The Eurosceptics, it has been said by many, have no clear narrative in this referendum. That’s a little harsh – sure, they have nothing even approximating a consensus on what life outside of the EU looks like for Great Britain (which is fairly important), and sure, they are scrambling all over the place coming up with ever more lame reasons for why we need Brexit. But there is one portion of their narrative that is semi-coherent: we need to leave the EU to reclaim national sovereignty.
It is one of their stronger arguments, actually, because at least they have half a point, and it is one that resonates. The reason it is only half a point, however, is that while a UK inside of the EU has indeed given up some of its sovereignty (if you enter into a single market, this happens by definition), it is unclear how the UK would get this back in any real sense post-Brexit.
If the UK were to leave the EU, but stay in the EEA (the model that is the most likely and realistic, and is favoured by Eurosceptics like Dan Hannan), then the UK would arguably be even less sovereign than it is now. We would have to accept the single market rules without having a say in any of them. Freedom of movement would stay precisely the same, so the immigration argument goes out the window as well.
Fine, so what about if we went really radical and left the EEA altogether? Putting aside the fact that I really doubt the Tories in government would actually do this, thereby rejecting the soft landing of the “Norway option”, this wouldn’t result in greater sovereignty being regained by the UK anyhow. For a start, we would be at the mercy of not only the EU, but all of these vaunted economies that we currently have to negotiate with as an EU member as opposed to as a stand alone nation. But how many of these would be in such a hurry to do a complicated deal with only one country? China won’t be in a big rush, unless it is a deal that is slanted decidedly in their interests, to take one of the most obvious examples. America? Dream on. The US hates doing free trade deals with anyone, and tends to fudge them whenever and wherever possible (look into the details of NAFTA if you doubt me on this). So I can’t see them bending over backward post-Brexit to do a special version of TTIP just for us lot.
It’s a bit like why libertarianism ultimately doesn’t work. Having the freedom to do pretty much anything you want isn’t much of a help when you live in an environment in which you have to spend all of your time desperately trying to fulfil your basic needs while trying to protect yourself and your family from a suddenly perilous environment. So if you want us to be able to stand on a metaphorical hill as a nation and shout “Sovereignty regained!” because we have the ability to pick and choose some of the EU regulation we have to take on board, while actually casting us into a terrifying world all by our lonesome where we will be dictated to by the larger markets with whom we are attempting to regain access, fine. It’s a referendum, so that’s your call. But don’t be surprised when sovereignty feels a lot less sovereign than you were expecting.