What is sovereignty?

Sovereignty can be understood as the authority of a state to govern itself, and determine its own laws and policies. In the case of the UK, we also have the idea of parliamentary sovereignty, which holds that Parliament is the highest source of authority to make laws without restriction.

Whilst sovereignty in the first sense may be the starting point for all independent states, sovereignty in the second sense is not. Many states’ parliaments are constrained by requirements of a written constitution, and a constitutional court which can review, and annul laws which conflict with the constitution.

On one level, the UK’s sovereign law making powers, centred on its Parliament, are challenged by its membership of the European Union, as the UK is constrained in its actions by the agreements it has entered into and laws made under the EU Treaties. These laws have primacy over the laws of the member states.

However, this pooling of sovereignty, and restriction on Parliament’s powers has been voluntarily entered into by the UK. Indeed, parliamentary sovereignty is seen still to apply as it is an Act of Parliament that gives EU law its force in the UK. Parliament could revoke that law – though that would leave the UK in breach of the terms of EU membership.

Finally, the fact that the UK is able to leave the EU is a clear indication that it remains ultimately a sovereign state.

Related Research Paper: New research by data analyst Christabel Cooper and Dr Christina Pagel has found sovereignty is now the most important issue to Leave voters rather immigration, find it here.

View all facts

Subscribe to our fortnightly newsletter

Get a round-up of The UK in a Changing Europe’s latest analysis pieces, videos, explainers, podcasts, reports, events, infographics and more, written by the organisation’s director Anand Menon. PS his mum says it’s "quite good".

Sign up to our newsletter

View our latest newsletter