After previous vetoed applications in 1961 and 1967 to what was then known as the European Economic Community (ECC), Britain was finally allowed to join the European Union (EU) in 1973 after becoming a signatory to the Treaty of Rome, under Labour Prime Minister Edward Heath. Since this however, some critics have argued that membership to the EU has led to a significant loss of parliamentary sovereignty. The term sovereignty refers to the right of a state to pass laws within its own territory or as Hinsley (1966) described, “The idea that there is a final and absolute authority in the political community”. In this case, it could be the belief of some people that too much power has been transferred from our government to the EU – an organisation made up of mainly appointed representatives as oppose to being elected.
It is the case that EU law overrides national law when the two conflict. This alone could show a ceding of sovereignty and as a supranational organisation the EU is more focused on working towards greater integration than national interest. Despite this surrendering of power to a higher authority, the EU only becomes the supreme decision making body in specified areas, although areas of national law could be affected without intention. For example, EU environmental decisions may indirectly impact agricultural law in some countries. Pro-Europeans who don’t believe that membership to the EU results in Britain losing sovereignty however may argue that members of the EU are free to withdraw at any time.
People who oppose EU membership may show concern over more and more countries joining as it could become increasingly difficult to protect against national interests. Margaret Thatcher, who was labelled as a “reluctant European” due to her Government’s concern over EU integration, said in a speech in the late 1980s to the College of Europe in Bruges, that Britain had surrendered too much sovereignty, even though there were less than half as many member states as there is nowadays. There may be more who share Margaret Thatcher’s view now there are 27 member states altogether, with the possibility of more being added soon. The more states that join however may result in it becoming more difficult to become an integrationist society as the entire process would be slowed down. In other words, it is simpler for a handful of states to integrate as oppose to 27 states.
Whether in favour of or against membership to the EU, it is common for people to argue that the concept of parliamentary sovereignty is a myth, and that the decision making process is firmly in the hands of the Government instead of parliament. Critics talk about elective dictatorship which they use to describe a Government with a large enough majority to pass through its legislation even though they may have originally received less than half the popular vote at a general election. An example of this could be Blair’s Labour Government victory in 1997 where they received a 44% share of the vote, but gave them a working majority. Major’s Government was also an example of this and critics may argue that both leaders his behind the term parliamentary sovereignty, when actually it was the party leader who was sovereign providing they had the backing of their party. In fact, the Maastricht Treaty, which provided vast changes within the EU, was only passed through parliament in 1993 because Major tried it to a vote of confidence which in effect meant his MPs were forced to support him or it would be the end of that particular Government.
It is many people’s belief that 21st century globalisation has in effect rendered the concept of sovereignty meaningless. For example, large international organisations such as General Motors could be seen as above national law as they can decide where in the world they want to locate, and parliament will want them in our country providing jobs etc. The organisation may therefore be able to negotiate the terms in which they base themselves in the UK which undermines sovereignty. Also, with people being able to freely move from country to country and even access the globe via the internet, it has become increasing difficult to control what goes on it the country. The growth of terrorism, which is present around the world, provides an enormous threat to a lot of nations and their sovereignty, whilst a rise in human rights has also restricted authority and put more power in the hands of the people. If it’s true what some people believe, and that parliamentary sovereignty is a myth or just an outdated concept, then membership to the EU cannot sacrifice it.
Jones A. (2007) Britain and the European Union, Politics Study Guides