CUPRINS nr. 112


National sovereignty
- a burden on the shoulders of European members?


1. Historical background

With a Europe under profound institutional changes and reforms, several issues are being scrutinized by politicians and scholars: constitution, identity, values, national sovereignty. The list does not end there, but national sovereignty is stirring up the current debate. How far are we from a classic definition of national sovereignty?

At a first glance, definitions do not capture the entire complexity of the concept. There are references to "the fiction of the absolute sovereignty of equal states"1 or to a supreme, absolute power by which an independent state is governed. Sovereignty may also be considered a convenient umbrella for a strict control of the constitution, government and legislation. It is also associated with the notion of command juxtaposed to the lack of accountability in the case of a dictatorial regime. Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes first elaborated the notion of sovereignty in the 16th and 17th centuries, and were concerned with establishing the legitimacy of a single hierarchy of domestic authority. Though accepting the existence of divine and natural law, they both believed sovereignty was simply based on law. Subjects had no right to revolt. Bodin and Hobbes were predominately concerned with maintaining domestic order, without which they believed there could be no justice2.

The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia system of sovereignty had de facto been eroded by a host of factors, from moral constraints on states' limits of action to the increasing significance of actors at both supranational and sub-national level (and the interconnectedness brought by globalization.)

Sovereignty in government means a public authority which directs or orders what is to be done by each member associated in relation to the end of the association. It is the supreme power by which any citizen is governed and is the person or body of persons in the state to whom there is politically no superior. The necessary existence of the state and that right and power which inevitably follow is "sovereignty". By "sovereignty" in its broadest sense is meant supreme, absolute, uncontrollable power, the absolute right to govern. "Sovereignty is the other side of the coin of international anarchy, for if states claim sovereignty, then the structure of the international system is by definition anarchic."3

Recent theories point out that sovereignty is closely linked to two sets of factors:
a) the external ones: the position 'occupied' by a state in relation with its neighbours and most important international actors
b) the internal ones: the role and degree of power and influence exerted by main political institutions.

Looked from this angle, sovereignty seems to point out into the direction of political capability versus internal functionality, as the political bodies of one state have to locate their source of power and legitimacy within and outside its political borders. The idea that the a state's sovereignty is present at these two levels and that there is a relation in between them has been clearly expressed by IR theorists: "Viewed internationally, however, the state is not merely a government; it is a populated territory with a national government and society. In other words, it is a country. From that angle, both the government and the domestic society make up the state. If a country is a sovereign state it will be generally recognised a politically independent."4 More than that, sovereignty has substantial implications on the juridical statehood of sovereign political entities and provinces willing to attain sovereignty depend on juridical and political recognition of existing sovereign states.

2. National or European sovereignty

So much for the general background. Let us examine now what is the distance between this definition and the changing world of the European Union.

Some analysts already foresee a dangerous game between the 'big three' as the dominant actors who are not leaving enough space for the smaller states around them to play in: "…the three countries Britain, France, Germany have an interest in moving Europe forward in the interests of Europe as a whole. (…) Most people in the Polish government think the talk of a fast track is just bluff, a tool to blackmail Poland and force it to make concessions" in the wrangle over national voting strengths under the constitution, says Janusz Reiter, head of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw."5

Yet the idea of a two-speed Europe is considered thoroughly precarious by some European players: "It would be dangerous because the current conception is essentially divisive: the aim is not so much to show the way for other member states as to leave the laggards behind. Yet the original idea behind "core Europe", as formulated in 1994 by Karl Lamers and Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Christian Democrats, was that the core would draw other countries in. A few years later Joschka Fischer, Germany's Foreign Minister took the idea up, talking of an "avant garde" that would take European integration forward."6

Similar worries are shared by many others. Analysts and scholars attempt to examine how the tone of voice moves on from one European corner to the other: the cautious British perspective, the 'independent' Franco-German alliance, the Italian and Spanish points of view. ''Sovereignty'' is discussed on French political scene as defense of national sovereignty against the centralizing ''federalist'' version of European Union has produced a new major political party claiming to represent the Gaullist heritage. The same current exists on the French left, where it is led by the Interior Minister of the present Socialist-led government. The Scandinavian members of the EU resist more integration. Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, in a speech in the Netherlands in 1999, just after the birth of the single currency, declared "The introduction of the euro is probably the most important integrating step since the beginning of the unification process. This will require us to bury some erroneous ideas of national sovereignty."7

A broad definition is valid only as theory of international politics, but when we come close to politicians' views and follow their vigorous discourse; the situation is different from that of a reader. Identities, different values and priorities set up by main European actors lead to a diversity of definitions: "What seems essential is to see that national sovereignty is a living concept, of a dynamic character, and the nature of national sovereignty debates has been definitely evolving over the last century. In the world of today when we are all increasingly depending on each other, when everything increasingly depends on everything else, national sovereignty means something different than years ago. Some time ago participatory sovereignty was invented, reflecting massive and deep changes in the world around us, and suggesting the need for a new approach to traditional understanding of national sovereignty. What is surprising, however, is that whenever the national sovereignty concern emerges, it tends to wake up the old understanding, the old approach. It seems also that though legal and constitutional aspects of national sovereignty are of paramount relevance, what should not be overlooked and underestimated is the social perception of national sovereignty."8

Sovereignty and pursued national interests are definitely marked by transition and reforms taking place in the new member states. The same thing now happens with remaining candidate countries. Economic, monetary and institutional changes are perceived as threat factors: politicians and media are preserving the anxiety for the population of their countries. We tend to discuss so much about difficult issues and situations that we forget the overall picture. Some keep an optimistic tone in referring to the present dispute: "I believe that in Europe the national sovereignty concern is still a challenge and not yet a problem."9

Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy states that security has gone beyond the nation-state definition. As a result, sovereignty could now be translated as the ability of a state to protect its citizens; when a state will not or cannot do so, then intervention (or abrogation of sovereignty) is justified. This is especially true for 'failed states', which can all too easily become breeding grounds for terrorism.10

3. Institutional capability

European institutions still struggle to find their feet in terms of functionality. This is not only about decision-making procedures, but it implies decisiveness and well synchronized efforts of a majority. We witness, of course the dilemma of national versus general European interest, as M.Rainer Lepsius reflects: "It is not the decision-making process that is the main problem, but getting countries to agree. This is achieved through acceptance of European rationality criteria that emerge not only from national-interest positions but from the cognitive structuring of 'European' problems and ways of solving them. This is the Commission's task in working out its proposals, and a task that is grounded in the judgements of the European Court of Justice. Both of these 'operationalise' Europe."11

Europe is more and more required to act and speak as a well orchestrated body. It changes its shape, but the fundamentals (the treaty system) are clearly set up, and will not be affected by institutional reforms, as consensus is still the key to reaching common decisions and agreements.

4. National interests, redefined

Critics of European construction think the EU will consume its member states in terms of preserving sovereignty and prevalence of political interests. Both sides of the coin, the national versus the European one, are not easily harmonized. There are voices who claim this is not a win-win game: "The very concept of a distinct nationality and a particular culture implies a preference for some values over others, for some ways of thinking and behaving as opposed to other ways. The EU seeks to erase those differences, to destroy diversity and to impose in their place a bland and rigid conformity"12.

Politicians also think that pursuance of national interest is still strongly linked to the concept of sovereignty though there are definite alterations to the traditional definition of this concept, based on "a growing tension between interests defined from a purely national perspective, and interests defined in a multilateral one. My own strong belief is that there is no choice to be made between multilateralism and the national interest. Even for the greatest powers, national interest can only be defined in terms of wider considerations and wider responsibilities"13. It is clear that a system based on balance of power, a relevant and applicable model for the world ceased to be of use in politics after 1990. The whole political system was changed and shaken to its roots and basic elements. The '90s brought in such a dramatic change, that politicians were forced to identify new solutions, models for conflict resolution and systems of alliances. Such systems cannot exist if decision-makers, individuals in general, do not change their way of thinking in international relations. If we speak of sovereignty as being re-defined, then other concepts need to suffer a similar process: nation and nationalism, security, globalization, interests, co-operation. How should the European Union act to be closer to such a view?

Collectivism and loss of individualism seem to be one possible answer: "What it should be seeking, at least in my conception, is a supra-national policy which can combine what is best about those differences: the variety that gives Europe its depth and fascination while overcoming what has been worst about them: extreme nationalism, xenophobia, mutually destructive trade and monetary policies, unstable balance of power politics, and above all war. (…) Sovereignty, in other words, has been pooled. Each national Parliament has lost a certain power to obstruct."14

5. Sovereignty and unilateralism

Current loss of national sovereignty is generally associated with the concept of multilateralism and willingness to be involved in a multi-party international game, be it trade, politics, cultural or generally institutional. In spite of that, critics argue that sovereignty may actually be linked to unilateralism, and this means that a dominant power will attempt to impose its formal or informal political attitude on other international actors. Ian Robinson declares that: "A stronger case against unilateralism can be made if it is redefined as actions by one or more states that have significant "external" impacts, undertaken without the agreement of the governments whose citizens are affected by these actions."15 Robinson believes that for certain situations "unilateral actions can be legitimated on progressive internationalist grounds" as they are applicable "if and only if two conditions are met: (1) the balance of evidence suggests that most people in the affected countries believe that the policy would benefit them (or would believe this if they had access to all of the relevant facts and arguments); and (2) the affected states that oppose the policy are low-quality democracies or authoritarian regimes in which national governments routinely ignore the interests of the majority of their people."16 Again we come across a defined national interest, yet this has to be based on ethical grounds, otherwise unilateral actions simply represent an authoritarian type of decision-making ignoring opinions expressed by other parties.

The war in Iraq shows that United States was openly declaring its unilateral position in an effort to push for military intervention. Saddam and some of his key officials were captured , yet the end of the conflict is far from being known - which suggests that we are not only speaking of a dictator and a small group of nationalistic followers. Recent discussions point out that unilateralism was strongly perceived in terms of the United States indifferent attitude to European feelings: "While the United States frequently has been characterized as turning its back on existing multilateral norms and mechanisms out of post-Cold War hubris, many cases of alleged U.S. unilateralism in fact have involved the United States refusing to go along with new initiatives championed by others. Whether justifiably or not, U.S. reluctance to embrace some of these initiatives has done great damage to their image as a law-abiding state committed to multilateral cooperation."17 Such opinions are strongly articulated on the French side of the Atlantic, as France is one of the main opponents of US intervention in Iraq. Apart from official statements, scholars tend to agree on this point when they refer to "the specter of US isolationism" that "has been replaced by the specter of US unilateralism."18

There are legal scholars who think that is not valid just for the United States; that United States is now the dominant super-power on the international arena; however emerging European Union may become the future political entity that might act in a comparable manner. The next couple of years will demonstrate how strong the European Union will become and if it is able to achieve the cohesion needed for a collective unilateral voice: "Contemporary Europe, for its part, in growing awareness of its economic power and desire to protect its nationals, also lets herself driven by unilateralism. But being in any case less homogenous it knows it owes its very existence to international law."19 Though enlargement will affect the slow path to European cohesion among divided European actors, general interest and common sense will probably prevail over national or narrow political interests. From a realistic point of view, the recent member states will not be so tough as compared to those who proved to have strong and opposite views (UK, France-Germany) if we look at the way Europeans discussed the military intervention in Iraq.

6. Effects of globalization

The loss of national sovereignty is strongly weighed up against widely-discussed globalization. Globalization is often defined in terms of transfer of authority and regulatory decisions from the nation state to various international actors in business and politics. Realist views on globalization are quite isolated; strong views allege that globalization has taken over too much of the nation-state power. Its more recent effects exceed the strictly economic or political scale, going into the social and cultural systems as well. Danuta Hübner declares: "As globalization interferes deeply in the social fabric and traditional social structures collapse, it undermines traditional cultural norms and values. This in turn generates reaction which is reflected in defending social norms and maintaining the awareness of social and historical roots of individuals. Feeling helpless vis-a-vis new challenges, people reach out to tradition, to history, to what gives the feeling of security, what defends them from unwanted impacts of external interference (…) What is important about globalization in the context of national sovereignty argument is that it leads to reduction in the role of political power. This is already visible - also within the nation states the role of political power is being reduced. The rationalism becomes increasingly economic. This process of gradually reducing political power makes political leaders more open to national sovereignty policy lines, exploiting the argument of national sovereignty being threatened"20. Given this argument, we understand why politicians feel deeply affected by the present alterations of their country's sovereignty, while European citizens hardly notice any potential loss.


In terms of definition and changes, sovereignty has suffered massive shifts in the last 10 years. Its present significance is currently connected with loss of authority, transnational phenomena, interdependence, regionalisation and globalization. Politicians and scholars observe a serious transfer of power and decision from national to supra-national level. Some think recent alterations of this concept are to be further analyzed and linked with isolationism. The United States is severely criticized for its unilateralist view on recent international matters, notably the war in Iraq, while the European Union seems to struggle with its own institutional capability. Changes related to how and where sovereignty moved to (from its historical Westphalian background) lead to debates that are far from being over. Sovereignty will continue to develop its multi-faceted components, and they will continue to be obviously related to overall changes in a multi-level and multi-polar world.


1 Anne Bodley, "Weakening the Principle of Sovereignty in International Law: The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia", 31 N.Y.U. J. INT'L L. & POL (1999): 420
2 Stephen D.Krasner, "Sovereignty - history of the concept", Foreign Policy (2001): 6
3 Iain McLean, ed., Concise Dictionary of Politics (Oxford University Press, 1996): 464
4 Robert Jackson, Georg Sorensen, Introduction to International Relations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 21-22
5 Peter Ford, "Europe's Small States Fear Domination by 'Big Three'", Christian Science Monitor (Jan. 2004): 2-3
6 Heather Grabbe, "The Siren Song of a Two-Speed Europe", Financial Times, (Dec. 2003)
7 Charlemagne, "Stability or instability", The Economist, (Nov. 2003): 1
8 Danuta Hübner, "Limits to national sovereignty", European Forum Alpbach Papers (2000)
9 Hubner, "Limits to national sovereignty"
10 Alex Evans, "National Sovereignty and Universal Challenges: Choices for the World After Iraq- Six Themes", executive summary of National Sovereignty and Universal Challenges Conference, (June 2003, Brussels): 7
11 Rainer Lepsius, M., "The European Union as a Sovereignty Association of a Special Nature", Harvard Jean Monnet Working Paper.7 (2000): 3-4
12 Alistair McConnachie, "Why we Need Sovereignty", Sovereignty (January 2000): 1
13 Rt Hon Chris Patten, CH, "Sovereignty and the National Interest Old Concepts, New Meanings", The Newman Lecture University College - Dublin (2002): 1
14 Rt Hon Chris Patten, "Sovereignty and the National Interest Old Concepts", 2
15 Ian Robinson, "Progressive Unilateralism: US Unilateralism, Progressive Internationalism, and Alternatives to Neoliberalism", Foreign Policy Discussion Paper 3 (2000): 1
16 Ian Robinson, "Progressive Unilateralism", 2
17 John Van Oudenaren, "Unilateralism, Multilateralism, And Transat­lantic Relations: Thinking Through The Conceptual Issues", (2002)
18 Pascal Boniface, "The Specter of Unilateralism", Center of Strategic and International Studies and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published in The Washington Quarterly, 24 (2001): 155-162
19 Pierre Marie Dupuy, "The Place and Role of Unilateralism in Contemporary International Law", European Journal of International Law, vol.11, no.1 (2000): 21
20 Danuta Hübner, "Limits to national sovereignty".

Barry Buzan, "Sovereignty", in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics, ed. Iain McLean (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996): 464
Robert O.Keohane, "Ironies of Sovereignty: the European Union and the United States", Journal for Common Market Studies, 40th anniversary issue ( Nov.2002)
Robert Jackson, Quasi-States: Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990): 32-47
Stephen Krasner, Sovereignty: Organised Hypocrisy, (Princeton University Press, 1999), 3-42
Joseph S. Nye, "Seven Tests: Between Concert and Unilateralism", The National Interest, Winter 2001/02: 5-13
Saskia Sassen. Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization. University Seminars/Leonard Hastings Schoff Memorial Lectures (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996)

- absolvent al Facultatii de Limbi Straine, sectia engleza-romana (1994), masterand sectia Relatii Internationale a Facultatii de Stiinte Politice, Uni­versitatea Bucuresti, cu o teza in pregatire asupra studiilor de securitate, de la teoriile realiste la cele feministe; a publicat un articol in cadrul revistei "Studii de Securitate", nr.2(3), 2004, intitulat "Integrare, securitate europeana si relatii internationale in cadrul UE".




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