It was partly a rejection of EU law that finally led to Britain’s decision to leave the EU: a ‘Brexit’. The Leave campaign argued that Britain had surrendered some of its sovereignty to an “unelected bureaucracy”. For example, Michael Gove argued that “Laws which govern citizens in this country are decided by politicians from other nations who we never elected and can’t throw out”, in an essay that was published on 20 February 2016, entitled EU Referendum: Michael Gove’s full statement on why he is backing Brexit.
Gove’s argument sounds compelling as a soundbite, but it is utterly misguided. He skilfully muddied the waters by conflating quite separate issues:
- EU commissioners, who are appointed by the countries of origin but are not elected, propose new regulations to govern trade. These regulations can be agreed in committees as majority decisions, so it would be possible for some to be passed without Britain’s agreement (although this rarely happens). A British parliament could never unilaterally set regulations for goods that are going to be exported to other countries in the EU; the receiving country would have no obligation to accept them.
- Britain signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) before joining the EU. The European Court of Justice, which is an EU institution, makes judgements on human rights cases because compliance is a condition of EU membership – as described above (184.108.40.206). Any new EU laws on human rights need the consent of the democratically elected European Parliament.
- It is unsafe to allow national governments to be the custodians of human rights. The main reason for joining the ECHR was to constrain all the signatories. If one country unilaterally decides to persecute one of its minorities, the resulting ethnic conflict (4.4.5) would be a risk to the inhabitants of that country and all its neighbours. Human rights are enduring and should not be affected by the political ideology of any one government.
British politicians had decided in a previous generation, with the memory of the Second World War fresh in their minds, to subscribe to a set of rules that would help to keep the peace. Sir Winston Churchill was included in the list of the EU founding fathers; he had seen all too closely the horrors of the Second World War and he advocated the creation of a European Union to avoid a repeat.
By subscribing to the EU legal framework, Britain was also binding the other member countries and strengthening the union. Some people have argued that there is no further need for the EU’s role in monitoring human rights, on the basis that another European war is unimaginable – but, as discussed later (220.127.116.11), aggressive nationalism is rising again. It would be unwise to weaken this aspect of EU law, yet a Brexit would have that effect.