The EU doesn’t dictate rules to member states. And calling it a “prison”, as the foreign secretary did this week, couldn’t be more wrong. To understand why, you have to first get your head around the concept of parliamentary sovereignty.
Parliament is the supreme power in the state. It has the right to “make or unmake any law whatsoever; and further, no person or body is recognised by the law as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament”. That includes the government of the day.
At a glance, it may seem like the EU is the exception to this. But that’s not the case – the relationship is just a little more complicated.
Parliament gave primacy to EU law when it passed the European Communities Act (ECA) in 1972. Parliament can repeal the ECA at any time. But until then it is understood that Parliament desires EU law to have effect in the UK.
The ECA acts like a “conduit pipe” bringing EU law into the UK. Each member state, including the UK, has decided a well-functioning EU is in its self-interest, and has therefore agreed to give the EU “competence” in certain areas. If EU law was secondary to national laws then that would prevent consistency and uniformity across the bloc, stopping the EU from working smoothly as businesses and citizens would have to deal with different laws in different countries.
A single set of rules that everyone has agreed to – for example on food standards, maternity rights, or working conditions – creates a level playing field for businesses to compete fairly across the bloc, while protecting businesses and people from low quality or faulty products, or unscrupulous services. The UK has been on the “winning side” 95% of the time when EU members states have made decisions over the last 20 years.
Parliament never lost its power. If our elected representatives ever decided this setup was no longer good for the UK, all they would have to do is leave the EU with an Article 50 notification. The fact we did this in March 2017 is proof the EU is no “prison”.
Of course, after 45 years of integration, there are weighty issues to untangle. It’s only natural that there would be legal consequences. Jeremy Hunt’s suggestion that this is a deliberate attempt to trap the UK only serves his political ambitions to appeal to the hard-Brexit Tory grassroots.
But these ideas are undeniably complex unless you spend time studying them. That’s what allowed the pro-Brexit press to warp the public debate, painting it as a black-and-white matter of the EU telling the UK what to do. And then after the Brexit vote calling judges “enemies of the people” for reminding the government that Parliament was sovereign. And raging at the House of Lords for daring to send legislation back to MPs with amendments – the proper functioning of Parliament.
But Parliament’s role in this mess of a Brexit isn’t over. This autumn MPs will be given a meaningful vote on whatever Theresa May comes back with from Brussels. If they don’t like it, they can reject it. They can also conclude that this decision is too big for 650 politicians alone, and Parliament can give the Brexit decision back to voters as a People’s Vote. That is parliamentary sovereignty at work.