Britain’s post-Brexit illusion of sovereignty and the lessons it can learn from Norway

Britain exited the European Union because it wanted to reclaim its sovereignty. Learning from Norway’s EU experience, Britain must be cognisant of the limits on its autonomy, even as a non-member, write Johanne Døhlie Saltnes, Merethe Dotterud Leiren, Arild Aurvåg Farsund, Jarle Trondal, John Erik Fossum and Christopher Lord

From sovereignty to autonomy

The mantra in the Brexit debate was for Britain to ‘take back control’. Brexiteers wanted to escape what they saw as the shackles of EU rule. Much of the debate centred around regaining sovereignty.

However, focusing on sovereignty is a distraction once we understand exactly how third states can exercise their will outside the EU. Why?

Sovereignty means the legal right to have final say in a state’s decisions. Yet, states all around the world have a legal right to final decisions. At the same time, they are profoundly dependent on others. There is a big difference between the legal status of actors – be they states or citizens – which suggests that sovereignty is binary (you either have it or you don't), and a given state’s actual power or room for manoeuvre. Sovereignty says nothing about that.

Rather than seeking to regain sovereignty, Britain needs to muster the political will to stake out its own course under complex interdependence

Instead, we should look at states’ autonomy to exercise their own will. Autonomy comprises an actor’s will and ability to pursue its preferences. Autonomy encompasses both legal wriggle room (e.g., how binding, open-ended or highly specified a contract is) and political will and administrative capacity to stake out one’s own course under complex interdependence.

In a newly published book, we analyse non-members’ autonomy vis-à-vis the EU. Looking at Norway’s EU experience, we draw some lessons for Britain.

Size and power matter less than expected

Brexit stirred up the European political landscape. Britain, a former global hegemon, joined the group of European non-members of the EU. Britain sees itself as more powerful, and in a different league, from Norway and other non-members. It therefore expects to be able to exercise autonomous policy vis-à-vis the EU. But size and power do not directly translate into more autonomy.

Regaining trade preferences lost by Brexit

Britain has exited the EU’s external trade policy. Yet it has faced obstacles in its ambition to become a global trade power once more. After Brexit, Britain launched negotiations with India. It explored the possibility of joining the US-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement, and it sought to revive relations with the Commonwealth. These attempts have yet to bear fruit.

Where Britain has been successful is in concluding an agreement with the Asia-Pacific region. It has also negotiated rollover deals with countries with whom it had previously enjoyed trade benefits through EU membership. A free trade agreement with Japan, for instance, was hailed as a ‘landmark moment’ by UK politicians. Yet it is strikingly similar to the EU-Japan trade agreement.

Britain’s expectation of becoming a significant world trade power was based on unrealistic expectations, limited autonomy, and a perception of itself entrenched in colonial roots

The EU’s position as a bloc negotiator limits non-members’ autonomy. Britain’s expectation of once again becoming a significant world trade power seems to have been based on unrealistic expectations, limited autonomy, and an understanding of itself that is deeply entrenched in its colonial roots.

Small states recognise their vulnerability and accept the EU’s hegemonic position more easily. For instance, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre told the press that Norway would adopt EU sanctions, even before the EU had decided what these sanctions would be. In these kinds of situations, smaller states have little choice other than to follow their bigger partners.

Gaining fishing rights, but losing market access for seafood

Fishing rights were, at least symbolically, an important issue in the whole Brexit process. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea gives coastal states considerable sovereign control over fish stocks in their Exclusive Economic Zones. But since fish stocks are often shared, UK fishermen are receiving far smaller quotas in North Sea fisheries post-Brexit than they had expected.

UK seafood exporters experienced the same challenges accessing the EU market as Norwegian exporters in the 1990s. Without full acceptance of the EU rulebook, accessing the market is expensive and bureaucratically troublesome. Norway solved this problem by accepting the whole EU sanitary and phytosanitary framework, which concerns food safety and animal and plant health, as part of the EEA agreement. The UK has not yet found a solution to this, which is hampering the export of UK seafood to the EU.

More autonomy at a cost in climate and energy

In the climate and energy sectors, the UK has increased its autonomy, but not as much as the country would like to convey – and not without costs. Brexit has led to more obstacles, higher administrative burdens and less effective solutions for everyone.

Brexit has led to more obstacles, higher administrative burdens and less effective solutions for everyone

Although it has experienced fewer restrictions in its policymaking, the UK faces challenges in achieving its own environmental goals. Brexit has led to concerns of ‘zombie legislation’. With no EU bodies to enforce laws, Brexit does not necessarily expand the country's autonomy in this sector. Rather, it restricts the country's ability to carry out its own wishes.

The situation in Norway is different because the obligations to the EU are greater. Norway is under pressure to keep its own climate promises since Brussels monitors Norway and can impose sanctions. Hence, we could consider cooperating more closely with the EU an extension of the country's autonomously set climate goal, as it ’locks in’ Norway’s decision to cut emissions domestically.

Going forward

The British debate has not yet fully engaged with questions relating to how much autonomy actually exists to steer its own course as a non-member of the EU. The debate must comprise the mode of EU affiliation and Britain’s ability to pursue its distinct values and interests. These are not questions about sovereignty. They are about autonomy.

Although Britain may, on the face of it, have a stronger will than Norway about how to act autonomously from the EU, Britain’s capacity to act faces limitations because of its dependence on the EU. This is where Britain should learn from Norway’s EU experience as a long-term integrated non-member.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Johanne Døhlie Saltnes Johanne Døhlie Saltnes Collaborating Researcher and Lecturer, University of Brasilia More by this author
photograph of Merethe Dotterud Leiren Merethe Dotterud Leiren Research Director, CICERO – Center for International Climate Research More by this author
photograph of Arild Aurvåg Farsund Arild Aurvåg Farsund Professor, Department of Government, University of Bergen More by this author
photograph of Jarle Trondal Jarle Trondal Professor, Department of Political Science and Management, University of Agder and University of Oslo More by this author
photograph of John Erik Fossum John Erik Fossum Professor, ARENA Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo More by this author
photograph of Christopher Lord Christopher Lord Professor, ARENA Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo More by this author

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One comment on “Britain’s post-Brexit illusion of sovereignty and the lessons it can learn from Norway”

  1. Very interesting and useful article. In the ongoing Brexit debate there are many, rather vague, references to ‘the Norway solution’ but few have much idea what it involves. The implications of EEA membership are little understood, nor is there much analysis of what sovereignty really means (and doesn’t mean). This article is a very useful starting point. Thanks!

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