Future of national sovereignty in Europe

, by Juuso Järviniemi

Future of national sovereignty in Europe
Market Square, Münster, where the Treaty of Westphalia was signed ( Ⓒ Pahas - Flickr Commons)

The system where each country is sovereign, i.e. recognises no authority which can completely rule it (and accepts no domestic equals), is in use all around the world. This Westphalian system originated in Europe after the Middle Ages but now it can be argued that Europe is the very area where the system is challenged. The community of states that Europeans have created is globally unique and goes against the Westphalian model.

Another way to examine sovereignty is to regard it as a spectrum, or a ”bundle of powers”, as it’s called. The more things a country can do by itself, the more sovereign it is. In that regard, EU Member States and, to some extent, the prospective member states notably in the Balkans, have given up a significant part of their sovereignty i.e. independence to the community, which is hardly a surprise to those following European affairs.

Political integration and, as it appears, increasingly centralised economic governance are examples of how the EU has become more than a regime, though still less than a fully-fledged federation. In spite of the fact that several issues have recently shaken the very foundations of the European project, more integration is coming all the time, currently notably in the form of the digital single market and the energy union. If this trend continues, one can ask how sovereign or independent European countries are going to be in the future.

After all, the EU is a community of states acting together to get some sort of added value. ”Added value” suggests that European countries are, in fact, pursuing their own national interest by acting in the community which is supposed to benefit them in the long run. The state can benefit from an act in the international arena in either absolute or relative terms and, in the ideal situation, the gain of being an EU Member State is not only absolute but also relative when compared to non-members around the world.

In the current structure of the EU, where national governments play a big role in the legislative process via the Council of Ministers and in the shaping of longer-term plans in the European Council, the Union is ultimately what the states make out of it. The continuous presence of countless national representatives to the EU shows explicitly that the states are there to negotiate the best terms of membership for themselves on a daily basis. On these grounds, you could say that the European Union isn’t replacing the countries which compose it but is rather serving as a platform for them to go for their goals. The same can be said about other international organisations such as the United Nations, which especially during the Cold War was little more than the boxing ring of the great powers.

Even though the EU can eventually conquer more and more bastions of national sovereignty, from core legislation all the way to the much-discussed foreign and security policy, one must note that the Union cannot exist without the consent of its Member States, at least unless some surprising changes of a fundamental nature occur. From this point of view, national sovereignty is, at least in a sense, not at all threatened by the existence of a community which can efficiently impose fines on countries which don’t observe common rules. After all, there are international treaties, like the Chemical Weapons Convention, which have an equally well-functioning, albeit obviously not as broad-reaching, sanctioning system. The EU may go deeper into the bundle of powers of a country but otherwise it’s much like any international community.

How states could see their position in the community fundamentally challenged would be a shift towards a ”union of citizens” which could be achieved via treaty changes. Such an EU would be primarily governed by a stronger European Commission – or, if you prefer, European Government – elected directly or indirectly by European citizens while the role of national ministers and heads of states would diminish substantially, in which case the mandate of the EU would come from the citizens rather than from the states. A major obstacle on the way to this scenario is the fact that treaty changes would be needed before such changes could be implemented. These changes would, surprise surprise, be signed by national governments which, unless the majority of European people experience a collective change of heart and cause the political atmosphere across Europe to turn more federalist than ever, would scarcely cede their own powers like that.

Technically, European states are ruled by the people so whatever the people want, be it even a hardcore federation where countries would be reduced to autonomous regions rather than independent states, should be possible. Nevertheless, the current institutional structure of the European Union seems reasonably strong and therefore speaking of a platform for European countries to collaborate and that way generate the optimal conditions for their success is more appropriate than talking about a community eventually devouring the sovereignty of its member states when discussing the nature of the EU.