Parsing the tension between 'state sovereignty' and 'more Europe'

Europe's conceptions of citizenship, state sovereignity and nationalism have been bound up with each other historically, but the future may instead promise "a teeming European nation of nations" rooted in a "radical democratization of the European Union." 

Lammert de Jong
19 July 2012

“State sovereignty” and Europeanization seem to be standing in each other’s way when assessing the EU’s course. To be [sovereign] or not to be are presented as the only alternatives. “State sovereignty", both the loss of it as well as the aspiration to look beyond the state, skews the course of the European Union; it has become a wrenching topic in the necessary makeover of the European Union, supported by a stark perception of Brussels’ overlordship that is multiplied by a glaring democratic deficit. 

“State-sovereignty” had its primordial moment in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), when it was agreed that no other state should interfere with the right of the sovereign power in a particular state deciding which religion(s) could be practiced in that particular country. State-sovereignty provided a way to end religious wars in Europe. As the state acquired more functions in the course of history, “state sovereignty” gradually expanded in accordance with the widening scope of the state; it became a thicker concept. “State-sovereignty” enjoyed another historic moment with “the signal contribution of the French and American revolutions: the notion that the people are the state, and the state is the people (Sassen, 2009, 51).” “State sovereignty” was locked in with popular sovereignty, and vice versa, and later bolstered by the idea of “the nation,” gaining momentous appeal.

“State sovereignty” has had outstanding episodes, grounded in religion, war, people’s democracy and the nation, identity markers par excellence. So it should not come as a surprise that “state sovereignty” is a concept with vast political agency, hard to beat, even in the face of contradictory evidence (the state is not so sovereign any more) or an oppositional moral argumentation (the state should be subordinated to global sustainability). Westphalian citizenship, embodied in the idea of individuals as citizens of sovereign states that claim autonomy in relation with other states and supreme authority within their specified territorial borders, has all along faced real life depreciations but is now confronting challenges it cannot meet (Dower, 2002, 12). In actual reality, “state sovereignty” was always to be taken with a grain of salt. However, in spite of “the state” falling short of being a veritably sovereign, “state sovereignty” served as a shining model in politics and international relations. It provided a conceptual home for national citizenship, the cornerstone of a democratic state where “state sovereignty” is legitimized by “popular sovereignty.” Recognizing that the nation-state is irretrievable losing sovereignty in a globalizing world has far ranging consequences for our understanding of how democracy works, letting lose an array of critical questions about popular sovereignty as well as a person’s citizenship that is currently defined as membership of a sovereign state. “State sovereignty” still serves as a priceless political platform. 

As a result, the promotion of European citizenship is falling through the cracks, obscuring the option of directing one’s citizenship towards European and global affairs. National citizenship and “state sovereignty” no longer suffice, neither in terms of power nor of scope, in representing “popular sovereignty” in a globalized world. Both, major global affairs that lie beyond the powers of the individual nation-state as well as principal local interests - be it in respect of security, freedom, welfare or sustainable comforts - require Europeanization by upgrading citizenship that makes effective claims in a transnational public sphere, a format that matters nowadays. Filling the gap, the European Union carries a civilizing mission, a promise of empowering people with regard to transnational issues that strike “home” nowadays.  

The mightier the state the more complicated its agreement to exchange sovereignty for one or another reason. In particular France cringes at the idea that the European Union would be authorized to set budgetary conditions for its national budget, contravening La Souveraineté, which would in effect be equated with France becoming a German protectorate: Jamais! For small states it’s easier, as they cannot close their eyes to the fact that they are relatively insignificant stand-alone states in a globalizing world. Small states can act-up in these exchanges, precisely because they are seen as insignificant, but mostly they are inclined [not always!] to bend to the big ones in Europe. Their quirky behaviour is then rhetorically exposed as another emblem of their insignificance.   

During the Euro crisis, Mrs. Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor and the major player in the European theatre, touched long forbidden “sovereignty” grounds when she repeated over and again in the spring of 2012 that “we need more Europe”, “a political union” and “fiscal unity”, euphemisms for sovereignty transfers to the European Union, updating political checks and balances. She resisted “simple” and “counterproductive” quick fixes, and pressed her allies to cede more power over their national budgets to Brussels. “More Europe” must precede the collectivization of debts; not the other way round. Joschka Fischer, a former German foreign affairs minister, did not beat around the bush: “You can’t mutualize the debt without mutualizing sovereignty.” As France’s economy is not on a par with the German economic powerhouse, “mutualizing” sovereignty tends to be interpreted as a German dictate rather than a mutual agreement for the best of the European Union. Because of Germany’s dominant economic position, “more Europe” means for France more of the German way of doing things with regards to budgets, taxes and pensions. Taken to the extreme, Germany is once more depicted as the greatest threat to Europe: “Germany is too big and powerful to coexist comfortably with its European neighbours in any political structure ruled purely by national interests. Yet it isn’t big and powerful enough to dominate its neighbours decisively, as the U.S. dominates North America or China will.”  

No wonder that “state sovereignty” swirls over the course of the European Union when national interests dominate and leadership is lacking. “State sovereignty” is applied as a neo-liberal stratagem that undercuts transnational solidarity, and keeps markets and finance unencumbered by demands of social and global civilization. “State sovereignty” stands in the way of “more Europe”; it blocks the development of citizenship with relevant clout, actually it narrows popular sovereignty to a state Ltd. resort.

To be [sovereign] or not to be expresses a false dichotomy. The loss of “state sovereignty” should not automatically be equated with a breakdown of national history and culture, local politics, feelings of home and belonging, in sum of nationalism. Charles de Gaulle, President of France (1959-1969), believed that the strength of European state-nationalism, “each with its own geography, history, language, traditions and institutions” prohibited the creation of one European nation; the nation-state would simply not be able to terminate itself. De Gaulle’s opinion is a personal reflection of his particular time, a simplification of the equation of the nation-state.

Nineteenth-century historiography produced proud national histories and so developed a national consciousness that, disseminated by emerging modern mass media, gradually acquired the appearance of naturalness (Habermas, 2010, 86). History has been largely taught with national content and nationalistic purpose “[…] and a view of the past biased in favor of [one’s] own country (Heater, 2002, 175).” The assertion that a “European people” does not exist is not just loose talk, but reflects the success story of the construction of national collective identities. It doesn’t prove however that a “European people”, with the derivative appearance of civic engagement in a European public sphere cannot be imagined in the future. Thereto we have to produce proud European stories, such as for instance: Europe’s Promise. Why the European way is the best hope in an insecure age (Steven Hill, 2010), obviously written for an American public that does not know the European way.

Nations and states have over time maintained various relations. By the eighteenth century, the word “nation” was coming to mean one’s own country, and therefore the nation-state. Consequently nationality and citizenship were conflated, more or less synonymous (Heater, 2002, 40). This was not the case before. From the times of the Roman Republic until the mid-eighteen century, “nations were ethnic or cultural subdivisions of states, whereas citizenship related an individual legally and politically to the city or the state […] Citizenship and nationhood in the classical tradition provided individuals with separate identities for living in separate spheres so that there was no occasion for the two to clash.  In the eighteenth century it was common to speak of the nations (plural) of France (Heater, 2002, 38-39).” Walt Whitman’s observation in 1885 of the USA: “Here is not merely a Nation but a teeming nation of nations,” rings a similar bell, distinguishing a plurality of ‘nations.’ These American “nations” are not defined by the particular States of America, but rather by origin of the American “peoples.” In Europe, the Federal Republic of Germany is a federal state made up of 16 constituent states, the Länder, with their own signatories, construed at various stages in Germany’ history. The balance between unified statehood and pluralistic nationhood is precarious, but there is plenty of evidence that it has worked, without the state terminating itself.  Why can’t the European Union develop as a form of statehood of “not merely a Nation,” but a teeming European nation of nations?

The enormous asymmetry between the power of anonymous markets and “state sovereignty” necessitates countervailing European statehood. Global markets and international finance give and take away, cannibalizing the idea of people’s self-government. This asymmetry has produced a stark devaluation of “popular sovereignty” and citizenship, while, at the same time, the European democratic deficit blurs the perspective of its civilizing mission; it actually contradicts this mission, which is a most important explanation for the prevalent anxiety about the course of the European Union. A fitting European citizenship coming face-to-face with the European democratic deficit is a contradiction in terms. Lacking democratic legitimacy, any push towards “more Europe” will bolster Eurosceptic sentiment and demeanor. This deadlock can only be broken by a radical democratization of the European Union, substantiating European citizenship with a popular vote that means something. The civilizing mission of the European Union must be rooted in the restoration of popular sovereignty in the corridors of Brussels, re-empowering people to have a say “at home” as well as in global affairs, which are defining much of their “home” nowadays.

Works Referenced

Dower, Nigel & John Williams (Eds. 2002) Global Citizenship. A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge  

Habermas, Jurgen (2010) EUROPE. The Faltering Project. Malden-USA: Polity Press

Heater, Derek (2002) World Ciitzenship. Cosmopolitan Thinking and its Opponents. London-New York: Continuum.   

Hill, Steven (2010 Europe’s Promise. Why the European way is the best hope in an insecure age.Berkeley-Los Angeles-London: University of California Press.

Sassen, Saskia (2009) ‘The State and Globalization: Denationalized Participation and More Executive Powers.’ In: Schinkel (Ed.) 2009, pp. 36-57.

Schinkel, Willem (Ed.) (2009) Globalization and The State. Sociological Perspectives on the State of the State. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Notes

Steven Erlanger, Talks May Test Partnership Between a Weak France and a Strong Germany. In: The New York Times, 22 June 2012.  

Market Commentary. By Art Cashin Prepared by UBS Financial Services Inc. 21 June 2012. 

Martin Sommer, Franse grappen met Duitsland zijn hoogst riskant. In: De Volkskrant, 15th July 2012.  

Walt Whitman: “Here is not merely a Nation but a teeming nation of nations.” In his 1855 essay Preface to Leaves of Grass. In:  Famous Prefaces, The Harvard Classics. 1909–14:

American Identities: A New Look. Brooklyn Museum, Permanent Installations, Luce Center for American Art.


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