a key reason why states might choose to pool sovereignty and restrict their autonomy. This is because they might be able to achieve something by acting collectively that they cannot by acting alone. They will be less autonomous (because they are restricted by whatever agreement they’ve signed up to) and will have ‘given up’ some areas of decision making, but they may (collectively) be more powerful as a result. In some ways the EU is a huge and multifaceted experiment in doing just this.

Climate change is another good example. States are pretty much powerless to combat climate change individually. They could achieve something by acting collectively and have spent decades trying to agree how to do so. But in doing so they will restrict their autonomy because they will be committing to limit certain kinds of actions, such as burning fossil fuels. The costs of these limitations are potentially large (in the short run at least), hence the difficulty in reaching agreement.

So where is the left in all this? Why should these distinctions matter to the left?

Sadly, it is not just the Ukippers and the ‘swivel-eyed loons’ on the right who are prone to confuse issues of sovereignty, autonomy and power. The left is too, and has traditionally blamed everything going, from the EU to the International Monetary Fund to multinational corporations and international trade agreements for a loss of ‘sovereignty’. In pretty much every case they should be talking about the costs and benefits of a loss of ‘autonomy’, and how these might affect the ability of a government to achieve a particular outcome.

Interestingly, a key factor in the Labour Party and the trade unions’ shift in attitudes towards the EU in the late 1980s and 1990s, was that they welcomed the restrictions it placed on the autonomy of the UK government. This was true in respect of EU labour regulations (such as the working time directive), the social charter (from which John Major negotiated an opt-out and which Tony Blair later signed up to), and environmental regulations.

This view still holds sway – John Harris noted in the Guardian that he was voting to ‘remain’ in part because membership put a break on the UK becoming a ‘neoliberal hellhole’. Others in the trade unions, the environmental movement and development NGOs, regard the EU in a similar vein.

Harris also draws attention to the ‘power’ question identified above: the power of any left government to restrain international capital will be very limited unless it is exercised collectively with other nations and we’ll need something like the EU to do this. This argument has become much weaker in recent years as the ‘social’ aspects of Europe have been eroded by the drive towards a neoliberal, pro-austerity pro-competition agenda.

The Eurozone’s strangulation of the democratic will of the Greek people hardly augurs well for left social democracy inside the EU. Yet would leaving be better?

The choice here is whether a long-term strategy of seeking to be part of a progressive shift across the EU is better or worse than leaving. Speculation about either option must be tempered by recognition of the bleak prospects for either a UK- or EU-wide shift to the left.

Thinking through these and other options and choices is not helped by confusing the issues of power and autonomy on the one hand, with sovereignty on the other. The better we understand the difference and the relationships between sovereignty, autonomy and power, the clearer our political judgements can be.


  1. Will
    18 March 2016

    Hi Ernie and all, thanks for your comments.
    Ernie, I wasn’t referring to the Brexit camp as a whole but to those on the right, hence, ‘Ukippers and the ‘swivel-eyed loons’ on the right’. The ‘swivel eyed loons’ is a quote attributed to both Cameron and one of his allies (but denied vigorously) referring to Euro-sceptic Tories.


  2. Ernie Jacques
    17 March 2016

    Cannot disagree with Will regarding the distinction he makes about sovereignty and autonomy insofar as in or out of the EU, Britain remains a sovereign nation but its autonomy and freedom to act will be conditional on all sorts of global influences.

    I agree with pretty much everything Will said in his thoughtful article save his colourful use of words suggesting (unless I’ve missed something) that the Brexit camp is a bunch of “ Ukippers and the swivel-eyed loons”. Also I think we have different view on what the outcome should be.

    To my mind, both sides of the debate have merit and good people but also politicians in their ranks who, if not bonkers, are undeniably duplicitous and self-serving dissemblers including Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith, Nigel Farage for the outers but also David Cameron, George Osborne and any number of Labour Party luminaries. So the electorate are left to judge conflicting claims of utopia and Armageddon should the British people opt to leave. For many this is confusing, unhelpful and crude political spin.
    Predictably the in-camp has the fulsome support of a hundreds of patriotic CEO’s busy shifting profits overseas and importing made-up debt from across Europe and the world for the sole purpose of minimising corporation tax and the maximisation of profits. Including firms like HSCB, RBS, Barclays, at el whose accounting practices are beyond dodgy and who have a legacy of drug and money laundering, Libor manipulation, miss-selling and criminal activity that beggars belief and on an industrial scale. But Tory and Labour politicians have for decades turned a blind eye to this white collar criminality and inexplicably have rewarded many of these business leaders with bonuses, gongs and billions pumped into the system, via quantitative easing paid for by the UK’s poor and most vulnerable citizens.

    That said, I do think Will is 100% right when he says the referendum vote is not about sovereignty but about perceptions of self-interest, both short and long term. A vote to be decided by millions of individual electors making a cost-benefit analysis (no matter how crudely) on the pros and cons of EU membership. And it’s not just Tories but all political parties, trade unions and interest groups, including the ILP, who will have members on either side of this referendum divide.

    So to my mind, the EU in/out debate is much more nuanced than many Labour MP,s would have us believe and as John Harris (who supports EU membership) says in his excellent Guardian article: “Huge swaths of the country have had rapid social change imposed on them because of the EU. Their response is logical”.
    While the rich and professional middle classes do quite well out of UK inward migration (and I respect and applaud all immigrants wanting a better life for themselves and their families) millions at the bottom of the UK jobs pyramid pay a heavy price for this social phenomenon and the EU’s free movement in terms of lost jobs and depressed wages.

    While Labour politicians like Alan Johnson MP, the TUC and trade union leaders would have us believe a yes vote is a vote about defending British worker rights the evidence suggest the opposite and it really is spin and a sick joke that millions of UK workers (and growing by the day) are paid un-living, minimum wages and zero contracts, with little or no employment rights (aka Sports Direct, Amazon, Poundland, without holiday or sick pay and increasingly without the hope of a pension, any pension. So for growing numbers of workers, years of un-living wages and precarious employment will be followed by an old age of penury. And that’s happen today and within the EU with its so-called employment protection.

    So growing numbers of working people are increasingly existing on the margins, paying an ever increasing percentage of their income on rent and going cold and hungry because they cannot afford to heat their houses via expensive pay-as-you-go energy metres. A system where those with the least, pay the most is not only unfair, it is crazy and inhuman. I’ve just visited my family in Scotland and it was heartbreaking to see my son, daughter-in-law and my two grandchildren huddled on the settee and covered in a duvet to keep warm because a family of 4 where both parents both work full-time, can only afford to put the central heating on, 3 hours daily.

    Again social housing with falling stocks and increasing numbers of applicants is becoming an unrealistic dream for low-income families and many, not unreasonably, get upset when after years of living with Mum or Dad or in poor quality flats find themselves bumped by those deemed to be in greater need and in greater priority. But as ever, when the population increases and community services get squeezed and cut, it is not our Westminster politicians who experience difficulties but those who live on the sink estates, in houses of multiple occupation and in bread and breakfast accommodation who suffer. But we can vote the Tories Out

    Like most, if not all, who read the ILP website, I hate the Tory government and love many things about the European Union. But not its impenetrable bureaucracy, lack of democracy, overarching corruption and big money greed. But whereas the Tories are elected by the UK electorate and can be voted out, we will never outvote the kleptocrats who run the EU on behalf of big corporations, the city, hedge fund traders, investment bankers and the super-rich. And as the Greek people learned to their cost, big money and EU power trumped democracy.

    As this Labour man cannot afford a cleaner, cook, housekeeper, gardener, nanny, servant or to eat out, the only benefit my family get from the EU is: i) being bumped off council housing lists, ii) ever higher rents, iii) low paid and precarious work, iv) unmanageable debt and, reliance on mum & dad, charities and food-banks. Bit of a simplification, I know, but it’s how many non-racist and thoroughly decent UK citizens think.

    So I’m voting out. And I suspect many other Labour voters will join me, not because of concepts like sovereignty but because if you are poor and angry at workplace exploitation and social injustice you just want to keep what little you’ve got, And the noise of self-important politicians, whoever they are, is meaningless.

  3. Harry Barnes
    14 March 2016

    For the PES web-site see

  4. Harry Barnes
    14 March 2016

    We need the Labour Party to involve itself fully in the work of the Party of European Socialism (PES) and to press within Britain for that body’s programme.

    The PES is made up of 33 parties within the European Union, plus the Labour Party in Norway. Another 22 parties (many from outside Europe) have associate or observer status within the PES. The members from the UK are the Labour Party and the SDLP.

    Its programme for the 2014 European Elections called for putting jobs first, anti-austerity measures, curbing financial speculation, speeding up the introduction of the Financial Transaction Tax, ending neo-liberal policies, investing in areas such as life-long learning, providing rights for deprived groups, effective integration and participation, working for health and safety, extending participation in the EU, regaining EU leadership in fighting pollution and climate change and furthering a green Europe, whilst pursuing the universal principles of democracy, peace and respect for human rights on the international scene.

    Unfortunately, this platform was completely ignored by the Labour Party when it ran a pathetic Euro Election campaign in 2014. It ignored the EU and pushed a mild domestic programme instead. Yet in certain other EU nations, the PES programme was to the fore. At election time, I checked that this was the case in France and Malta.

    But perhaps things will now change with Labour in this country. For at a PES meeting in Brussels, Jeremy Corbyn said: “The Labour Party is going to be committed to campaigning to stay in the Europe Union. And when there’s a Labour Government in 2020, we will be trying to ensure better workers’ protection across Europe, and a Europe that is based on social justice and good, rather than soley on free-market economics”.

    Let us hope that some of this commitment emerges soon in Labour’s campaign to stay inside the EU. And we can also press this case now in the referendum campaign – whatever might then happen in four years time.

    Nor does the PES have to wait until tomorrow. Currently, in the key European Council, the PES holds eight of the 28 Prime Ministerial positions. Alexis Tsipras of Greece is also a member. The PES can also make use of its presence in the European Council, in the European Parliament and on the European Economic and Social Committee, to keep on advancing aspects of its programme. With 350 members, the later is made up of workers, employers and other interest groups. There are workers’ reps from the UK from CWU, RMT, UNITE, NAPO, GMB, UNISON and UNITE (2). (One of them lives just four miles away from me, so hopefully thereis a speaker for one of our discussion meetings.)

    The GMB magazine currently carries an article in favour of remaining in the EU. It is entitled ‘An Angry Yes’. It is angry with what currently dominates the media, pointing out instead that the vote for us should be “about our future, about a vision of what a social Europe can bring”. Come on Jeremy and company, grab that agenda and force it into the media’s throats.

  5. Jonathan
    12 March 2016

    The distinction between sovereignty and autonomy is extremely useful. The separation of autonomy from power is less so. You can’t have a powerless autonomy; therefore power is a prerequisite for autonomy and can’t be uncoupled from it.

    I disagree that the prospects for a shift leftwards are bleak. I think the left could shape public policy and the future economy and is in a better position to do so than it has been for years. Capitalism is weak and the left now has some strong economic ideas. I agree that it is highly unlikely to triumph but that does not rule out having an impact.

    This is a better position to be in than the 1990s when the left’s strong point was cultural criticism.

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