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Jeremy Paxman outside of Berlaymont

Paxman in Brussels: Who really rules us?

In this one-off programme on BBC 1, Jeremy Paxman asks whether we have given the power to rule us to Europe, and if we have does it matter?

About the programme

As the EU referendum debate approaches its climax, Jeremy Paxman takes us on a journey to the heart of Europe, meeting the movers, shakers and anonymous faces who run the EU. His central question is simple – have we given the power to rule us to Europe, and if we have does it matter? Meeting crucial figures like Michael Gove and Nick Clegg, he hears arguments on both sides, whilst also trying to understand just how the incredibly complex organisation operates. On his journey he struggles through the ‘Parliamentarium’ (an EU museum that tries to explain the place), tries on a replica of Margaret Thatcher’s famous EU jumper, and samples the EU regulated wares of the Portobello Road. A quirky, entertaining programme, which will help us all understand the deeper issues at the root of the biggest question of our time.

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

The EU flag flaying

Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

What does sovereignty mean for the UK and what impact does the the UK’s and EU relationship have on it?

Leviathan pamphlet by Thomas Hobbes

Leviathan pamphlet by Thomas Hobbes

Sovereignty can be discussed on a highly theoretical level and if this were the focus of our article we would be starting by exploring theories and understandings developed by Hobbes, Austin or Hart. You would be reading about the different views on sources of authority and then sovereignty and how Dicey explored the concept of a parliament as a sovereign.

This is where we are hitting the actual crux of this article. Compared to other constitutions in the world, the UK’s constitution is one of the very few, if not the only one, viewing parliament as the sovereign of its constitutional core. The UK people are born and raised in a legal framework, which holds its institutions to account through a strong and sovereign parliament at the centre. A sovereign parliament means a direct impact for the people and who the sovereign is that legislates for them.

The UK’s common law and parliamentary sovereignty form together a very distinct and unique understanding of how a state or a state like Union should be run that applies any sort of constitutional framework. You may have figured by now that it is the UK’s and EU relationship and the impact sovereignty has on it that is the actual focus of this article.

There are many different reasons and various claims being made about the source of the complications between the UK and the EU. One of them is the assumption that sovereignty has been taken away by the European Union and the UK is now left tied down by chains in Brussels. Especially, the lack of sovereignty of the European Union parliament, compared to Westminster parliament, seems to be the focus of many debates. Part of this is a fundamentally different understanding of sovereignty in the UK and other Member States. Those nations that do have a civil law system, where no common law applies and most law is codified, the law is sovereign, rather than the law maker. From their perspective and following their constitutional traditions, a parliament is not meant to be sovereign and although not many would argue that the EU’s application of democratic principles is perfect, most Member States do not understand the UK’s fear for a loss of sovereignty.

The UK, in a sense, is alone with its sovereignty concept, and applied with consequence, would position itself as a sovereign, but isolated, island in a globalised world. Every agreement comes with a shift of sovereignty: The devolution agreements between the UK nations, a NATO membership or a simple agreement with neighbours about who will have to renew the fence.

People feel and understand sovereignty differently and the UK’s inclusion in international agreements, Unions and similar, allows them to get a feel for the other concepts and understandings. Rather than being threatened by it, we should appreciate the differences and allow our sovereignty to evolve.

Meet the OU expert

Head of Department The Faculty of Business & Law, The Open University
Dr Anne WesemannHead of Department, The Faculty of Business & LawVIEW FULL PROFILE
Head of Department The Faculty of Business & Law, The Open University
Dr Anne WesemannHead of Department, The Faculty of Business & Law

Anne is a Lecturer in Law at the Open University Law School, specialising in European Union Law and comparative constitutional law. She holds an undergraduate degree in German law (1. Staatsexamen) and came to the OU from the University of Sussex, where she is about to complete her PhD thesis titled "European citizenship as a constitutional right according to the rulings of   the European Court of Justice". Anne also holds a LLM in European Union law. As module chair for the OU's European Union Law module and Teaching Director she ensures that international students and students new to distance learning are catered for. 

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