John O’Hagan is Professor of Economics
The decision to join the EU and pool decision making was a sovereign decision of each member state. And as such a decision can be reversed (pace the forthcoming British referendum) it is wrong to claim, as do many in the Brexit debate, that being a member of the EU has reduced sovereignty.
Some argue though that what matters is the subsequent loss of freedom of action that resulted from such a decision. The pooling of decision making at international level though can substantially increase the freedom of action of a government and its people, not decrease it.
The Brexit campaign, at least up to now, is based on the assumption that the alternative to EU membership is some nirvana, where the British government will be free to do what it wills on the global stage without being constrained by the decisions of others or the need for collective and binding decision making. This is a delusion.
Its freedom to act will only be enhanced if it wants to withdraw from all global engagement: free to do as it wishes in its Atlantic island, with hugely reduced living standards and impotent on the EU and world stages.
The reason is that all human interaction, be it at the personal, national or international level involves restrictions, in pursuit of the common good.
Let us take the simplest example of all, a stop sign or traffic light. As individuals we cannot drive as we wish without endangering the lives of others and vice versa. As such we pool decision making to avoid the consequences for the individual of other peoples’ actions and likewise the consequences for them of that person’s actions.
In these circumstances we do not cede individual sovereignty. Without this pooling of rule-making we would not be able in the first place to risk driving on the roads. Hence the alternative to not pooling decision-making is in fact an almost total loss of individual freedom compared to what results from the sovereign decision to share common rules.
The exact same applies between nations which want to ‘live’ with each other. If we want people and goods/services to be free to move across borders we have to share common rules.
And if Britain or indeed Ireland want to trade in the global economy and allow tourists to move freely in and out of its country it must abide by a huge set of rule books in order to allow orderly and safe exchange to take place.
Detailed rule books are required for domestic trade and movement. Once we move to the international stage it follows automatically that many of these rule books have to be designed and agreed at supranational level.
Once this is done you need a bureaucracy to implement the decisions taken by the democratically-elected politicians. It is a nonsense to argue that the EU Commission makes such decisions. It does so little more than the British or Irish civil services in relation to domestic matters.
Furthermore, such rules must be interpreted and enforced by a higher court, namely the European Court of Justice in the case of the EU. The ECJ simply plays the role of a national supreme court on matters of an EU nature. It has no more, no less power than a national court in relation to its remit.
If Britain or any country leaves, then it must develop even more complex rule books, in many cases through detailed bilateral agreements, involving multiple bi-lateral legal documents probably much more complex than anything it experiences in the EU. And taking years to negotiate.
But dealing with globalisation goes way beyond trade and the freedom of people to travel. It involves vital national security interests, such as dealing with the fallout from for example Russian expansionism and the huge migration and terrorism issues arising from totally failed states in the Middle East and further afield – and the growing threat of global warming. How can these issues be addressed satisfactorily at national level?
The nature of the EU and its operation may be valid grounds for heated debate. There is scope also for much reform. But the need for its existence is beyond doubt: just ponder for a short while the alternatives.
It is up to the British people to make their sovereign decision whether or not to reverse all of its previous sovereign decisions to partake in various elements of the EU project. If this though leads in time to the break-up of the EU it is hard to contemplate the consequences.
The return of twenty-eight competing different currencies, the return of inward-looking nationalistic governments, the imposition of restrictions on freedoms to trade and travel. And ultimately the return to a Europe of the first half of the twentieth century.
People have to learn to live, however imperfectly, with each other within the nation state. A huge raft of binding legislation is what makes this possible. An exact parallel applies to nations. By pooling decision making and the rule books, we are all freer as a result, much freer in many cases.
The small details of the recent Mr Cameron negotiations are just that. Membership or otherwise of the EU involves a consideration of a much larger and more existential policy choice.
John O’Hagan is Professor of Economics and author of the monograph, 'Shared Economic Sovereignty: Beneficial or Not and Who Decides', Institute of International and European Affairs, Dublin 2013.