Affected Our Political Sovereignty? Essay, Research Paper
?Inside Europe we are part of what will be a world power. The national sovereignty
we lose is more than made good by a share of the much larger sovereignty which
we get from participation in Europe.? (Michael Heseltine)
?The 1986 Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty can be seen as further
reducing Britain?s sovereignty.? (Nugent)
Britain has been a full member of the EEC, and later the EU, since 1972. By
joining such an organisation it enjoys the benefits of a Common Market across
Europe, but surrenders some of its political sovereignty to the precedence of
European Law over Domestic Law. Indeed Britain?s political sovereignty has unquestionably
suffered a great deal due to its membership of Europe. In 1975 Tony Benn wrote
a letter to his constituents underlying the major worries of EEC membership.
Firstly he said that the Community subjects us to laws and taxes which British
government is powerless to amend or repeal, and they are passed by people not
elected by the British electorate. Furthermore he described how the EEC requires
British courts to enforce laws that have not necessarily been supported by the
British Parliament, and that Parliament does not have the power to change these
laws, even if they conflict with existing common or statute law. To add to this,
British membership imposes duties and constraints upon British governments.
This means that ministers have to discharge many of their duties, and those
that take them over are not accountable to British Parliament or public. Basically,
the EEC can use the British parliament as a layer of insulation separating them
from the British people. They therefore have no duty to remedy the grievances
of the British people, as they are not accountable to them.
Whilst Tony Benn presents an extreme example of Euro-scepticism, it is indisputable
that membership of Europe detracts from our parliamentary sovereignty. EU law
is binding on all member states and, therefore, takes precedence over British
domestic law. However, the British Parliament does have the power to at least
try to prevent the enforcement of EU law in the case of amendments to the Treaty
of Rome, but otherwise EU legislation automatically becomes law within the UK,
irrespective of the British Parliament?s opinion on it.
Unlike the other member states of the EU, the United Kingdom has a distinctive
constitution based not on a codified document but on the principle of parliamentary
sovereignty. The issue of national sovereignty is an intensively sensitive one
in British politics because of the country?s history, which has been very different
from that of continental states, and because of the different role which the
British Parliament plays from that of European Parliaments. Membership of the
European Union inevitably entails a loss ? or transfer ? of national sovereignty
in return for a share in a greater and more powerful European sovereignty. The
main institutions of the EU operate partly on a supranational level and partly
on an intergovernmental level, and it is this idea of supranational control
which seems to threaten the sovereignty of the British Parliament, and make
its policy less important and meaningful.
Sovereignty is an idea decked with tradition and prestige. Indeed, in 1885
A.V. Dicey defined parliamentary sovereignty as the right of Parliament ?to
make any law whatever; and, further, no person or body is recognised by the
law as having a right to override the legislation of Parliament.? The supremacy
of Parliament, established by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, effectively ended
when Parliament surrendered it in passing the European Communities Act in 1972.
When Britain became a member of the EEC in 1973 certain areas of policy making
were transferred to the EEC Commission and to the Council of Ministers. This
meant that if the Council approved the commission has the right to enforce its
recommendations irrespective of domestic legislation that might contradict it,
and the only way to reclaim this loss of sovereignty would be to repeal the
act of 1972 and withdraw from EC membership.
Entry into the EEC caused enormous controversy, leading to the first ever
national referendum in 1975 and the formation of the Social Democratic Party
by pro-European ex-Labour MPs in 1981. Under Maggie Thatcher, the EC was supported
as a free trade economic union but not as a ?federalist? concept moving towards
a United States of Europe. The difficulty of having greater economic integration
without greater political integration was highlighted by the Single European
Act of 1986. This act was the first comprehensive revision of the original Treaty
of Rome (1958) and while this speeded up economic integration it also strengthened
the supranational organisations such as the Council of Ministers so as to include
decision making, and it also made qualified majority voting replace unanimous
voting in the accepting or rejecting of proposals. This signifies a further
mark in the removal of British sovereignty ? no longer did it have the power
to block bills it personally didn?t agree with and became subject to legislation
irrespective of whether it agreed with it or not. Therefore it is possible for
laws to be made without the support of the British Parliament, and this therefore,
can be seen as a major intrusion on parliamentary sovereignty.
More recently, loss of British sovereignty can be seen in the Maastricht Treaty
of 1992. To add to the increased momentum for economic and monetary union in
the Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty laid down a timetable for this.
The prime goal for EMU was to achieve a single European currency and Central
Bank, in 1999, and this was successful. However, it also extended the role of
the Community to include health, education and the environment, and the infamous
Social Chapter laid down a range of employment conditions and gave increased
powers to the European Parliament.
Surprisingly, Maastricht has had less impact on our national sovereignty than
the Single European Act, as the Conservative government at the time, opted out
of the single currency and the social chapter. National sovereignty was preserved
here by only opting in in areas such as Justice and Home Affairs which are based
on intergovernmental co-operation and unanimous voting.
In spite of the opt-outs at Maastricht, the fact remains that so long as Britain
is a member of the EU its legal and political sovereignty is over. This can
be seen in the Factortame case of 1990. This ruling by the European Court of
Justice on a case brought against the government?s Merchant Shipping Act by
a Spanish fishing company, confirmed the supremacy of Community law over domestic
law. The government was forced to suspend the offending parts of the 1988 Merchant
Chipping Act, and thus it is proved that membership of the European Union gives
the British courts the power to suspend an Act of Parliament, a dramatic constitutional
milestone, and a complete and total contradiction to the words of A.V. Dicey,
and the principles of British parliamentary sovereignty.
In conclusion, Factortame demonstrates just how much membership of the EU
distracts from national sovereignty. Indeed some commentators have speculated
on the end of the nation state, with the Europe of the future developing into
a possible superstate. Historically Parliament has symbolised Britain?s national
sovereignty, and as the European project advances, encompassing more people
and centralising more power it is perhaps fair to say that British parliamentary
sovereignty becomes less about contemporary politics and more about history.