David Henig on absolutely key points many people still don’t understand and the Brexit “sovereignty myth”.


First published in December 2020.


There has been plenty of talk about how UK sovereignty is what is stopping an EU deal, that the EU want to impinge on this. Sorry, the argument is totally bogus. It is a combination of EU hatred and cakeism dressed up in respectable clothing.

How do we define sovereignty in trade deals? Complex question, so let’s just look at this government.

It believes in trade deals and membership of the WTO. These contain binding rules. Therefore for this government sovereignty and binding rules are compatible. Therefore sovereignty in terms of trade rules for this government is a relative concept either in content or partner terms.

So when they say that the EU proposals go too far, is that because of what is proposed, or who it is proposed with?

We haven’t been told the detail. But with regard to the level playing field it is suggested that no country could sign up to a situation where not following the rules leads to tariffs being imposed. However we agree to this in the WTO and Free Trade Agreements. So that is untrue.

Fish is a slightly different matter, and it is being said that the EU proposal would deny the UK control of our waters. But definitionally that cannot be true. We are showing our control through the discussion. We don’t have to do a deal. And in fact this is true of the trade deal with the EU as a whole. There does not have to be a deal. If there is not, then WTO terms. We have both signed up to these a long time ago.

Apparently sanctions under the WTO aren’t breaches of sovereignty. So why do we even want a trade deal with the EU? To avoid tariffs, get more haulage permits, have greater rights to provide services, that sort of thing? This sounds then like a transaction, where we have to choose the price we are prepared to pay.

Neither the EU or UK has to do this deal. It is a choice. So why is this choice a matter of sovereignty? Just say No.

Unless, perhaps, you think you are entitled to a special deal without paying a price? Or that the other side is wrong?

We are back to cake. Back to the belief that the EU ‘should’ give us a special deal. And anger that they won’t. This isn’t about sovereignty. It is about a failure to agree commercial terms. It doesn’t matter if the EU is right or wrong. It is whether you can do the deal. And, just perhaps, the idea that the EU is not the body that the UK ‘should’ be dealing with. That it is illegitimate, not being a country but a bloc. That should be brought down.

Well tough. Countries want trade deals with the EU and hate the experience. Live with it.


If there is no deal and extra economic harm it wasn’t because the European Union didn’t respect the UK, but because the UK chose not to pay the price asked for a trade deal. Which is the choice the government will make, on which they can be judged.

For the avoidance of doubt I make no comment on whether the EU negotiating requests are reasonable or not. They often aren’t, similarly to the United States or China. It comes with being trade superpowers. So, what do we do if trade superpowers aren’t reasonable? Deal or retreat?

Vent. Up to the EU of course, but are serious people really suggesting that it is unacceptable for the EU to move beyond 10-year old provisions for the level playing field agreed for a less ambitious deal with a further away country? That the EU, having just appointed a Chief Trade Enforcement Officer to ensure preferential trade partners meet their obligations, should not do this for the UK? That they should ignore the demands from MEPs for stronger enforcement in all trade agreements?

An EU about to introduce, probably, tough carbon border adjustment measures, should have a trade agreement with a neighbouring country which wouldn’t be changed and therefore that country could gain an advantage? Read the room folks.

It is the UK’s choice whether to accept fundamental EU terms for a trade deal or not. But don’t act like it is a surprise the EU wants tough measures. That’s trade politics in 2020. It would be even if the EU trusted the UK. So let’s work out how we want to deal with it. And a demanding United States.



So let’s not indulge the sovereignty myth with regard to an EU deal. If it isn’t sovereignty when it is a deal with Japan, it isn’t when it is with the EU. This is about the terms of preferential trade. They strike a hard bargain. Crying sovereignty = failure. Do better.

The classic sovereignty myth. You wonder if the real problem is that they don’t see us as ‘more’ sovereign than their Member States. But ultimately, do the deal or don’t. Don’t whinge about the price.

Of course, if we see an EU deal as just a case of the price worth paying that does set up an uncomfortable time for government if they got that wrong. It is far better for them to convince us that economic losses were about sovereignty not a poor decision...

Shorter. Pithier. True.🔷



David Henig, UK Director of the European Centre For International Political Economy.





[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 11 December 2020 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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