Democracy, Sovereignty, Brexit and Gibraltar

06/07/2016 Dr Jamie Trinidad KC

‘It’s not about the economy or immigration; it’s about democracy and sovereignty, stupid!’ I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard this argument during the course of the Brexit campaign and its messy aftermath. With Britain’s once proud tradition of civilised, rational public debate – the heart of its democracy – in tatters, we are urged to rejoice because we have finally taken back control from the sinister, unaccountable Brussels elite. British democracy and sovereignty have been restored.

Well, not quite. It really depends on what you mean by democracy and sovereignty. Some of the cleverest people in history have grappled with these concepts, and most agree that they are contingent and contested.

Discussions of democracy reveal that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to giving effect to the will of the people. What’s good for Switzerland may not be good for Brazil.

As for sovereignty, political communities wishing to pursue their destiny without external interference usually have a range of models to choose from. The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea – with its nuclear weapons and paranoid isolationism – does a pretty effective job of securing its sovereignty; not such a great job of giving effect to the will of its downtrodden people.

Before I am accused of comparing post-Brexit UK to North Korea, I am merely pointing out that we should not accept labels like ‘democratic’ and ‘sovereign’ at face value. When a political program is sold to us as something that will enhance our democracy or our sovereignty, we need to listen to the sales pitch with a critical ear.

In the case of Brexit, there are good reasons to treat some of the salespeople with suspicion. After all, if they care so much about the will of the people, why aren’t they up in arms about the unelected House of Lords? Or about the fact that the next British Prime Minister – the head of Her Majesty’s Government no less – will not be elected by the people, but will instead be chosen from a shortlist of two, by a mere 150,000 Conservative Party members? And beyond such obvious procedural matters, why doesn’t the ‘take back control’ brigade bang on about the fact that virtually the entire governing class in the UK is drawn from the ranks of a tiny, privileged socio-economic elite? Isn’t the quality of British democracy undermined by the fact that social inequality is so entrenched, that austerity measures are crippling communities, or that England has the lowest levels of literacy in the developed world (according to a 2016 report by the OECD)?

We rarely hear impassioned arguments on these topics from the politicians who are now poised at the crest of the Brexit wave, hoping it will sweep them to power. Instead, they keep telling us that the EU is the single biggest threat to British democracy. They would have us believe that what we have witnessed in recent days is a spectacular democratic coup. To me, it looks much more like a power-grab by a sub-section of the British elite, orchestrated by an alliance of nationalistic ideologues and craven populists.

In Gibraltar we know what it’s like to struggle for democracy and sovereignty. For centuries Britain ruled over Gibraltar and the rest of the Empire with barely a shred of democratic accountability, all the while proclaiming itself a beacon of enlightened governance. Gibraltar has made positive strides towards self-government in recent decades, but extracting democratic concessions from the UK has never been easy. When we demanded a right to vote in European Parliamentary elections (on the perfectly reasonable basis that, as an EU territory, we were required to implement and abide by laws enacted by the European Parliament) the UK fought us tooth and nail, until we prevailed in the European Court of Human Rights.

Gibraltarians are also accustomed to hearing others speak of our sovereignty as if it were a tradable commodity. Spain wishes to acquire it, and Britain has on occasion (as recently as 2002) shown a willingness to cut a deal over it. We regard our sovereignty as precious and non-negotiable. The idea that Gibraltarians might entertain the Spanish government’s proposal of co-sovereignty in return for continued access to the Single Market has no basis in reality. But that doesn’t mean we regard sovereignty as absolute.

Even the most powerful states in the world understand that their sovereignty is, in practice, qualified. They know they cannot achieve their aims without international cooperation, so they enter into international agreements and build international institutions. Their participation in such agreements and institutions entails a ‘pooling’ of bits of their sovereignty with other states, in order to achieve security, prosperity, the protection of our shared environment, and other aspects of the good life that cannot be attained in isolation. To paraphrase John Major: if you like the idea of undiluted sovereignty, try North Korea.

96% of Gibraltarian voters consider that the benefits of EU membership outweigh the costs. Unlike vast swathes of the UK, where the disenfranchised victims of globalisation outnumber its beneficiaries, Gibraltarians view free movement within the Single Market as a blessing, not a curse. We are often critical, and sometimes infuriated, by EU politics, but we don’t blame the EU for every ill that befalls our society.

Many Gibraltarians take an interest in the EU and are sufficiently informed about its inner workings to know about its democratic aspects (such as the fact that EU legislation is not enacted by faceless bureaucrats, but by member states and the elected European Parliament), and its undemocratic aspects (such as the fact that the unelected Commission wields too much influence). Gibraltar’s well-informed electorate did not fall for the lies about the EU that were propagated by the Leave campaign and the likes of the Daily Mail.

Gibraltarians are proud to be part of a project that – as a previous incarnation of Boris Johnson once argued – has been a ‘spectacular success’ in preserving peace in what was traditionally one of the most violent parts of the world. We want the EU to succeed, we want to share in its success and we want to contribute to its improvement.

Gibraltar may not be a state like the UK, but it is a distinct political community with its own needs and preferences. The Gibraltarians have made it clear we wish to maintain a close relationship with the EU. Those in the UK who have staked their claims in this Brexit debate on values like democracy and sovereignty should take account of what we want and help us to achieve it.

Dr Jamie Trinidad is Fellow and Tutor, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge and a Fellow at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law. He is also a Barrister at Isolas and 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square.

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