UK Membership in the European Union: Undermining Parliamentary Sovereignty?

By Miles G. Kellerman
2011, Vol. 3 No. 09 | pg. 2/2 |

The Illusion of National Sovereignty

For years, Eurosceptics and members of the UK Independence Party have decried European Union membership as the ultimate attack on Parliamentary sovereignty. These claims, however, ignore that Britain has sacrificed an enormous amount of sovereignty independent of EU membership. While the legal sovereignty of Parliament remains intact, there are important policy areas in which the realities of interdependence and globalization since World War II have made Great Britain quite subject to external forces.

In defence, Britain has sacrificed an enormous amount of power in its membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).24 Member states of NATO sacrifice (some would say ‘pool’) sovereignty and grant decision-making power to a supranational authority. This membership, although theoretically retractable by Parliament, in reality ties Britain to the military conflicts of other nations – especially the United States.

Economically, true national sovereignty is non-existent in modern politics. Britain has found it beneficial to accept membership to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).25 Both organizations, like the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), impose a number of regulations and requirements upon British Parliament. Additionally, in 1976 the Labour Government found itself in a terrible economic situation, eventually accepting a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that came with conditions which restricted the monetary freedom of Parliament.26 One must look no further than the recent 2008 financial crisis to observe how interconnected the global economy has become – the actions of American bankers in New York City helped plunge world stock prices, and thus the British economy, into recession.27

These examples, although far from exhaustive, exemplify that European Union membership is just one of the many external forces which challenge Parliament’s sovereignty. But this is no fault of Britain. Since World War II and the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (the originating organization of the EU), the very conception of the nation-state has dramatically changed. Greater international cooperation has developed and encouraged the creation of supranational organizations that tie the economic and political interests of nations together. Simultaneously, strong movements towards regionalism have developed; the Scottish National Party, for example, whose manifesto calls for complete separation from Great Britain, now holds a majority in Scottish Parliament.28 Thus the relevance of the nation-state is being pulled at both ends, and the very conception of sovereignty challenged as a result.

Parliamentary Sovereignty Remains Intact

To suggest that the European Union undermines Parliamentary sovereignty ignores the foundations of British constitutional law and the realities of the geopolitical world. Legislative sovereignty in Parliament, due to the lack of a codified constitution, can never truly be challenged. No Parliament can restrict the sovereignty of future Parliaments, thus making any delegation of power to the European Union voluntary and ultimately retractable. And while in some cases reversing certain types of legislation would come at enormous political and economic cost, the legal right of Parliament to do so remains intact regardless.

These delegated powers to the European Union, although a voluntary reduction in Parliamentary power, are also monitored by a number of scrutiny institutions both within the House of Commons and House of Lords. Such safeguards provide a check on EU power, and strengthen Parliament’s ability to supervise its delegated legislation.

Beyond the legal sovereignty of Parliament, it remains integral to remember that national ‘sovereignty’, in its most traditional conception, ceases to exist. To suggest that UK membership of the European Union undermined Parliament’s sovereign power ignores that absolute authority is non-existent due to the geopolitical realities of the modern world. Parliament is consistent in its theoretical legal supremacy, yet in reality the ever-changing definition of the nation-state limits Parliament’s sovereign control in many important policy areas.

Altogether, the circumstances of constitutional law in Britain, coupled with the changing definition of state sovereignty, confirm that European Union membership does not eliminate Westminster’s authority. Whether membership of the European Union is beneficial to Great Britain is, of course, another matter entirely. But an analysis of the literal relationship between the two reveals that despite Britain’s delegation of power to the European Union, membership cannot be said to undermine the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty.


1.) Paxman, Jeremy. "Funny Foreigners." English: a Portrait of People. [S.l.]: Penguin, 2002. 26. Print.

2.) Mcdermott, Nick. "UKIP Gains First Seat in Parliament as Former Tory MP Joins Eurosceptic Group | Mail Online." The Daily Mail. 26 Apr. 2008. Web. 30 June 2011.

3.) Watts, Duncan, and Colin Pilkington. "Sovereignty and Constitutional Change." Britain in the European Union Today. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2005. 106. Print.

4.) Jowell, Jeffrey L., and Dawn Oliver. "The Judicial Response Prior to Factortame." The Changing Constitution. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. 92-100. Print. 

5.) Ibid, 92.

6.) Cygan, Adam. "Scrutiny of EU Legislation in the UK Parlaiment." National Parliaments within the Enlarged European WUnion. Ed. John O'Brennan and Tapio Raunio. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007. 164. Print.

7.) Watts, Duncan, and Colin Pilkington. 107.

8.) Craig, Paul. "Britain in the European Union." The Changing Constitution. Ed. Jeffrey L. Jowell and Dawn Oliver. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. 92. Print.

9.) Ibid. 96.

[10] Watts, Duncan, and Colin Pilkington. 107-108.

11.) Craig, Paul. 92-99.

12.) Ibid.

13.) Watts, Duncan, and Colin Pilkington. 114-116.

14.) Craig, Paul. 95.

15.) Ibid.

16.) Ibid. 94.

17.) Ibid. 94.

18.) United Kingdom. House of Commons Library. EMU: The Constitutional Implications. By Richard Ware., 27 July 1998. Web. 27 June 2011.

19.) Cygan, Adam. 165.

20.) Ibid.

21.) Ibid. 165-166.

22.) Ibid. 172-175.

23.) Ibid. 175.

24.) Watts, Duncan, and Colin Pilkington. 110-111.

25.) Ibid. 111.

26.) Ibid.

27.) The New York Times. "Credit Crisis." The New York Times Online. 10 Jan. 2011. Web. 23 June 2011.

28.) Taylor, Brian. "BBC News - Scottish Election: SNP Majority for Second Term." BBC – Homepage. 7 May 2011. Web. 24 June 2011.

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