On Brexit: The Sovereignty Trap

by Chris Gilligan

The debate on the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) future in the European Union (EU) is a confused, confusing and largely negative one. Both the Leave (Brexit) and Remain campaigns have relied on negative scare tactics rather than on positive arguments in support of their case. Both sides are also nationalist in their outlook. This is evident in the case of the Leave campaign. It is also true, however, of the Remain campaign. As Anthony Barnett notes:

While advocating staying in the EU their language is not about solidarity and sharing but about how Britain will continue to be different while profiting from membership. Our “great country” will be preserved by what Cameron calls the “special relationship” he has negotiated, which keeps us at arms’ length from the core of the European Union. Following his lead, the whole Remain campaign is formed by Great British egoism and is fundamentally nationalist conservatism.

The Referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU is essentially the public face of a debate amongst the elite about what is the best way forward for UK capitalism. The Referendum has not come about because of pressure from below, and it has largely failed to enthuse a wider public.

The two issues on which there has been some level of political engagement from the public has been on the issue of immigration and the issue of sovereignty. Both of these issues are intimately connected, but not always in ways that are being made clear in the debate on the Referendum, or the debate on what has been referred to as the ‘migration crisis’.

Power, rights and the division of humanity

In the tradition of liberal political thought sovereignty is conceived as a social contract. We, as citizens, give up our power to the state. We allow the state to be the supreme authority (the sovereign) within the territorial borders of the nation-state. In return, the state promises to act in the best interests of its citizens. In liberal democratic states both parties, the state on the one side and its citizens on the other, are bound to this bargain. In return for giving up our power to the state we are conferred rights, which prevent states from abusing this power that we have given them. This contract, then, involves two parties – citizens and the state.[1]

Rights are freedoms from the state. The right to free speech, right to freedom of assembly, right to vote, right to a fair trial are all ways in which citizens are guaranteed that they have mechanisms through which they can keep the power of the sovereign in check. Historically people fought for these freedoms and wrestled them away from the state. Paradoxically, however, rights are guaranteed and secured by the state. The state legal system oversees and adjudicates in cases where people feel that their rights have been denied to them. So, rights are freedoms from the state but they are guaranteed by the state. In liberal democratic states this contradiction––freedom from the state, guaranteed by the state––is, in theory, resolved through popular sovereignty. Government of the people, for the people, by the people.

This contract also, however, involves demarcating citizens from non-citizens; those who are party to the contract and those who are not. In a world of nation-states, sovereignty is always national sovereignty. Consequently, sovereignty is a social contract that divides humanity into different national groups. It divides humanity into ‘us’, citizens of our nation-state, and ‘them’, non-citizens. As citizens, we have rights (freedoms from the state).  Non-citizens do not, they inhabit a territory at the whim of the government of that territory. So, one of the fundamental problems with sovereignty is that it necessarily divides humanity on national lines.

The ‘migration crisis’ and the conflict between sovereignty and human freedom

The so called ‘migration crisis’ in Europe today has, at its heart, the contradiction between two conflicting rights; the right of individuals to leave their country of origin and the right of states to bar entry to would-be immigrants.

People need the right to emigrate. Without the right to emigrate the nation-state becomes a prison. Without the right to emigrate, people become chained to the nation-state. Historically people have fought for and won this freedom from the state. The right to free movement was a central demand of the French Revolution. Prior to the Revolution, the peasantry was tied to the land, and movement within France was heavily regulated. The Revolution swept those chains away. The French Revolution established the principle of the right of all citizens to free movement within the borders of their own nation-state and the right to leave their own nation-state; the right to come and go as they please, without state interference.[2] The right to exit our country of origin is a right that citizens of liberal-democratic states enjoy today. The right to a passport is official recognition of this fact.[3]

There is, however, a contradiction between this right and the right of nation-states to bar entry to foreigners. We have a right to leave, but not a right to enter another state. We have a right to a passport, but we do not have a right to a visa. Visas are a gift of nation-states. They are not a right. Visas are a gift granted, or withheld, by foreign nation-states.

When two rights are in conflict the outcome is usually decided by force.[4] Sovereignty is a contact between citizens and states, but in relations between states and other states (and the citizens of other states) might is right. In Europe today, and at its borders, hundreds of thousands of migrants are demanding freedom of movement. Sovereign states are using their might to stamp down on this attempt to exercise free movement. They have deployed border guards. They have deployed warships. They have attempted to rewrite law to criminalise acts of humanitarian support for immigrants.

Anti-immigrant sentiment and Brexit

Those who are expressing an intention to vote to leave the EU are commonly characterised as right-wing, small-minded, nationalist bigots. There have even been suggestions that the toxic nature of the referendum debate created the conditions in which Thomas Mair, (a vociferous Brexit supporter), murdered the Labour MP Jo Cox. As former Labour Prime Minster, Gordon Brown, put it: ‘Unless we strive for a culture of respect to replace a culture which does too little to challenge prejudice, we will be learning nothing from what happened to Jo’.[5] A desire to control immigration is one of the most common reasons people cite to explain why they will vote to leave the EU.[6] Opinion polls show that the strongest support for Brexit comes from those without any formal education, manual workers and the retired (and those near retirement age).[7] We should be careful, however, about interpreting the desire to leave the EU as an index of right-wing bigotry. It is much more interesting and complex than that.

The issue of migration has become one of the most contentious issues in Europe today because many citizens feel that the social contract–– government of the people, for the people, by the people––has been broken. Few citizens in Europe today think that their government acts for the people. There is widespread political disaffection. Political parties, which are the institutions through which citizens are supposed to have a popular input, are remote from ordinary people.[8] One perceptive journalist has noted that ordinary voters are not enthused by the arguments or the public face of either the Remain or the Leave campaigns. Many of the ordinary people that he spoke to feel distant from the political elite. They complain that ‘No one listens to us’ and ‘If you haven’t got money, no one cares’.[9]

For many ordinary working people immigration policy is an index of their government’s distance from them and their everyday concerns. This disaffection is expressed in claims that the government allow immigrants to come and take ‘our’ jobs instead of guaranteeing ‘local jobs for local people’. It is expressed in the idea that the government is allowing public money to be spent on immigrants (‘Immigrants are taking our benefits’), when it is citizens who have funded this spending through their taxes’. It is expressed in the complaint against ‘political correctness gone mad’––the idea that government cares more about immigrant minorities, than it does about the majority of citizens. To many of those who are disaffected by political life it appears as if the government cares more about immigrants than they do about ordinary people. The reality is, they care about neither.

The desire for freedom and a better future

The demand for freedom of movement and support for leaving the EU are not as diametrically opposed as is generally assumed. Both are being articulated by the disadvantaged and the marginalised, by those who are losing out from capitalism in its current phase. Both express a desire for a better future. Both express a dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs. The Brexit campaign slogan ‘Take Back Control’ resonates with people who feel that society is out of control. Popular support for Brexit is driven by a desire on the part of ordinary working people for the freedom to determine their own future.

Underlying both the demand for free movement and the popular support for Brexit is a desire for freedom. As Marx once noted: ‘Freedom is so much the essence of man that even its opponents realize it in that they fight its reality…. No man fights freedom; he fights at most the freedom of others. Every kind of freedom has therefore always existed, only at one time as a special privilege, another time as a universal right’.[10]  At present these twin desires for freedom are in opposition to each other. Many ordinary working people in the UK believe that their freedom is threatened by the free movement of others.

For immigrants and against foreigners

Underlying the demand for government to favour citizens over immigrants is an acceptance of national sovereignty. Popular opposition to immigrants is based on an acceptance of the distinction between ‘us’ as citizens and ‘them’ as foreigners. Popular opposition to immigrants often takes the form of open hostility towards government, but it rests on a demand for government to fulfil its part of the social contract and act in the interest of ‘us’ as citizens. One of the problems with this anti-immigrant sentiment is that it accepts the idea that ‘we’ as citizens have common interests. The interests of elites and the mass of ordinary working people, however, are not the same. The French Revolutionaries recognised this fact.

During the French Revolution, the notion of foreigner took on a political dimension. The radical revolutionaries were cosmopolitan in their outlook. They welcomed supporters of the Revolution with open arms, regardless of their country of origin.  The French Republic ‘saw no difficulty in electing the Anglo-American Thomas Paine to its National Convention’.[11]  The revolutionaries viewed the French nobility as foreign. As the Abbé Sieyés said of the nobility ‘This class is assuredly foreign to the nation because of its do-nothing idleness’.[12] This revolutionary attitude is worth remembering today. We should not chain ourselves to the nation-state; we should view our political elites as they view us. They are foreign to us.

As long as political demands are framed in national terms they will favour the interests of elites, not the mass of ordinary people. ‘We’, the mass of ordinary working people, have an interest in better pay and working conditions. For ‘them’, elites, our interest in better pay and working conditions represent a threat to their profits. In 2015 the Spanish and UK Prime Ministers boasted that the austerity policies of their respective governments were working. ‘Now’, they said, ‘after tough decisions and sacrifice, things have begun to change. In the UK, a jobs-led recovery has created more than a 1,000 jobs a day’.[13]

The reality of this jobs growth in the UK, however, is that it has been in jobs with zero-hour contracts and in self-employment (and this has been mainly part-time employment). As one economist has noted, this rising self-employment ‘is less likely to represent a surge in entrepreneurial dynamism than a fall-back strategy for people who lost jobs during the crisis’.[14] In other words, the UK’s ‘national’ economic recovery has been at the expense of falling living standards for the majority of working people, (and, we might add, falling living standards of those who depend on state welfare). ‘We’, ordinary working people, are still paying the price for the financial crisis of 2008.

Don’t take it or leave it, reject it

The popular desire for Brexit will not deliver the future that most ordinary people desire. For ordinary working people sovereignty is a trap. For ordinary working people voting to remain is no option either. The system is not working for the vast majority of people in the UK, something needs to change. It is hardly surprising that the vote, whichever way it goes, will not favour ordinary people. This is an elite initiated discussion. As one commentator has put it, David Cameron initiated the referendum in the ‘ludicrous belief that a referendum might somehow definitively address the EU-related divisions within his own party and the public at large – as if a month or so of political knockabout under Queensberry rules could sort everything out, and the country could then go back to normal’. For the working-class getting back to normal is not an option.

Leaving the EU will not solve any problems for the working-class because the problem is not in Brussels, it is in the sovereign state. The EU did not take power from the UK, it was freely given away by political elites in an attempt to make themselves unaccountable. The EU is run by sovereign states. The EU appears to be an institution that has political power over member states. The EU has, as Chris Bickerton notes: ‘its own institutions, its own buildings, even its own legal order. It can punish national governments for over-spending and close national banks’.

In reality, however, it is run by sovereign nation-states. EU decisions, Bickerton notes, are made between the elected Prime Ministers of national government ‘in meetings closed to the general public. We also find our own civil servants and fonctionnaires filling the Thalys trains, the TGVs and the Eurostar, travelling from their own capitals to Brussels to take part in working-group meetings that craft and shape EU legislation. Some power is delegated to EU institutions, but it is closely policed by member states’.[15] The issue of the UK and the EU has only been put to voters because the elite are divided over whether to Remain or Leave, we should not help to legitimise their sham democracy by taking part.

Whatever way the vote goes on the 23rd of June there will be a lot of political disappointment. A Brexit will not put power in the hands of ordinary working people. Remain will keep us in the same mess we already inhabit. The issue of immigration, however, will not go away. Instead of dismissing the mass of ordinary working people as stupid, gullible racists we should recognise that they have a lot in common with immigrants. Whatever way the vote goes, we, immigrants and ordinary working people, should work hard to promote the idea that political elites are the real foreigners. Front and centre of that discussion should be the question of what kind of world do we want to live in and how do we combine to achieve our common interest in freedom.


About the Author

Chris Gilligan was a founding member of Open Borders Scotland, which campaigns for a human-centred approach to migration. He is a member of the Advisory Board of GRAMNet (the Glasgow Refugee and Migration Network) and a former member of Scottish Detainee Visitors and of the Refugee Action Group (Belfast). He is chairing a discussion on Open Borders in Glasgow on the 23rd of June (the day of the EU referendum). You can find out more details (and book your place) by following this link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/are-open-borders-the-way-to-deal-with-the-migration-crisis-tickets-25786919370


[1] For a useful discussion of debates on popular sovereignty today read: Bickerton et al, (2007) Politics Without Sovereignty, London: UCL Press

[2] Torpey, J (2000), The Invention of the Passport, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 21-56

[3] All citizens have a right to a passport. Non-citizens don’t have an automatic right. The state can refuse to grant a passport to a citizen, but they must specify the conditions for doing so. The most common reasons for a passport being refused are technical (e.g. failure to fill in the form correctly, but this does not prohibit the applicant from re-applying) or risk of evading the law through leaving the jurisdiction (e.g. people awaiting trial for a criminal offence). A passport can also be refused on security grounds. See e.g.: Denial of a US passport application; The issuing, withdrawal or refusal of passports.

[4] In Capital, Marx draws attention to the conflict of rights involved in the struggle over the length of the working day. The capitalist, as the purchaser of labour-power has the right to dispose of his commodity (labour-power) as he sees fit. The worker, as the seller of labour-power, has the right to dictate the terms under which his commodity (labour-power) is sold. The struggle between workers, to limit the length of the working day, and their employers, to lengthen it, is an enduring feature of capitalist society that is inherent to capitalism as a social system. As Marx puts it: ‘leaving aside certain extremely elastic restrictions, the nature of commodity exchange itself imposes no limit to the working day, no limit to surplus labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working day as long as possible, and, where possible, to make two working days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the worker maintains his right as a seller when he wishes to reduce the working day to a particular normal length. There is here therefore an antinomy, of right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides. Hence, in the history of capitalist production, the establishment of a norm for the working day presents itself as a struggle over the limits of that day, a struggle between collective capital, i.e. the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e. the working class’. Marx, K. (2004). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, p. 344. Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

[5] Cited in: Booth, R. et al (2016) ‘Jo Cox murder suspect tells court his name is “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jun/18/thomas-mair-charged-with-of-mp-jo-cox

[6] Harris, J. (2016), ‘Britain is in the midst of a working-class revolt’, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/17/britain-working-class-revolt-eu-referendum

[7] Stellings, L. (2016) ‘The Brexit Index: a who’s who of Remain and Leave supporters’, Populus


[8] Mair, P. (2013) Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy, London: Verso

[9] Harris, J. (2016), ‘Britain is in the midst of a working-class revolt’, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/17/britain-working-class-revolt-eu-referendum

[10] Cited on p. 53 of Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom (Humanity Books, 2000).

[11] Hobsbawm, E J, (1990), Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,  p. 20

[12] Cited in: Torpey, J (2000), The Invention of the Passport, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 28

[13] In an article, Jobs and growth in Europe, by David Cameron and Mariano Rajoy (the Spanish Prime Minister and leader of the conservative Partido Popular) celebrating the effects of their respective countries austerity measures. Online at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/jobs-and-growth-in-europe-article-by-david-cameron-and-mariano-rajoy

[14] Aengus Collins, UK analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, cited in: Tovey, A. (2014) ‘UK jobs growth rises at fastest rate in 43 years’, The Daily Telegraph, (14th May 2014), online at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jobs/10829623/UK-jobs-growth-rises-at-fastest-rate-in-43-years.html

[15] Bickerton, C. (2016) ‘The EU is a mirage’, Spiked-online, https://www.spiked-online.com/2016/06/05/the-eu-is-a-mirage/

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