During the referendum campaign on the UK’s membership of the European Union, arguments focusing on democracy have tended to be the preserve of those advocating for a Brexit. The rallying cry to “take back control” of “our” laws and borders, has become Vote Leave’s mantra.
There is some force behind this message. There is no doubt that EU membership entails costs, and by joining the EU, states agree to be bound by EU treaties. Both the treaties and EU legislation – typically adopted in the form of regulations or directives – are supreme over national law.
This hierarchy is applied by national courts, who, across Europe, have found creative ways of ensuring that they give full effect to EU law. The House of Lords and Supreme Court have consistently held that where UK law conflicts with provisions of the EU treaties, it cannot be applied – though the UK courts are at pains to emphasise the qualified nature of the primacy of EU law.
The EU treaties also give the EU legislature a broad competence to act. For example, the EU has created an internal market in Europe and has imposed a range of social and environmental standards on its member states.
In addition, the judicial arm of the EU – the European Court of Justice – has held that a number of national rules breach EU law. This has had a significant influence on the regulatory landscape in the member states, such as strengthening equal pay laws.
So there is no doubt that EU law creates constraints which affect the ability of the member states to control their laws – and that Brexit would indeed enable the UK to take back some control. But, when we examine the way in which these constraints are imposed and consider the alternatives, the leave campaign’s case begins to take on a different hue.