The year 2017 was quite remarkable in the truest sense of the word. Europe still experiences uneasy nationalistic sentiments and the negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom create an indigestive mix of feelings that ranges from shame to desperation with embarrassment, rage, and sadness in between. At the same time, French president Emmanuel Macron proposed ambitious plans about the future of the European Union in his visionary speech at the Sorbonne.
Today, between the years 2017 and 2018, several high-ranking politicians in Europe have publicly endorsed Macron’s proposals – foremost Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament and chief of the German social democrats – in advocating for a more federal European Union.
But what is it, that the two opposing parties – populists and reformists – have in common?
Both talk about sovereignty, but in a very different way.
Sovereignty is not black and white – the times of absolutism are over
In his writings ‘Les six livres de la République‘ (engl.: ‘The six Books about the Republic’) from 1576, Jean Bodin defines the term ‘sovereignty’ as the highest, ultimate decision-making authority. In the age of absolutism, during which the above writings were created, that sovereignty was centralised on the monarch, who in turn is the representation of the state. In that understanding of sovereignty, it means the total control over inner and outer political affairs, and true independence. Interestingly, the Brexit claim of “taking back control” is symptomatic and a prime example of that absolutist understanding of sovereignty.
The emergence of democratic forms of governance has shifted the sovereign from a single person to the population of the respective state. We share our national sovereignty with our fellow citizens – ranging over the whole, political spectrum. However, the creation of the nation state in Europe, which was consolidated in two World Wars, lead to a strong self-identification of the people with their respective nation. But this effect is not unidirectional.
With the rise of populism in today’s Europe, it became apparent that all too often the mistake of projecting one’s own personality and opinion onto the nation is made. Just as the nation state contributed to form our identity, we falsely began to see the nation as an extension of our own personality, leading to the false notion of a “true people”.
Sovereignty and Federalism – a tool for adaptation
One of the key aspects of a federal state that works under the subsidiary principle is the vertical division of political competences – or in other words – the splitting up of sovereignty into political resorts.
An European example of such a state is the Federal Republic of Germany, which is comprised of 16 German states. An exemplified distribution of political competences: While e.g. foreign policy, defense, economy etc. is a competence of the federal state (aka “Germany”), other fields like education and cultural sovereignty remain with the member states (Bavaria, Saxony, etc). That means:
Regarding education, Bavarians and Saxons are their own, separate sovereign through state elections. Regarding foreign policy, all Germans are the shared sovereign through national elections. Such a structural setup guarantees a maximum of autonomy for the member state while allowing effective policy-making on national and international level.
When Emmanuel Macron talks about a “European Sovereignty”, we should not fear the loss of sovereignty. Shifting certain political powers from EU member states to a democratic European federal level rather results into an extension of the sovereign in certain political fields with our fellow Europeans through European elections. That allows policies to be made on the level on which they are needed. A clear separation of responsibility that the EU seriously needs.
We are way too interdependent in this world to see sovereignty as total control in all internal and external affairs. We should treat sovereignty as a flexible tool. As a matter of course, each people must decide freely on whether it wants to share sovereignty with other peoples.
But every reader should be honest and ask themselves: What is my part of an isolationist sovereignty worth if I am the sovereign over a pile of rubble?