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Europe’s Sovereignty Conundrum


The call for greater “European sovereignty” has become very popular of late, but it is far from clear what the term means. And the “sovereign” is entirely missing from the debate.

© REUTERS/Yves Herman

During the last few years, there has been much discussion about “European sovereignty.” In particular, the concept is associated with French President Emmanuel Macron, who, as early as in his 2017 Sorbonne speech, has made it central to his own vision for Europe and its role in the world. Other leading “pro-European” figures have also embraced the concept—in particular after the Trump administration abandoned the nuclear agreement with Iran and imposed new sanctions that would affect European companies that continue to do business in Iran. In 2018 European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even entitled his State of the Union speech “The hour of European sovereignty,” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded “greater strategic sovereignty” for the EU as recently as May 13.

However, although the concept is now widely used, it is far from clear what it means. It is often just another term for a strong, united Europe or the vague idea that Europe must “take its destiny into its own hands.” It tends to be used almost interchangeably with “strategic autonomy,” though sometimes with a greater focus on economic power rather than just military power. Given the lack of clarity about what “European sovereignty” means, it is tempting to simply ignore the concept. But the way it has been used in the last few years actually tells us a lot about “pro-European” thinking and illustrates some of the problems with it—in particular in debates about European foreign policy.

Historically, “pro-Europeans” tended to be anti- or post-sovereigntist—that is, they saw “sovereignty” as an anachronistic and dangerous concept—and were always slightly dismissive of other “sovereigntist” powers. In particular, of course, it was national sovereignty that those considered “pro-Europeans” opposed. They have had a tendency to think concepts that are problematic at the national level are somehow unproblematic at the European level. But until recently most “pro-Europeans” would have also seen the idea of “European sovereignty” as problematic—the whole point of the European project was to move not just beyond national sovereignty but also beyond the concept of sovereignty altogether.

Remaking the World in Europe’s Image

What “pro-Europeans” wanted was to transform international politics by moving beyond a world of power politics to one based on the rule of law—and central to this was a rethink of what sovereignty meant. “Until the European Union was created, the idea of statehood, of being ‘sovereign,’ meant independence from external intervention, maintaining your secrecy, keeping other countries at bay,” wrote Mark Leonard in his 2005 book Why Europe will run the 21st Century. But, he went on, after World War II Europeans had embraced interdependence instead of independence. “Instead of jealously guarding their sovereignty from external interference, Europeans have turned mutual interference and surveillance into the basis of their security.”

For “pro-Europeans” like Leonard, the EU was a kind of blueprint for global governance. They believed that the whole world should become like Europe. Reflecting a somewhat deterministic current in “pro-European” thinking, many saw a kind of inevitability in this remaking of the world in the image of Europe. The inexorable logic of interdependence undermined sovereignty and necessitated transnational governance structures like the EU. Thus the rest of world would eventually catch up with the radical post-sovereigntist vision on which the EU was based. The whole world would eventually pool and share sovereignty among themselves just as Europeans had done, and something like the EU would become a kind of world government.

The idea of “European sovereignty” is a manifestation of the way that “pro-Europeans” have essentially given up on this idea—at least for now. After the series of crises the EU has faced over the last decade, beginning with the eurocrisis in 2010, the idea the EU is a model looks much less compelling than it did in the mid-2000s. Meanwhile, in the context of the rise of China, Russian revisionism, and uncertainty about the commitment of the United States to Europe, the continent feels much more alone and threatened than it did back then. Instead of a transformation of international politics, there has been a transformation of “pro-European” thinking. “Pro-Europeans” no longer see the EU as a model, but as a competitor—that is, as a power that has to compete with others. In order to do so, they say, it needs “sovereignty.”

Only Big Is Truly Sovereign

The idea of “European sovereignty” is based on a distinction between two definitions of sovereignty in international politics: a narrow, legal definition and a wider, strategic definition. In the narrow sense—the conventional definition—all states are sovereign. It is in this legal sense that it is a violation of sovereignty when one country invades another without a mandate from the United Nations Security Council—for example, when the United States invaded Iraq, or Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. But when the concept of sovereignty is used in this conventional sense, the secondary impact of US sanctions is hardly a “massive assault” on the sovereignty of Europe, as former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt claimed. It is simply one power using the size of its market to pursue its interests.

However, there has long been a sense in “pro-European” thinking that this kind of sovereignty is a kind of illusion. A state may legally be able to make its own laws, but is in practice unable to resist the pressures of international politics. In particular, “pro-Europeans” have long argued that small states are not really sovereign, even though they may possess sovereignty in the legal sense. The only way to be truly sovereign, they argued, is to be big. Thus European integration did not really undermine the national sovereignty of EU member states. “The choice is not between national and European sovereignty,” wrote Jean Pisani-Ferry, a former advisor to Macron, in December 2019. “It is between European sovereignty and none at all.”

This wider definition clearly reflects an aspiration or even an expectation among many Europeans that they should be as powerful as China and the United States—a kind of third pole in a multipolar world. This is why the concept of “European sovereignty” gained momentum following the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the imposition of sanctions that could impact European companies. The concept expresses the sense that the EU ought to be able to stand up to great powers like China and the US—indeed, that the EU ought to itself be a great power, as opposed to the “normative power” it once aspired to be.

A Question of Power?

However, this wider concept of sovereignty tends to collapse into the concept of power—to be sovereign is simply to be powerful. It also sets a very high threshold for sovereignty. If that threshold lies above the level of power that big European states like Germany, France and the United Kingdom have on their own, as many “pro-Europeans” argue, it means that only a handful of the world’s 195 states are sovereign. Clearly, the US and China are sovereign, and perhaps India and Russia. But it is not even clear whether Japan—a country of 125 million people with one of the biggest economies and most advanced militaries in the world—is sovereign. Is this really a meaningful definition of sovereignty?

Moreover, if sovereignty is a function of size, and Europe is going to become sovereign in this wider sense and will therefore be able to protect itself from “violations” of sovereignty like the secondary impact of US sanctions, then European sovereignty will  “violate” the sovereignty of other smaller states. The EU has long been able to impose its will on states in its neighborhood—for example, it has reshaped accession countries through conditionality. If one understands sovereignty in the narrower sense, this is again just one power using the size of its market to pursue its interests. But if one understands sovereignty in the wider, strategic sense, it must surely be a “violation” of sovereignty analogous to US sanctions.

Of course, few “pro-Europeans” would accept this. Advocates of the idea “European sovereignty” tend to alternate between the two definitions of sovereignty based on what suits them best. When it comes to the EU’s interactions with its neighborhood, in particular accession countries or countries that are part of the European Neighborhood Policy—in other words: weaker powers—they use the narrower, legal definition of sovereignty. But when it comes to the EU’s relations with great powers like China and the United States—in other words: stronger powers—they use the wider, strategic definition of sovereignty. In short, “pro-Europeans” want to have it both ways.

Who’s the Sovereign?

There is also an even deeper problem with the idea of “European sovereignty.” So far we have been discussing the international political dimension of the concept of sovereignty, that is, questions of power in international politics. But there is also a domestic political dimension of the concept of sovereignty, which concerns the question of who has power within states. This dimension is entirely missing from discussions around “European sovereignty.” “Pro-Europeans” want Europe as a whole to be powerful relative to other powers. But the concept of “European sovereignty” says very little about power within Europe. In other words, who exactly is sovereign in a sovereign Europe?

The concept of “European sovereignty” focuses on state sovereignty—or perhaps quasi-state sovereignty, since the EU is not actually a state—rather than popular sovereignty. The concept is being driven by foreign-policy elites who want Europe to be handlungsfähig, or capable of acting, and therefore want to increase the power of a European executive. However, there is little discussion of the legitimacy of this executive power, little discussion of whether it expresses the will of the people of Europe. In fact, the European people are almost completely missing from the debate about “European sovereignty.” Do they actually want “European sovereignty”?

The Lisbon Treaty is a good example of this. It was a major step forward in empowering a European executive to pursue a more coherent, effective foreign policy—to act strategically. In particular, it created a European foreign minister (the “high representative”) and a diplomatic service that “pro-Europeans” hoped would enable the EU to pursue a more coherent and effective foreign policy. The Lisbon Treaty was welcomed by the “pro-European” foreign policy establishment. But it was essentially a repackaged form of the European Constitution that was rejected by Dutch and French voters in 2005 and was thus deeply problematic in democratic terms. It remains far from clear that even these steps toward a more strategic—or “sovereign” —Europe had the support of the people of Europe.

Countervailing Pressures

When one compares the debate in continental Europe about “European sovereignty” with the parallel debate in the United Kingdom in the last four years since the June 2016 referendum, this absence of the domestic dimension of sovereignty is particularly striking. The British debate has been almost entirely about popular sovereignty and what it means. Indeed, part of the reason why many “pro-Europeans” and Remainers, particularly among foreign policy elites, are so frustrated about Brexit and the debate around it is that questions around British power in the world have been so marginal to it. In focusing on questions of popular sovereignty, Britain seems to them to have abandoned its traditional strategic thinking.

What the existence of these two debates—one about (quasi-)state sovereignty and the other about popular sovereignty—illustrates is that there are two countervailing pressures on European countries today. There is a top-down pressure, which is pushing Europeans toward forming a bigger unit—and it is this pressure that motivates those who call for “European sovereignty.” But there is also a bottom-up pressure, which is pushing Europeans toward smaller units. Ultimately, Europeans need to reconcile the two. In other words, the questions around European power that foreign policy analysts debate must be linked much more closely to debates about democracy in the EU.