Amid the turmoil of political debate in the UK around the acceptability of the terms of a Brexit deal, one common statement made by Brexiteers is “we want our sovereignty back!”. In her first speech to the Conservative Party conference as prime minister in 2016, Theresa May promised that the UK would be a “fully independent, sovereign country” again. Similar claims about sovereignty are trumpeted by nationalists elsewhere. Yet the political jargon shows little understanding of what sovereignty means in the 21st century. French jurist Jean Bodin’s definition of sovereignty in the 16th century as “absolute, unlimited and enduring power” left many with the impression that it was an absolutist concept, but the order in the globalising world economy of the 21st century looks very different. A few decades after Bodin, Dutch international law author Hugo de Groot stressed that sovereign states have to respect the principles and norms of international law. Such rules are written into intern...

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