An aeroplane is a beautiful thing, I’ve always thought. The idea so simple, so bold. The design pared down to necessity. Fuselage, wings, tailplane, fin. Even the tailplane can be dispensed with; so, almost, can the fuselage. Then the aircraft is a flying triangle with a cabin thumb-pressed into its leading edge. You can’t do without the wing. If it doesn’t have wings, it isn’t an aeroplane.
Michel Barnier has been talking about Airbus.
At Broughton, Flintshire, the Airbus factory employs around 5,000 workers. They make the wings for Airbus aircraft including the A380, the largest passenger aircraft. Other factories in Spain, France and Germany are involved in making components, processing or assembly. In the course of manufacture the wings for the A380 cross national frontiers several times before ending up in Toulouse, where they are installed in the airframe. It’s a perfect example of what the single market makes possible.
Once the UK leaves the EU, said M. Barnier, businesses like Airbus which rely on integration with continental Europe will face new constraints as they move parts and staff between centres of production. He added a warning about red tape over VAT and “very cumbersome” customs procedures. “Only a combination of the customs union and the rules of the single market make it possible to trade freely without friction between our countries,” he said.
He was speaking to a committee in Brussels, but he was addressing the British Government. He said he feared that the truth had still not sunk in in London. He had reason to think so. Theresa May, although all around her were in disarray and her Chancellor was in open revolt, was continuing to proclaim that the UK would leave the single market, the customs union and the jurisdiction of the ECJ, while talking about trade “as frictionless as possible” and an Irish border visible only to the wee folk.
“As Brexit approaches,” says a paper by Thomas Sampson, Assistant Professor of Economics at the LSE (‘The referendum one year on: trade and the single market,’ published by the website The UK in a Changing Europe), “the UK is facing more challenges than opportunities. From an economic perspective, the question is not whether Brexit will harm living standards, but how large the cost will be. Following the general election, the Government needs to ask how much voters are willing to pay to assert their sense of national identity.”
Some hope. The Government’s survival depends on not asking that question.
The Government is asleep and dreaming. In the dream, it is trying to perform one of those impossible tasks set for human beings by malicious spirits, like emptying a lake with a thimble. It needs to reconcile two irreconcilable things. It cannot do it, but it cannot wake up, either. If it woke up, it would have to relinquish the idea that is the very foundation of Brexit. Sovereignty.
It’s a fine word. Weighty, dignified, with the patina of ages on it and a thrilling flash of gold. Try to grasp it, and it’s as slippery as an eel. What does it mean?
“The authority of a state to govern itself,” says my Concise Oxford Dictionary (2006). The UK in a Changing Europe borrows this definition, but adds, “… and determine its own laws and policies.” This last phrase is superfluous, because if a state has authority to govern itself it has authority to determine its own laws and policies. That phrase has been added in the light of our relations with the EU.
My old Shorter Oxford (reprinted in 1970 from the edition of 1944) is surprising. It says “Supremacy in respect of power, domination or rank; supreme dominion, authority or rule.” It is a more pragmatic definition; it has a certain bleakness. It contains no reference to the right to rule. I thought about 1944: a year of blood and iron, and not much political squeamishness. Power is basically what sovereignty is about: the word comes through Middle English and Old French from Latin super, meaning “above.” Its use will have changed as the world changed, from the Middle Ages onward.
“Authority… to determine… laws and policies” is centrally what’s at stake in the Brexit argument. Leave voters say with passion that Britain must “take back control”: that control of our laws and our borders and our fishing rights and just about anything you care to name was lost when we became part of the EU. They are partly right, although they are also deluded. They are right that something was lost. They are deluded in that they think it could have been held on to. They think there is such a thing as untrammelled sovereignty. So does a two-year-old, but in most cases the belief does not survive because, if it did, the individual who held it would not.
The same is true of the state. Any state is bound by treaties: trade agreements, alliances, pacts of defence or aggression, agreements about the shared use of rivers and airspace and the correct behaviour of ships at sea. Each one of these limits its sovereignty. Nobody makes a fuss about this. It is understood: treaties are made because they benefit both parties. Except in the case of the EU, where, for some reason deep in the British psyche, it is not understood at all.
The Brexit press howls about “Brussels telling us what to do!” as if Belgians were landing on the beaches and goose-stepping to the town hall. What they are complaining about, usually, is the mass of regulations, governing trade and commerce but also workers’ rights, women’s rights, the treatment of animals and much more, that issue from the EU treaties. Yes, there is a lot of it. There has to be: it is an attempt to create uniformity of standards, including safety standards, across 28 member countries so that trade, travel, study and other civilised activities can be carried out with equal facility, and equal protection under the law, in all of them. That is a staggering, and noble, ambition.
You wouldn’t think so.
In the areas it covers, EU law takes precedence over national law. This causes Brexiters to foam at the mouth, but what other arrangement do they think is possible? If every national court could defy the ruling of the EU court when it pleased, the Union would fall apart in five minutes. In any case, virtually the entirety of domestic law is unaffected by EU law: it applies to matters that arise out of the various EU competences, and Britain, along with every other member state, has had a voice in creating the legislation and has a judge in the court.
Any other club or association we joined would infringe on our sovereign rights in the same way. NATO does (we have obligations). The UN does (we don’t always honour our obligations, but we don’t object to the principle of their existence). It is mysterious why the EU excites this mixture of hysteria and venom. It is bizarre that, while accepting that there are benefits to membership of NATO and the UN which make membership worthwhile, we as a country cannot make the same calculation about the EU.
Nor, apparently, can we summon the grace to remember that we were not press-ganged into this club, but joined it voluntarily. Indeed, at the time, in some desperation.
Lastly, there is a point so obvious that it seems to have escaped almost everyone. The proof that we did not lose our sovereignty to the EU is that we are free to leave it.
The Government will not talk about any of this: it is afraid of analysis and hides from reality. Theresa May has thrown in her lot with the dreamers. Whether she is herself a dreamer, who knows? But in Hamburg she has been parroting the same old stuff about frictionless this and seamless that while proclaiming that Britain will abandon every institution that guarantees that seamlessness, including the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
She says this is what “the people” voted for. They didn’t. They were told Britain would not have to leave the single market. As for the ECJ, I would bet that half of the Leave voters had never heard of it, and of those who had, most thought it was the same as the European Court of Human Rights. What they voted for was sovereignty.
They had only the most confused idea what it meant. It was a word of mystical significance. No-one had explained to them that the splendour of that word could not find a home in the messy compromises of a modern state, let alone coexist with the sort of trading privileges which they took for granted and which underpinned the economy they depended on. No-one explained that we had not lost our sovereignty, we had merely done a trade-off. No-one ever said, “This is what can be achieved if we leave, and this is what it will cost.” Lies were told instead. It will be easy. We will be richer. There is a magical cake that can be both kept and eaten.
Tregeagle, in Cornish folklore, was sentenced to weave a rope of sand until the Day of Judgement. Doggedly, Theresa May weaves her rope. She cannot stop. If she stops, it will be clear that there is no rope, there is only sand.