The British loss of sovereignty to the European Union

The legal power of the EU is constantly correlated to PM David Cameron’s unsuccessful attempts to renegotiate freedom of movement laws with Brussels (Geddes & Scholten, 2016) and to his failure to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’, as he had pledged in his 2014 speech on immigration (GOV. UK, 2014). The theme of the net migration figure released in May 2016 by the Office for National Statistics for the year 2015 - ‘the second highest figure on record’ and the highest one for EU immigration (BBC News, 2016b) - achieves visibility through repetition and contrast to David Cameron’s pledge. So does the discrepancy between this figure and the number of National Insurance registrations (BBC News, 2016a). Two possible explanations for this situation (and other similar ones) take shape: (a) one involves the breach of public trust by the Prime Minister, who is forced by EU regulations on freedom of movement into the position of not being able to keep his pledge to British citizens (an unacceptable breach, given the deontic nature of the commitment - see example 3); (b) the other one hints at a rather sinister plan to keep the British public unaware of the existence of a secret plot involving incoming fluxes of migrants and experiments on British society, which is where conspiratorial elements can be factored into the equation (examples 4 and 5):

  • (3) ‘Leave campaigners said [the figures] demonstrated that the only way for Britain to regain control over its borders was to quit the EU. In a stinging attack, Boris Johnson described the figures as ‘scandalous’ and accused the Prime Minister of undermining democracy by promising to cut migration then failing miserably’.
  • (Doughty & Slack, 2016, The Daily Mail)
  • (4) ‘WHAT a fabulous editorial from The Sun. At last someone has had the bottle to print what the electorate of this country has always known - this

Government is lying to us over immigration. What I didn’t realise is the depth of these lies’.

(‘How are these immigrants good for us?’, 2016, The


(5) ‘David Cameron has failed to protect the integrity of our country

The latest figures show how far they have succeeded in this gigantic social engineering project... It is not surprising that many British citizens now feel like aliens in their own land’.

(McKinstry, The Express, 2016a)

The former, mainstream explanation positions British politicians as Brussels’ pawns, with diminished power of decision and agency, within a semantic frame of control or domination, while the latter, conspiracy-evoking, explanation positions them as knowingly involved in some darker plot, within the semantic frames of (intentional) deception, as well as betrayal or treason (the metaphor of sale - selling out the country - is also used, as can be noticed in example 7). Both are centred on Britain’s loss of sovereignty to the European Union, while intervening to regain that sovereignty is presented as particularly stringent (hence the great mobilising potential of the Leavers’ claim):

  • (6) ‘Ms Patel said: ... “Westminster is not making the laws when it comes to border controls. We are being dictated to by the EU, by those unelected officials, the ones hiding behind the façade of the EU institutions ... But without leaving the European Union we can’t get control of our borders’”.
  • (Hawkes, 2016, The Sun)
  • (7) ‘Alas, it is probably too late, not only to hope for a North Atlantic Union, but to prevent Britain being sucked into Europe. The poor stewardship of the Conservatives, no less than the apostasy of the Labour Party, has left the pass wide open for sale’.
  • (George MacDonald Fraser as referenced in the article

‘Betrayal of Britain’, 2016, The Daily Mail)'0

As can be seen from example 6, a strong call to vote ‘leave’ in order to ‘take back control’ over the country’s laws and borders usually accompanies the debate on the growing number of EU immigrants, spinning off into other laws ‘dictated’ by Brussels (regarding migrant criminals under the Court ofjustice of the European Union, for instance).

From a mainstream position, keeping certain information secret from the citizenry may be a necessary and legitimate action, which, given public expectations of transparency, could backfire, if there are leaks (Clarke & Newman, 2017; Gaston & Uscinski, 2018). It can thus be invoked against the government and other elites as a grave failure in the performance of their public duties (either because they are constrained by EU laws or because they have some personal advantage to gain), as has happened not only in the Brexit referendum debate, but also in previous debates on EU immigration. Leaked documents of inflow figures have been employed at key moments in the past to expose the government and engender a sense of panic (the association with migrant crime is recurrent). Such is the emblematic ‘figure of “45,000 undesirables [criminals]” who would arrive from Romania and Bulgaria, mentioned in a leaked Home Office report’ in 2006 (Madroane, 2018: 145), an event repeatedly invoked in anti-EU immigration claims in the British media and turned into a symbolic presence in public discourse. Such cases give media actors the occasion to hold the authorities accountable on behalf of the public and to take pride in fulfilling their roles of watchdogs and symbolic representatives of the citizens.

Assigning the pro-EU British politicians to the category of‘liars’ - or, more rarely, ‘traitors’ - is amenable not only to mainstream interpretations (politicians are routinely accused of deception and corruption, an action that both sides in the debate resorted to), but also to conspiratorial ones. There is a probability (that needs further backing) that readers who are prone to conspiracy-thinking or familiar with conspiracy theories may assume from this classification of politicians that something far darker is going on or may add premises that make the argument (more) relevant to their cognitive environments. Some of the excerpts from the readers’ comments published by The Sun disclose this tendency (see example 4). Revelations that crucial information has been kept secret can thus foster or strengthen conspiracy beliefs among certain members of the public, a phenomenon amplified in the UK by communication mistakes made at a political level and by the politicians’ acknowledgements of such mistakes (Gaston & Uscinski, 2018). Importantly, they detract from the credibility of the authorities and generate mistrust (see also Miller, 2002 on ethos and presumption).

The figures on EU immigration have been at the centre of public debates following the incorporation of expertise into Tony Blair’s ‘managed migration’ policy and technocratic governance (Boswell, 2009). The politicisation of expertise on immigration has shaped two opposing positions in the British public sphere, built upon different interpretations and sources of expertise: immigration ‘as complicated/ knowable’ versus immigration as ‘chaotic’ or ‘out of control’ (Balch & Balabanova, 2011: 900), the latter being employed in the right-wing newspapers in support of anti-immigration claims. As Clarke and Newman (2017) show, the negative ‘articulations’ in the British public space between expertise, the technocratic approach in British policymaking (also criticised by the political left) and EU technocratic governance, especially in the management of the Greek crisis, gave impetus to the populist drive against experts in the Leave campaign (see Tsotsou in this volume).11

The discussion of EU control over Britain further occasions the antagonistic invocation, in terms of cherished values, of Britain’s past glory as an empire and as a nation that contributed significantly to victory in the Second World War (Wellings, 2010; O’Toole, 2018), but subsequently had to settle for a subordinate role in the EU:

  • (8) ‘Suppose in 1945, with the Nazi war machine smashed and Britain rejoicing after the greatest victory in her history, we had been told: “Of course, 50 years hence your leaders will have surrendered your sovereignty to the people you’ve just defeated and those you’ve liberated’”.
  • (George MacDonald Fraser as referenced in the article ‘Betrayal of Britain’, 2016, The Daily Mail)

The article from which examples 7 and 8 come continues to outline ‘how tragic, how degrading’ it was that Britain, ‘the wonder of the world should after all the travail and suffering and heroism and sacrifice and sheer bloody genius of centuries, end with the sorriest of whimpers’. The country was being ‘sold down the river by mere politicians, unworthy and third rate’ (George MacDonald Fraser as referenced in the article ‘Betrayal of Britain’, 2016, The Daily Mail). In certain contexts, this positioning can be linked to old fears of Germany’s dictatorial tendencies as a major European player, as well as to the rise of expansionist empires in Europe (possibly encouraging conspiracy thinking):

(9) ‘Boris Johnson claimed the European Union wanted the same goal as Adolf Hitler - but was pursuing it via “different methods”.

The ex-London Mayor said the dream of a European superstate was a flawed attempt to reclaim the golden age of the Roman empire in Europe’.

(Dathan, 2016, The Daily Mail)

Daddow (2012) finds examples of ‘Germanophobia’ in the British Eurosceptic media in the 1990s, during the Maastricht Treaty debates (see also O’Toole, 2018). For instance, in July 1990, Nicholas Ridley, the Secretary of State for Industry, quoted by Daddow (2012: 1234), ‘imputefd] European integration to the unfolding of a German plot: “I’m not against giving up some sovereignty in principle, but not to this lot. You might as well give it up to Adolf Hitler’”.12 Ridley’s comment got him fired at the time, but, to Daddow, it is representative of a pattern in public debate (in Britain and in other European countries), traces of which resurfaced in the Brexit referendum debate, as example 9 shows (see also O’Toole, 2018 and Tsotsou in this volume).

Starting from the current circumstances (and underlying values), portrayed as antithetical to Britain’s interests and glorious past, the symbolic construction of the EU as a supranational state imposing laws on the UK—with the British governments being forced to comply or willingly taking part in secret schemesis strategically used to conjure up an image of Britain’s future in the Union as utterly inconceivable (a deepening loss of sovereignty), in an attempt to orient the readers towards rejecting the claim to vote ‘remain’.

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