Thinking about the future: What is the future of sovereignty and of European sovereignty?

Written by Joanna Apap.

‘What is the future of sovereignty and of European sovereignty?’ The European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) put forward this very topical question to participants in the first of a series of forward-looking events devoted to ‘Thinking about the Future’. On 7 September, the participants in this online roundtable, organised in partnership with the Groupe d’études géopolitiques research centre, assessed the contemporary meaning of sovereignty and its potential evolution in the coming years. Anthony Teasdale, Director General of EPRS, welcomed a panel of academics and commentators: Sebastian Lumet, Director of the Brussels office of Le Grand Continent; Luiza Bialasiewicz, Political Geographer and Professor of European Governance at the University of Amsterdam; Quentin Peel, Associate Fellow, Chatham House and former Europe and foreign editor for the Financial Times; and Céline Spector Professor in Philosophy at the Sorbonne University, Paris.

Sebastian Lumet presented the work of his research centre on sovereignty, as well as links to the work of the other participating speakers.

Sketching out the vast territory for this debate, moderator Franck Debié, Director of the European Parliament’s Library within EPRS, pointed out that although European integration involves the pooling of national sovereignty, it is only recently that the idea of a free-standing ‘European sovereignty’ has entered mainstream debate. Questions to be answered include: What is European sovereignty? How does it apply to the European debate? Where is the locus of power? To what extent is sovereignty to remain within national or geographical confines, or can we look beyond borders through a global conceptual lens particularly in this digital age? How far is it a legal concept and how far about maximising practical influence in the world? How might it and national sovereignty evolve in the future? Could the panel answer some or all of the above questions by looking at the past, present, as well as, future perspectives of sovereignty in Europe?

Franck Debié and Céline Spector began with an exploration of the historical background of sovereignty, looking back to France in the16th century where Jean Bodin used the new concept of sovereignty to bolster the power of the French king over the rebellious feudal lords, facilitating the transition from feudalism to nationalism. Their conversation ranged from the foundational ideas of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes – that in every true state some person or body of persons must have the ultimate and absolute authority to declare the law, which paved the way for our modern concept of sovereignty – to John Locke and Jean‑Jacques Rousseau’s theories that the state is based upon a formal or informal social contract, entrusting power in return for common protection. Such theories led to the development of the doctrine of popular sovereignty that found expression in the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. The origin of checks and balances, like the separation of powers itself, is specifically credited to Montesquieu. Thus, the idea of popular sovereignty exercised primarily by the people became combined with the idea of national sovereignty exercised not by an unorganised people in the ‘state of nature’, but by a nation embodied in an organised state. In the 19th century, English legal theorist John Austin concluded that sovereignty is vested in a nation’s parliament.

Looking at sovereignty in Europe today and what the future may hold, Luiza Bialasiewicz and Quentin Peel noted an evolution both in Europe and internationally. The growth of democracy imposed important limitations upon the power of the sovereign and of the ruling classes. Increased state interdependence restricted the principle that ‘might is right’ in international affairs. Citizens and policy-makers generally recognised that there can be no peace without law and that there can be no law without some limitations on sovereignty. They started, therefore, to pool their sovereignties to the extent needed to maintain peace and prosperity. The European Union is a salient example of such division of powers and pooling of sovereignty. Quentin Peel noted that ‘sovereignty’ remains contested, however, and pointed to the term’s misuse during the Brexit campaign. The pooling of sovereignty at European level, on migration, the rule of law, the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction, and its consequences for national parliamentary sovereignty, all proved to be issues that motivated people in the United Kingdom to vote to leave the Union.

The panellists argued that, to define the concept of European sovereignty, the term needs to be decoupled from its traditional meaning. Digital technologies and the transformations brought about by Covid‑19, have led to geopolitical developments in sovereignty that surpasses national confines, giving birth to a European Sovereignty. Technological warfare, as well as global competition in addressing the pandemic, demonstrated the new sovereignty and pooling of power that played a key role in the recovery process. Conversely, ‘anti-vaxxers’ and anti-lockdown campaigners demonstrated a desire for self-determination or ‘individual sovereignty’, while the EU digital Covid‑19 certificate brought new meaning to sovereignty for citizens. The introduction of the euro had already brought shared financial sovereignty for a group of EU Member States. Now, when dealing with great powers, the EU has started to develop its strategic autonomy, which in turn, reinforces European sovereignty. The building of European sovereignty is an incremental process, which reinforces the European Union, without striving to building a super-state.

To watch the event, please click here.

Relevant links for further information on this theme:

You can find the next coming EPRS online events here.

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