We know what people voted against,’ say half-clever pundits, ‘but it’s far from clear what they voted for.’ Actually, it’s very clear: the British voted to leave the EU and take back control of their own laws. They didn’t dictate precisely what kind of deal we should have with our neighbours after leaving: that is for ministers to negotiate. But when Leave campaigners invited people to ‘take back control’, voters understood what that meant: legal supremacy should return from Brussels to Westminster.
Remainers spent the campaign trying to suggest that the EU was just one among several international associations in which Britain participated. It was, they wanted us to believe, a club, like Nato or the G20, in which we agreed to abide by common rules in order to secure common objectives. All such associations, they argued, involved some loss of sovereignty. If we wanted ‘undiluted sovereignty’, averred Sir John Major, we should ‘go to North Korea’.
Not for the first time, Sir John underestimated the electorate. People could see that the EU differed from every other international body in that it presumed to legislate for its member states. Membership of Nato or the G20 may mean ceding power in certain areas; but it emphatically doesn’t mean ceding sovereignty — that is, the ultimate right to determine laws.
If Nato or the G20 aspired to unitary statehood, they, too, might become subjects of referendums. So far, though, no other body in the world has awarded itself supreme legal authority. I write ‘awarded itself’ deliberately. The primacy of EU law was not in the Treaty of Rome. Rather, as even committed federalists admit, it was invented by the European Court of Justice in a series of expansive judgments in 1963 and 1964.