The Problem of Britain Taking Back Control

Is it possible for a midsize power living alongside a hegemon to reassert sovereignty without suffering a loss of prosperity?

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a speech at the front of an ornate room.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a speech a few days after Brexit in London on February 3, 2020. (Pool / Reuters)

Occasionally, taking politicians at their word is more revealing than looking for the hidden meaning. When Donald Trump says he loves tariffs, maybe he does. When Emmanuel Macron says NATO is brain-dead and needs fundamental reform to survive, he might mean it. And when Boris Johnson says Brexit is about taking back control, perhaps he believes this too.

That was certainly the message the prime minister conveyed yesterday in the most consequential speech of his post-election premiership to date, setting out his vision for the future relationship between the U.K. and the European Union. The point was simple and clear: Britain will not bind itself to EU rules as the price of a trade deal. Instead, Johnson said, the country would regain “full legal autonomy.” It would, to use his oft-repeated phrase, “take back control.”

No one should be surprised. As one of the leaders of the campaign to take Britain out of the EU, Johnson claimed that the foundation of British prosperity was democracy—the ability to adapt—not the ease of business within an immense open market. After the referendum, he resigned from Theresa May’s government when the former prime minister unveiled her proposed Brexit deal, which would have seen Britain continue to accept EU rules even after its exit. Johnson decried this as economic vassalage and quit in protest.

Since becoming prime minister, Johnson has stuck to this script. Before the general election, Johnson chose the Brexit model that prioritized sovereignty and maximum freedom from the EU, even at the cost of erecting an internal U.K. border with Northern Ireland (and ignoring economic forecasts that a more distant relationship with the EU would be worse for the British economy). Now, empowered by his landslide general-election victory, he is once again putting sovereignty first.

Whether or not Johnson means what he says—or indeed will stick to his position—he has certainly settled on the core argument for Brexit. The very point of leaving the EU is to repatriate power over areas of national life currently held in Brussels. Even those who oppose Britain’s withdrawal acknowledge that Brexit without any repatriated control is illogical. The question is of degree—Johnson’s is close to the maximalist view, proposing the return of full sovereign control over every aspect of the U.K.-EU relationship, including food and fishing, immigration and trade. “If we truly commit to the logic of our mission,” he declared yesterday, “I believe we can make a huge success of this venture.” Britain, in Johnson’s view, just has to have confidence, and the rest will work itself out.

But herein lies the fundamental challenge of Brexit: Is it possible for a midsize power such as Britain, living alongside a hegemon, to reassert national control without suffering such a loss of prosperity that the project becomes fatally undermined? Although this question is specifically British, it is only the most extreme example of the concern facing all countries in today’s global economy, where decisions taken in the boardrooms of east Asia can put thousands of people out of a job in Ohio as much as in northern England. Ultimately, what does sovereignty—or control—even mean in the 21st century, and is it possible to take it back?

The proposition that it is will be tested in the political petri dish called Brexit during the coming 11 months, as London and Brussels attempt to thrash out the terms of a future relationship before their self-imposed deadline of December 31, 2020, when, if no agreement has been reached, trade barriers will be erected.

The crux of the negotiation between Britain and the EU is “governance,” or put simply, what happens if a dispute arises in the future. The EU wants to ensure it cannot be undercut by the U.K. if it allows British businesses unlimited tariff-free access to its market, which both sides have agreed is the aim.

To ensure this doesn’t happen, the EU is asking for binding “level playing field” provisions written into any free-trade deal to ensure Britain maintains certain standards, on the environment, for example, or state aid or social conditions. So far, so reasonable. But this is where things get tricky. What does the EU mean by a level playing field? And who, or what, should arbitrate if one side or the other believes there has been a tipping?

In typical free-trade agreements, such as the one between the EU and Canada, some disputes are resolved by a joint arbitration panel, though in reality all disagreements are usually resolved politically, not legally. In the case of the U.K., the EU’s calculation has shifted. In this instance, Britain is considered too big, too close, and too much of a potential competitor to allow unlimited tariff-free access based only on trust and political remedies. The EU wants legally binding assurances and is trying to use its economic weight to get them.

Strip away the outer layers of logic and one arrives at the truth. The U.K. wants control, but so does the EU. Brussels argues that on questions of EU law, only its supreme court—the European Court of Justice—can issue binding judgements. But this means that if the U.K. agrees to level-playing-field obligations based on EU law, its ability to change its own rules to compete might, ultimately, be subject to the rulings of what is now a foreign court. “This is part of what the EU does,” Raphael Hogarth from the Institute for Government, a nonpartisan think tank in London, told me. “It projects itself as a regulatory superpower beyond its borders.”

In his speech, Johnson said he could not accept this. “There is no need for a free-trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment, or anything similar any more than the EU should be obliged to accept U.K. rules," he said. Instead London would return to “full legal autonomy” outside the EU, a principle that would also apply to any future agreement on security, home affairs, and even fishing rights.

If the EU did not accept these terms, Johnson said, the U.K. would simply transition to World Trade Organization terms governing the flow of goods and services. In other words, Britain would be treated like any other country, paying tariffs on its exports to the EU and vice versa. To weary EU ears, we’ve been here before: Britain has threatened before that no deal is better than a bad deal, only to sign up to the EU’s terms at the last minute. The calculation in Brussels has not changed: It believes it is the dominant power, and therefore the U.K. will sue for peace on its terms.

In London, the argument runs that the reality has changed: Britain finally has a government with a Brexit believer in charge and a majority to see his threats through. The following 11 months are a test case in what happens when desire for national sovereignty bumps up against raw economic power.