In the Brexit negotiations there have been various pledges and demands that the final agreement will "not compromise [UK] sovereignty". E.g:

What does it mean to "compromise sovereignty"? Surely in any agreement both the EU and the UK will promise to do some things and not do others. Isn't any such agreement a compromise over things that a sovereign state can do?

Edit: In response to answers so far. This is not a question about European policy or what the government or EU are thinking. Its about the narrow question of what this phrase actually means, if anything.

There seems to be a split here between what I will call "practical sovereignty" and "legal sovereignty". Practical sovereignty seems to be defined as the ability to get things done and make decisions in the best interests of the people of the UK, while legal sovereignty seems to be defined as the freedom to make laws without being restricted by other countries, regardless of the practical impact. The conflict between the two stems from the hegemonic effect of having the EU next door.

  • Interesting (but probably biased) link - ukandeu.ac.uk/sovereignty-and-brexit-control-of-what-exactly
    – ewanc
    Dec 8, 2020 at 11:19
  • 6
    Exploring the definition of specific terms and what it means to different people has been the crux of almost every Brexit discussion. What did the vote to leave mean? Does "leave" imply favoring a hard brexit over staying? What did they mean with independent? Does no compromise mean literally not a single compromise, or that we don't compromise on specific issues? I'm not negating the question but rather trying to point out that these kinds of questions tend to end in "well I think it's X" or "they said X but in reality it is Y" or ...
    – Flater
    Dec 8, 2020 at 16:11
  • 6
    Objectively, it's political claptrap.
    – Strawberry
    Dec 10, 2020 at 12:39
  • Absolutely nothing. Dec 10, 2020 at 19:26

7 Answers 7


I once heard Harold Wilson argue that if you organised the World Cup, in doing so you "lost a little bit of sovereignty" (this was in late 1966). He was not opposed to doing so but just pointing out that - yes membership of the EU would involve loss of sovereignty, but so did our organising the World Cup, which in any case England won".

For all countries of the world to retain 100% of their sovereignty, one might argue that there would have to be a prohibition on all international trade.

But on another level "sovereignty" is like beauty - it is in the eye of the beholder.

Above all Boris Johnson has to avoid any appearance of loss of sovereignty - whatever that might be - free movement of people, subject to ECJ jurisdiction, obligation to follow EU rules etc. The anti-EU opinion in the UK substantially coalesces around symbols like the EU flag, the EU anthem, the right of "foreigners" to work in "our country" and take "our jobs".

But whatever "deal" is agreed, even a "no deal", the UK remains part of a geo-political European economic zone. That much is inevitable. And since the EU is more than seven times the size of the UK, the latter will always be a junior partner so long as it is not a member of the EU. (A similar position in which Canada finds itself in relation to the US). This leaves the EU with the opportunity to exercise hegemonic control over the UK, which infringes sovereignty every bit as much as membership of the EU would.

The UK cannot change its geography, and it cannot change its neighbours. And this thing has much much further to run. We shall most likely see British ministers and officials going back and forth to Brussels for meetings far more than was ever the case when we were full members.

And then there is the vexed question of Scotland. Almost certainly the SNP will win next May's election by a landslide, and it will be extremely difficult to avoid granting another referendum, with a strong possibility that Scotland will leave the UK. And all the time public opinion in the UK will be in fluctuation. We have effectively given up a settled EU membership, as a united UK for a "neverendum of referendums". If Scotland and the rest of the UK break apart, it arguably has an effect on UK sovereignty too.

  • 3
    "it will be extremely difficult to avoid granting another referendum" => not really, see Catalonia for an example. They've jailed their pro-referendum politicians and the whole movement died down. Dec 8, 2020 at 20:44
  • 1
    Leading quote is true inasmuch as FIFA is a truly (and well-documentedly) awful organization.
    – hobbs
    Dec 9, 2020 at 2:30
  • 6
    @JonathanReez The Scots may well organise their own referendum. I do not see the Westminster government getting away with arresting and imprisoning Nicola Sturgeon, and John Swinney - the equivalent of which happened in Catalonia. I spent my summer holiday in Catalonia in 2019. I don't know what has happened under Covid - many things have "died down" under it - but the campaign for Catalonian independence was certainly not "died down" when I was there.
    – WS2
    Dec 9, 2020 at 8:29
  • 7
    The first sentence gets to the absolute core of this. Whenever two states agree a treaty, each cedes a little of its sovereignty to the other. It's impossible to function internationally without giving away some of your sovereignty and gaining a bit of someone else's. Dec 9, 2020 at 17:31

It's a largely meaningless slogan that seeks to justify a "hard" brexit, one that cuts as many ties with the EU as possible.

Leaving the EU is a huge loss of sovereignty. The UK's ability to determine its own future has been greatly diminished due to no longer having the weight of the EU behind it.

The government intends to use this slogan to claim that it has got a good deal, when in fact the deal is extremely bad, or to cover for a no deal outcome. It can ignore the financial ruin and loss of rights and freedoms for its citizens and simply claim to have protected "sovereignty".

A recent example of this was given by Dominic Raab on the Andrew Marr Show (2020/12/13). Raab stated that the EU's proposal that it would be able to use tariffs if the UK diverged from EU standards in a way that gave it an advantage was incompatible with sovereignty. However, only a month earlier the government of which Raab is a member changed the law in the UK to allow for the lowering of food standards to the United States' levels, in order to get a trade deal. Similarly in a trade deal with Japan the government gave away some control of UK state aid rules in exchange for a trade deal that is inferior to the one it already had as a member of the EU.

This example demonstrates how the government's insistence on not "compromising" sovereignty is insincere and only of use as a political tool when dealing with the optics of brexit at home.

  • 35
    "Leaving the EU is a huge loss of sovereignty." - While I appreciate your attempt at irony, "sovereignty" does NOT mean "a nation's ability to get things done." It means independence, i.e. the state of not being subordinate to any higher government. An increase in sovereignty may have positive or negative consequences.
    – MJ713
    Dec 8, 2020 at 0:08
  • 4
    @MJ713: While that's true, "sovereignty" can be defined formally and practically. An economic or military dependency on another country can create a practical dependency which is not reflected in laws or treaties.
    – MSalters
    Dec 8, 2020 at 0:31
  • 8
    @MSalters while we're all getting pedantic, you're describing capability, not sovereignty. A country may not be able to do something because of a reliance on another nation, but as a sovereign nation they have every right to try to anyway, that's sovereignty. Could be disastrous and lead to a loss of their sovereignty, but they can do whatever they please.
    – TCooper
    Dec 8, 2020 at 1:11
  • 7
    @TCooper Just to take the pedantry even further, technically the UK was fully sovereign even inside the EU. Treaties do not sit above parliamentary sovereignty and the UK is always free to break them at any time if it so wishes. For example it can pass an Act which breaks EU law, and such an Act will impliedly repeal the European Commuinities Act 1972 to the extent that it does so. The "practical sovereignty" that the OP talks about stems from the political consequences of doing so.
    – JBentley
    Dec 8, 2020 at 10:06
  • 3
    @MSalters Article 50 is part of the treaty, not part of UK law. Parliament is absolutely sovereign at all times - nothing at all can supercede this. Article 50 sets out how you should exit the treaty if the UK wants to be free of its international obligations under that treaty. It does not in any way prevent the UK from passing a UK Act which runs contrary to EU law. If the UK does so, it will have breached its treaty obligations but the Act itself will take precedence over the treaty within the UK.
    – JBentley
    Dec 8, 2020 at 17:04

Well, various people probably mean somewhat different things by that, but to quote the PM's meaning:

as our chief negotiator David Frost said, there are some things that we simply can’t compromise over. People understand the arguments about the level playing field and about fisheries. And there is no point in leaving the EU if you remain locked in the lunar pull of the EU and you are unable to do things differently.


In the early 1970s we basically handed over control of our fisheries. We gave up our fisheries in the last throes of the Heath negotiations in a way that permanently disadvantaged UK fishers and Scottish fishers and now is the time to change that and change that back.

This isn't too far from e.g. former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib's position...

Take back control of our laws, our borders, our cash, and our fishing. You cannot compromise on that.

Now on the discussion surrounding sovereignty in re Brexit, some critics of these slogans have seized on an apparent admission from the (May) government:

In its White Paper published on 2nd February 2017, the government made the most astonishing admission in this regard. In a Chapter 2 entitled ‘Taking control of our own laws”, it admitted that: “The sovereignty of Parliament is a fundamental principle of the UK constitution. Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that”.

The actual document cited continues with

The extent of EU activity relevant to the UK can be demonstrated by the fact that 1,056 EU-related documents were deposited for parliamentary scrutiny in 2016. These include proposals for EU Directives, Regulations, Decisions and Recommendations, as well as Commission delegated acts, and other documents such as Commission Communications, Reports and Opinions submitted to the Council, Court of Auditors Reports and more.

Likewise, the same argument was made more flowery as:

Lord Denning, a renowned English Judge, compared EU laws to an incoming tide turning into a tidal wave. These were his words:

Our sovereignty has been taken away by the European Court of Justice... Our courts must no longer enforce our national laws. They must enforce Community law... No longer is European law an incoming tide flowing up the estuaries of England. It is now like a tidal wave bringing down our sea walls and flowing inland over our fields and houses—to the dismay of all.

So, presumably, the "no compromise" argument over agreements that limit domestic policies is/was actually one of degree of intrusion. Or, if I may put it in more Trumpian transactional terms, it was an "unfair" or downright "horrible" deal to be in the EU because of this "tidal wave" of EU legal frameworks.

According to another (2016) analysis this "tidal wave" argument (i.e. degree of EU involvement in UK affairs) is practically the only new aspect of the Brexit slogans/disputes in this (sovereignty) regard compared to the Antis' arguments in 1975, which otherwise also centered on sovereignty:

In 1975, as in 2016, sovereignty was the core issue for the "Anti-Marketeers".

The slogan 'The Right to Rule Ourselves' was blazoned across their literature, while a pamphlet sent to every household in the country proclaimed that 'The fundamental question is whether or not we remain free to rule ourselves in our own way'.

Neil Marten, who chaired the 'Out' campaign, told journalists that 'While food and jobs are vitally important, the real issue is whether we vote away our political birthright ... There is no other issue'. [...]

This was sovereignty in its classical sense, defined by Enoch Powell as 'the right to live under no laws but those made by our own representatives; to pay no taxes but those imposed by our own Parliament, and to be governed by no government but that responsible to our own people'.


On the one hand, the constraints on national sovereignty are probably more potent today than they were forty years ago. [...]

Also, then and now, the less nuanced pronouncements were attacked by the other side, sometimes in blunt terms, e.g.

On 29 April 2016, former Prime Minister John Major said in an interview to the BBC: “If you want undiluted sovereignty, go to North Korea”.

or Thatcher's:

“If Britain were to withdraw, we might imagine that we could regain complete national sovereignty. But it would, in fact, be an illusion. Our lives would be increasingly influenced by the EEC, yet we would have no say in decisions which would vitally affect us.”

So, if I may conclude something about this, "no compromise sovereignty" is actually an argument of degree when peeled down a bit, but with a lot of "uncompromising" rhetoric on top.

  • 7
    "UK fishers and Scottish fishers". Oops.
    – jcaron
    Dec 9, 2020 at 0:12
  • 1
    @jcaron Freudian slip. Move on, nothing to see here, honest. Dec 9, 2020 at 15:29
  • 1
    When people say "we won't compromise soverignty" they mean they don't want to be subject to the ECJ on any treaty disputes. That's it.
    – OrangeDog
    Dec 10, 2020 at 11:47
  • 2
    @OrangeDog That's not how agreements work. Why would the EU hand over that power entirely to the UK? Incidentally, I came across a news report suggesting the EU is, in fact, prepared to avoid mentioning the ECJ or European Law. What it cannot possibly do is abdicate all sovereignty and commit to never draw any consequences from what the UK might do in the future. But let's not turn this into the debate, the salient point is that all this goes way beyond the ECJ's role at this point.
    – Relaxed
    Dec 13, 2020 at 14:45
  • 1
    @Relaxed exactly, that's why the "negotiations" have gone nowhere
    – OrangeDog
    Dec 13, 2020 at 17:51

At the most basic level, national sovereignty is about border control. Whether it’s who can come into your territory to fish, or who can come into your territory to watch a movie about fish, it’s all about whether the nation can change its mind at any time for any or no reason on who can and who cannot come into its territory.

There are of course consequences for changing your mind, but if you can’t, you aren’t really sovereign.

Note that Brexit itself is an example of the UK changing it’s mind, so it hadn’t actually lost its sovereignty, its just taking a long time to do so, and to implement the changes.

  • Yeah, but what does "no compromise" mean in this [sovereignty] regard then? Not enter any agreements that relinquish any such authority? That's basically what the OP is asking. For instance, is signing up to the UNCHR convention admitting refugees a compromise? Is leasing land for a foreign military base (on which foreign personnel can come and go as it pleases, often not subject to local laws either) also a compromise? Etc. Dec 9, 2020 at 13:40
  • Can you cite anything in support of your definition? In particular, is sovereignty only about border control, or is it other things as well? Dec 9, 2020 at 14:41
  • @PaulJohnson: See e.g. "Full discretion over admission, detention and expulsion of non-members is typically seen as an essential mode of exercising sovereignty (Kerwin, 2016). [...] Wellman sees immigration control as a matter of self-determination (Altman and Wellman, 2011, p. 162) and as a central element of state sovereignty (Altman and Wellman, 2011, p. 158)." Dec 9, 2020 at 15:43
  • OTOH "According to Walzer (1983, pp. 43–51), nation states must be sensitive to the plight of refugees, meaning that the sovereign states also have duties towards a particular category of non-members. [...] Likewise, Miller (2007, p. 227), who otherwise argues that states have a right to enforce immigration restrictions, stresses that refugees have “a very strong but not absolute, right to be admitted to safety”." [...] Dec 9, 2020 at 15:43
  • "The case can be made that state sovereignty is composed of several different elements, some more central than others – such as the relations between the state and its citizens and with other states. Migration control was not always considered a central part of state sovereignty as it is today, and even if we accept that a legitimate nation state is sovereign in certain respects, we must not grant it an unrestricted freedom to devise its migration politics as it sees fit (Honohan, 2014)." Dec 9, 2020 at 15:44

It's merely one of many pre-prepared excuses for the scenario in which the Tories force through a hard Brexit, in which case they can claim they did it so as to "not compromise on sovereignty".

Nobody knows what it means - not the people who support Brexit, and especially not the people spouting the term.


After the Tudors and up until 1689 there was a political struggle between the King and the English Parliament which ended with the "Glorious Revolution" and the recognition of Parliamentary sovereignty.

This meant that what is now the UK Parliament was the highest legal authority. Acts passed by parliament cannot be abrogated or disapplied by the executive. Indeed the executive government's freedom of action can be constrained by Parliamentary legislation and Parliament can pass legislation putting the executive under a legal duty to act in certain ways.

It is a key feature of EU law that it regards itself as sovereign and, when the UK joined the EC (as it was then) the UK - as it committed to do in the treaty - passed legislation - the European Communities Act 1972 - making EU law part of UK law and providing that any new EU law would automatically be part of UK law.

The meant that Parliament lost its sovereignty because a UK government minister could go to Brussels and - if he could persuade ministers of other member states in the Council of Ministers - he could create EC law which overrode any law passed by the UK Parliament.

In the early days, as EC law and the EC institutions were developing, it was not really appreciated (or, if it was, it was not publicly acknowledged) that there was a loss of UK sovereignty. Yes the EC Council of Minsters could override the UK Parliament but only if the UK minster agreed (there had to be unanimity) so the UK, taken as a whole, could not have laws thrust upon it which it did not want.

As time went on it came to be understood that there was a loss of sovereignty because the need for unanimity meant that if the UK came to the view that a law which the UK had previously agreed to was no longer suitable, the UK could not get it removed or changed without the agreement of the other ministers.

The loss of sovereignty came to public attention particularly with the Factortame litigation. Many UK fishermen had lost their livelihoods as a result of the EC Common Fisheries Policy. The UK Parliament passed the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 - a measure designed to prevent non-UK fishermen from using UK fishing quota by the device of operating through a UK registered company. The Act of Parliament was eventually declared ineffective - because contrary to EU law - in a series of court cases stretching over 11 years from 1989 to 2000.

Beyond the Council of Ministers, other EU institutions also grew in the power they exercised. The introduction of qualified majority voting reduced the ability of any member state to veto legislation, the EU Commission became more powerful in proposing legislation and the Court of Justice of The European Union (CJEU) was an "activist" court which created new laws such as the "dual vigilance" system established the in Francovich case.,

So legal sovereignty - the ability ultimately to make its own decisions - was lost by the UK. The other aspect is territorial sovereignty. If the UK regains the ability to make its own decisions that sovereignty is limited if the writ of the UK does not extend to all its territory. The 10 mile limit is important here because up to the 10 mile limit the waters are British territorial waters. But beyond the territorial waters within the 200 mile limit by international convention each country is responsible for fishing so having control of this is important to the idea of sovereignty too.

Of course if the UK were, just as an example, to sign a 20 year treaty giving EU member states unlimited access to fish British waters, the UK would still technically be sovereign - it would have taken a sovereign decision to sign. But in practical terms people tend to feel that long terms commitments giving up a large amount of control involve the giving up of a degree of sovereignty in a practical (even if not in a theoretical) sense.

Other uses of the term "practical sovereignty"

I have also noticed that the phrase practical sovereignty was used by Remainers in the debate over Brexit as a counter to points about sovereignty made by Brexiteers.

Those in favour of the UK exiting the EU had a variety of reasons for being of that view but one prominent argument was about sovereignty and democracy - that the democratically elected representatives of the people of the UK should have the final say on the laws which govern the UK.

It is clearly the case that membership of the EU involves loss of a nation state's sovereignty in the normal technical legal sense (at least within certain areas) because that is a fundamental principle of EU law.

"Yes we have given up sovereignty but hey look how living standards have improved" might not be perceived as a universally attractive way of putting the counter-argument so many Remainers put the counter argument in terms of sovereignty by saying that sovereignty has not so much been given up as "pooled". Essentially the idea is that by lending part of their sovereignty to the EU the member states become part of a large body which a lot more influence and power on the world stage. This can then be tied in to the idea that it is all very well the UK making sovereign decisions about international affairs but that it not much good in practice if the UK does not have the power/influence to carry those decisions into effect - the UK would have more "practical sovereignty" if it acts on the international stage as part of the EU.


Pretty simple with regards to fishing. UK owns it, they will decide what their citizens can do with their waters.

He said fishing rights symbolised the UK's ability and determination to defend its waters and resources.

The EU still wants to take the lion’s share of the fish in our waters which is just not fair given we are leaving the EU.

Similar Cuba and Guantanamo Bay. Guantanamo Bay belongs to Cuba and the US has a "lease". However Cuba's sovereignty over this particular region is greatly diminished and virtually non-existent.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .