Implementing the will of the people: sovereignty and policy conflicts in the aftermath of the UK’s referendum on EU membership

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Nathalie Brack in collaboration with Christopher Bickerton
Palgrave Macmillan
Comparative European Studies

Published in the framework of a research project funded by the Fondation Wiener Anspach.



Deep constitutional, political and social conflicts have marked the aftermath of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. Sovereignty has been one of the sites of these conflicts. British Euroscepticism has traditionally mobilized national sovereignty against the EU’s supranational institutions. Since the referendum, the focus has shifted to the meanings and practices of sovereignty within the UK. In this paper, we find that the conflicts of sovereignty provoked by Brexit have primarily been at the institutional level, in the relations between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Surprisingly, there has been little conflict around the abstract normative ideal of sovereignty as government by consent of the governed (“popular sovereignty”). Brexit was a source of conflict as much because of the content of the decision to leave the EU as it was due to disagreement about who rules. This discussion of the British case is a useful starting point for the comparative study of sovereignty conflicts in Europe, where institutional conflicts may be accompanied by substantive disagreements about “who rules?” This paper recommends that we carefully delineate conflicts of sovereignty from other sorts of conflicts connected to specific policy choices or outcomes.