SOVEREIGNTY in the minds of the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus is a simple concept. It is that as a country we are the sole determinant of the laws and regulations that govern our economy and society. This is exercised through the processes of parliamentary scrutiny of legislation by the powers vested in the elected representatives of the people. That should achieve the twin benefits of sovereignty and democracy that create a secure foundation on which we live our lives. Departing from those principles represents a chipping away of our sovereignty and thus our freedoms.
There is a degree to which any international agreement or treaty includes provisions that tie the hands of the parties to some extent. That is acceptable provided such arrangements are transparent and subject to proper Parliamentary scrutiny and approval. International agreements or treaties should always include termination clauses that can be unilaterally exercised by us if we no longer believe in their usefulness. At least in this agreement we have the power to press that nuclear button.
What have we learnt thus far about our new sovereignty?
I would suggest that, despite the huge majority accorded the enacting legislation for our new Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, we should be worried. I suggest we have and will continue to suffer major degradation of our sovereignty and democracy.
I have written before on the laughable level of scrutiny given to this agreement. It was dumped on our parliamentarians on Christmas Eve for debate by each House on only part of Wednesday 30th December. Nobody in those chambers other than the few intimately involved in the negotiations would have had a clue about the true import of what they were to approve. It is ironic that the return of our Sovereignty and our supposed strong system of Parliamentary democracy should be so fatally flawed at the first instance.
Those of you who watched the debates may have heard Jacob Rees-Mogg pouring scorn and I would say, even ridiculing those who complained of this. His line was that we have had four and half years of Brexit discussions, so a few hours now is quite enough.
That is a totally unjustifiable defence of the government’s position.
The point at issue is whether 1246 pages of this new agreement are acceptable and especially that they are preferable to no deal with WTO terms applying. Its contents have had zero debate in those four and a half years. It has been totally opaque to all other than those involved in the negotiations. I have always thought of Mr Rees-Mogg as something of a champion of democracy, but no more. This was a breath-taking example of arrogance.
If you have a sceptical turn of mind, and perhaps I have, you may think that stringing out the negotiations to such a late date so that there would be no time for proper scrutiny was a cynical ploy. It was the only way to get an agreement enacted that would never have passed considered review. Boris’s Withdrawal Agreement all over again.
I admit I have not read the entire agreement myself. I note the ERG saying it returns our sovereignty. What they do not say is by how much the terms of this agreement prevent or control the practical exercise of our new sovereignty.
Everywhere I have looked in this agreement there are unlimited powers given to multiple Committees jointly chaired by the UK and the EU. These powers include the right to alter any and all terms of the agreement as they see fit without reference to or scrutiny by our Parliament. The EU of course is quite familiar with that approach. For the UK it represents an approach that has more in common with dictatorship than democracy. We thought we had voted to leave such a system but sadly it seems we have now bound ourselves back into it.
There is perhaps a way out. Parliament should insist that the UK members of these committees are not empowered to agree to any changes unless first approved by Parliament in full debate through specific primary legislation. That is the only way to ensure that our civil servants and their Ministers who will be appointed to these committees, cannot gradually and by stealth align us back with the EU and all its laws and regulations in the future.
It is all very well having processes to allow subsequent changes in the terms of the treaty to be agreed. Whilst this can be a benefit it can also turn out to be a Trojan Horse. A Remain leaning Parliament can use these provisions to take us straight back into the EU with no public debate or consent. I would not regard this as at all a remote concern. My guess is that even now the Remainers are strategising over how this agreement can in future be used to get us back into the EU without the need for any public debate at all. The only way to protect against this is for the Government to legislate that any material changes to the agreement that align us or bind us to more alignment with the EU, must first be put to a national referendum as in 2016.
We have the experience of the 47 years since 1973 where we lost more and more sovereignty over time without any consent from the public, the last four and half years since the referendum, the Boris Withdrawal Agreement, the position Northern Ireland is now in and the 30th December debate. I am simply not prepared to give our Politicians let alone the current government, the benefit of the doubt that we will now cut free from the EU and really strike out on our own.
Proof that Boris’s government intends to follow through on Brexit will be the extent to which we see rafts of reforms and deregulation coming before Parliament in the next 100 days. So far we only know about the welcome elimination of the Tampon tax and a ban on electrical pulse fishing. Where is the rest Prime Minister?
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. I suggest that Brexiteers need to hold to that maxim and keep up the analysis and pressure to deliver a true Brexit. If we do not, we are likely to get merely the BRINO result that all too easily this agreement could deliver. We may have won a battle but it is premature to conclude we have won the war.
Photo of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union by Andrei Korzhyts from Adobe Stock