The Rise and Fall of Sovereignty in Europe

In 1661 France and Spain came to the brink of war. The casus belli was a dispute about precedence between the French and Spanish ambassadors to London for a procession welcoming a new Swedish ambassador. The argument erupted into violence, there were fatalities among the ambassadorial entourages and two unfortunate coach horses were killed. King Charles II prudently tried to stay out of the matter, but I regret to say that Londoners thoroughly enjoyed the fracas and behaved like fans at a football match.

Nowadays such matters are handled in a more genteel way, but there was still a whiff of the operetta about, for example, the post-Brexit stand-off between the UK and the EU, the latter demanding full ambassadorial privileges for its London envoy, the former saying we already had twenty-seven European ambassadors of sovereign states, so a further one claiming to represent the interests of all the others was superfluous. An Austrian diplomat emailed me when the EU–UK trade agreement was concluded to remark satirically how very relieved he was to know at last who had sovereignty over the fish swimming around in the English Channel. These somewhat Gilbertian issues may make you wonder whether the idea of sovereignty in today’s world is perhaps a bit of a joke.

This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Some intellectuals evidently think so. Wading recently through my liberal newspaper’s weekend dose of climate catastrophism, vaccine apartheid and transgender victimhood, my eye fell upon an interview with a well-known writer who demanded the establishment of global world government to solve the world’s problems. To the idealistic liberal mind, this is a recurrently alluring prospect, promising to do away with messy democracies whose electorates keep misbehaving and to shame tyrannies into good behaviour. Governance would be benevolently authoritarian, the rulers—consisting of incorruptible technocrats and philosopher kings, persons indeed very similar to those advocating such governance—periodically confirmed in office by means of global digital voting.

In an economically globalised system where the revenues of some international corporations can exceed that of smaller nations and transnational bodies may strive to act beyond and above national jurisdictions, there is room for irony and scepticism in regard to the sovereignty of the nation-state. However, the argument for globalisation is challenged by the fact that few people see it that way. Indeed, the world has become more, not less, fissiparous since 1989 and the break-up of the Soviet Union into historico-geographical and ethnic nation-states. This proliferation has put some ethnically diverse states on the defensive. Spain, Italy, Belgium and the United Kingdom are looking somewhat wobbly as unitary states that might split into smaller ones. It is therefore worth looking at the origins and theory of sovereignty and its post-Westphalian offspring, the sovereign state, and also at the viability of the concept of the nation-state that arose in the post-Enlightenment period.

The historians of political science originate the philosophical, as opposed to the de facto, concept of sovereignty with the Frenchman Jean Bodin in his Six Books of the Commonwealth (1576). His notion of it was founded on the divine right of monarchy, since, if more than one person or body was entitled to make laws, he believed the state would be popular or democratic, synonymous in his mind with anarchy. As Ulysses puts it in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida: “Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark, what discord follows!” In the seventeenth century political thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and Hugo Grotius emphasised that a ruler’s sovereignty in his own domain required recognition of his authority by other sovereigns, the germ of the doctrine of non-interference. That doctrine was theoretically the basis of the Westphalian Peace of 1648 concluding thirty years of war which had caused up to eight million deaths in Central Europe.

The former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger based his diplomatic modus operandi on the historical template of the Westphalian settlement. The settlement is seen as the fons et origo of independent nation-states, each sovereign over religion and other core issues and not interfering in the internal affairs of other states. Peace was to be maintained by shrewd statesmen negotiating the balance of power, while yet protecting national interests. Realpolitik would be employed for idealistic ends, as indeed might be said of Kissinger’s perseverance in negotiating bewteen Israel and the Arab states.

Kissinger, as a student of history, was opposed to overly moralistic foreign policy (he was an admirer of Metternich, about whom he wrote a book). “The most fundamental problem of politics,” he wrote in his doctoral dissertation in 1966, “is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness.” His comments on the current war between Ukraine and Russia have stayed true to that principle, consequently upsetting those trying to prop up the moral solidarity of the West against Russian aggression. It is an irony of this conflict that a paranoid Russia is trying to (re)assert sovereignty over an area whose status as a nation-state is fairly recent (in 1917 briefly, then from 1991) and from which Russia itself was originally spawned in the thirteenth century. Pace Vladimir Putin’s reading of history, perhaps Ukraine should actually be reclaiming Russia in the name of Kiev Rus.

The newly-baked nation-states at Westphalia were not necessarily non-aggressive, even as most of them became more democratic over time. On the other hand, a structure of rules-based inter-state behaviour was now available to them; if applied, it could enhance the prospects for a peace based on mutual self-interest. That included the interests of “the nation” rather than simply those of the papacy or distant emperors and princes, although it has to be said the habit of exchanging chunks of land and populations after minimal or no consultation with the people involved survived up to the disastrous Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. Nevertheless, the evolution in the early modern period of serfs and subjects into citizens with gradually more democratic rights eventually made rulers in the West more accountable.

Accountability is the leitmotif of democracy. Thomas Hobbes was an authoritarian monarchist like Jean Bodin, but his famous Leviathan of 1651 broached the idea of a “social contract”, later to be transmuted into a notion of popular sovereignty in John Locke’s iconic Two Treatises on Government of 1690. Seventy-two years later Rousseau expounded the idea of a far more radical social contract, although the application of the “general will” during the French Revolution proved to be just as tyrannical as what it aspired to replace. Modern liberals, in their quest to avoid a paralysis of legitimate authority, steer a sophisticated course of checks and balances between the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny of a minority.

The philosophical arc from Bodin to Rousseau plots the progress of governance from suzerainty (common among the arrangements of feudal states or lands paying tribute to the Ottoman empire) to national sovereignty. A ruler’s power has become an expression of national identity and indeed is to a large degree dependent upon it. Come the French Revolution, Louis XIV’s “L’état, c’est moi” gave way eventually to that of an entity governed by the “sovereignty of the people”, a notion recently tested almost to destruction in the UK and US, where in 2016 the result of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump were widely refused legitimacy by the losing sides. This set an unwelcome precedent, since the Trump camp similarly refused to accept the legitimacy of the Biden electoral win.

During the Brexit campaign, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (a Remainer) opined that sovereignty was rather an “esoteric” matter, as if it were something the voters would find hard to understand, and should be reserved for experts to discuss. The voters, however, thought they understood it very well, and the slogan “Take back control” had enormous traction, however much Remainers derided it. Scotland, should it opt for independence, would be voting against its apparent economic interest. According to the London School of Economics, apart from losing the so-called “union premuim” of 2000 pounds extra government expenditure per capita, Scotland will face a current account deficit of 12 per cent and rising, inevitable devaluation of its currency and higher taxation, besides various own goals such as banning extraction of fossil fuels from the North Sea and closing the nuclear base. On current polling, this does not seem to have dampened Scottish enthusiasm for independence or indeed for rejoining an EU which is on a glide path to becoming a European federal state. Scotland would be a very junior member, but according to current polls, that is a burden easier to bear for a putative majority of Scots than having devolved rule from Westminster.

The American historian Timothy Snyder said that the UK has never actually been “a nation-state”, merely a conglomeration held together by empire:

Great Britain as a country has never existed. It was an empire and then as it ceased to be an empire, it joined the European Union. So we have no reason to think that Great Britain is tenable as a country … If it pulls out of the European Union, then it is going to completely new unknown territory.

This is a curious judgment. At least from 1707 (the Act of Union with Scotland) or 1800 at the latest with the incorporation of Ireland (until 1922), the United Kingdom was a functioning nation-state. It had all the basic requisites of a such a state—a lingua franca, fiscal autonomy, military capability for defensive and aggressive action. As students of empire never fail to remind us, colonialism was undertaken in the service of that state. True, there was a degree of ethnic diversity, but so there are in other nation-states, notably the US and Switzerland. Sovereignty does depend on a measure of cultural identity (hence phrases like “un-American” to describe behaviour attracting censure from liberals), but it does not depend on uniform ethnicity.

But the Snyder model does fit a phenomenon like the late Ottoman empire, which found it hard to adapt in the nineteenth century from a dispensation based on Islam as the supreme source of authority legitimised in the Sultan to one of secularising national identity such as had developed in Europe from 1848. The shrewd Clemens von Metternich, grand master of the Congress of Vienna, once advised the Grand Vizier not to try to weld too many Western notions onto Turkey under the reforms known as the Tanzimat implemented between 1839 and 1876 which attempted to institutionalise many Western ideas (even such as making all the Sultan’s subjects equal before the law). “Do not destroy your ancient system in order to build a regime that would not fit your customs and way of life,” he warned. Perhaps he was being mischievous. The millet division of legal autonomy in the empire based on ethno-confessional groups (effectively small theocracies following their own laws) had gravely weakened Ottoman sovereignty, not least because, under what were ominously known as “capitulations”, each of these—Armenians, Syriac Christians, Catholics and even Jews—were under the “protection” of foreign powers (France, Britain and most notably Russia).

Moreover, even within what was nominally part of the Sultan’s domains, Egypt became effectively a sovereign state under Mehmet Ali Pasha, an Albanian warlord with reformist ideas, and was treated as such by the Western powers protecting their interests in the region. The short-lived French domination of Egypt under Napoleon had germinated the seed that led to secularising and modernising reforms; even today Egypt has reverted to a “Westernising” stance rather than allow a return to Islamist rule as threatened briefly after the “Arab spring”. The Turks themselves were able to halt their decline by jettisoning religion as the engine of sovereignty with the establishment of Kemal Ataturk’s secular republic in 1923 which, significantly, introduced an “official” history that was nativist in tone and for which the central role that Islam had played in Ottoman rule was decidedly uncomfortable; likewise the multicultural structure of the Ottoman empire.

A particularly interesting example of a conflicted nation-state is Russia. Soviet imperialism, using Marxist-Leninism as British imperialists used the justifying notion of “the white man’s burden”, managed to extend the Russian empire beyond even the wildest dreams of the Tsars. Indeed it extended Russian influence round the whole world except to those areas attracted or adhering to the Maoist form of communist totalitarianism. On the other hand, the Russian nation-state has always been a fractured entity due to the mixture of victimhood, envy and paranoia that has long informed its attitudes towards the West.

Peter the Great did his best to impose modernisation on his backward lands following his espionage trips to Western Europe, but at enormous cost. According to the historian Dana Khapaeva, the population of Russia fell during his forty-year reign from 13 million to 11 million, chiefly due to his brutal treatment of the serfs. Hardly surprising that hatred and distrust of intellectuals, educators and reformers has been something of a leitmotif among ordinary Russians. Khapaeva points ironically to how such attitudes could infect the intellectuals themselves, citing two celebrated poems by Alexander Blok, “Scythians” and “Twelve”, in which “casting off the chains” of culture and civilisation is glorified. Then again in the 1860s and 1870s the reward of the Narodniki movement of noble Russians who felt guilty about their privilege, adopted traditional peasant garb, and set out on a mission to educate and enlighten the peasantry, was to be “denounced to the police, beaten up or humiliated”.

A pronounced strain of nihilism among intellectuals coupled with the often extreme reactionary behaviour of the Orthodox Church has left Russia’s nation-state with the unifying forces only of violence, oppression and expansion. On top of this, Western capitalism in the Russian context since 1989 has manifested itself as little more than the rape of the state and wholesale theft of Russia’s assets. Putin’s covert rehabilitation of Stalinism is entirely understandable (opinion polls have long shown that Stalin is still regarded as one of the greatest figures in Russian history). Putin’s reading of historical destiny is partly drawn from a science-fiction novel of 2006 by Mikhail Yuriev, The Third Empire: Russia as It Ought to Be, which plotted the military course that Putin has so far followed. His preferred ideologue is Alexander Dugin, who provides the strategies for irredentist nationalism. In these two figures, neo-medievalism meets an Orwellian neo-Eurasianism offering a blueprint for a clash of civilisations from which Orthodoxy emerges the victor. Maybe such an ideology can consolidate Putin’s position in the short term, but it cannot remove the inherent flaw of a divided Russia which in the end can only rely on human cannon fodder and hybrid warfare to win. This is a tall order in a digitalised world and may not survive the desertions from the front and the homecoming of body-bags. The unexpected resilience of Ukraine and the fairly persistent solidarity of the West may yet endanger the Russian nation-state itself, reducing it to what Xan Smiley memorably apostrophised as “Upper Volta with rockets”, although it is more likely that Russia’s leaders will be forced to face reality and gradually reform with more modest global aspirations.

If any conclusion can be drawn from the Russian example it is that the sovereignty of a nation-state is dependent upon a strong and consensual cultural identity which can be embraced and defended without the need for enforcement by coercion and violence. Patriotism invariably is stronger in the long term than aggressive nationalism, which carries the seeds of its own destruction. In the pre-First World War Austro-Hungarian empire, Emperor Franz-Joseph allegedly asked of someone whose patriotism was being extolled: “Yes, yes. But is he a patriot for me?” Putin, with his anachronistic imperial power, will increasingly be obliged to ask the same question. His problem, despite his nationalistic bluster, is that the time will come when the now quiescent population begins to ask, “Is he a patriot for us?”

Today the role of religion as a vital constituent of national identity, and therefore bound up with the assertion of national sovereignty, remains ambivalent. In Muslim countries the idea of the ummah theoretically perceives the worldwide community of Islam as a single nation, a concept that sits somewhat uneasily with that of the nation-state in the West. In Malaysia you must be Muslim in order to count yourself a Malay citizen (Article 160 of the Constitution) and in 2001 the prime minister declared Malaysia an Islamic state, though this is challenged by opposition politicians. Indonesia does a balancing act between sharia (mostly concerned with family matters and inheritance) and the secular law of the land. It respects religious minorities, although religious fundamentalism has grown recently, as we see from the ousting and imprisonment of the Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta in 2017 on trumped-up charges of blasphemy. Iran is an Islamic terrorist state and Iraq could become one. In America Christian evangelism exercises an increasingly overt political role. Irish nationalism turned secular and Marxist as the stranglehold of Catholicism on society fell away, but the identity conflict in Northern Ireland still purports to revolve around a tribally religious divide. In Russia, Orthodoxy has been revived as an integral part of the nation’s identity, including its claimed sovereignty over Ukraine. Patriarch Kyril is a crony and henchman of the violently nationalistic Putin. Atheistic communist states have tended to fill the gap left by faith with the secular religion of Marxism, old religions however re-emerging when such states implode.

Separatism, the political expression of a desire for an ethnic national state, has several motivations in Europe, though all obviously involve sovereignty; for example the feeling of Catalans or Italy’s Lega Nord that they make all the money but the central government takes it in taxes and wastes it on slumbering parts of Spain or the Mezzogiorno. The urge for sovereignty is no respecter of ordinary political taxonomy—Scotland’s and Catalonia’s separatists are left-wing, Lega Nord is right-wing. What they do share is a historical memory (or myth, as modern historians like to call it) of proud autonomy (independence)—Catalonia arguably until 1714, Scotland until 1707 and Milan/Lombardy arguably until the end of the fifteenth century. Just as Hungarian university examinees under Kádárism were obliged to insert the phrase “as Marx has taught us” into their answers, so no current PhD aspirant is permitted to proceed further with this topic without reverently uttering the name Benedict Anderson and the phrase “imagined communities”.

However, there is now a new political entity which urgently needs to develop its own concept of sovereignty, namely the European Union. Quite recently the French Finance Minister, Bruno Le Maire, said in a speech that Europe needed to become “an empire” to be on equal terms with other economic giants that had a quasi-imperial imperial reach, such as the US and China. And when the EU was negotiating Brexit with the UK, it rejected some of the UK’s requests on the grounds that they impinged on the EU’s sovereignty. More recently, in the unedifying dispute over Covid vaccine deliveries from the UK, the EU actually invoked (then hastily revoked) Article 16 of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. Doing this would have allowed it to erect a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, such a border being something it had just spent four years denouncing.

The point here is that the Republic of Ireland, an EU member and sovereign state, was not even consulted before this ukase was announced, resulting in a furious reaction from Dublin. Was the EU acting, or trying to act, as a sovereign state (or an empire) that regarded one of its members merely as a pawn to be played in the imperial power game? On the other hand, the customs border erected between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the British mainland, in order to satisfy the EU’s anxiety about dilution of its single market, is a clear violation of British sovereignty. It would also appear to be unconstitutional, since theoretically no customs borders may exist between the different parts of the United Kingdom. That is indeed a large part of the latter’s raison d’être.

Walter Russell Mead, in the January-February 2021 edition of Foreign Affairs, discusses the decline of the Wilsonian system of liberal rules-based internationalism and remarks that differences in historical experiences help explain varying levels of commitment to these ideals in Europe. France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, he says, believed after the Second World War that they could meet their basic national goals only by pooling their sovereignty. However, he says:

For many former Warsaw Pact members … the motive for joining Western clubs such as NATO and the EU was to regain their lost sovereignty. They did not share the feelings of guilt and remorse over the colonial past—and, in Germany, over the Holocaust—that led many in western Europe to embrace the idea of a new approach to international affairs, and they felt no qualms about taking full advantage of the privileges of NATO and EU membership without feeling in any way bound by those organizations’ stated tenets, which many regarded as hypocritical boilerplate.­­

Since the EU had been developing its sovereignty before these countries joined, it naturally felt that they should conform to the existing pattern of pooled sovereignty. But this is clearly under strain—first from the Eurocrisis, in which Greece was “fiscally waterboarded”, as its Finance Minister put it; then from Brexit. Also, somewhat overlooked, was the decision in May 2020 of the Karlsruhe court in Germany to ignore a ruling of the European Court of Justice. The point at issue was the European Central Bank’s public sector bond purchases which many in Germany fear are a thin disguise for turning the EU into a purely “transfer union” where German taxpayers would be on the hook for the bonds that were issued by poorer (or mismanaged) economies. A furious lead article in the Financial Times denounced the Karlsruhe ruling as “a unilateral declaration of constitutional independence from the EU legal order”—and, incredibly, went on to demand that the European Commission take infringement proceedings against Germany, the linchpin and virtual paymaster of the EU.

The EU is the fifth attempt since the Treaty of Westphalia (if you count Napoleon’s empire and the Third Reich) to establish a Europe-wide framework of governance. In his book World Order (2014) Henry Kissinger stresses that the Westphalian compromise made the state—not an empire, dynasty or religious confession—the building block of European order, that its provisions were procedural not substantive and that it took multiplicity as its starting point. The systems it favoured—set up, for example, by the Congress of Vienna or the Treaty of Versailles—were theoretically predicated on a balance-of-power concept, which however had been repeatedly violated first by the aggrandisement of Louis XIV, then later by Napoleon, but also by Frederick the Great, Bismarckian Prussia and finally Hitler. Britain also subscribed to the balance-of-power doctrine, but usually intervened only when its maritime dominance seemed to be threatened.

The concept of sovereignty meanwhile mutated to Rousseau’s idea of the sovereignty of the people, which Napoleon somewhat disingenuously claimed to represent. Often influenced by the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder, a rising middle class in Europe rediscovered and mythologised a national past stressing the unique features of cultural heritage that was no longer exclusively expressed by the top of the social hierarchy. Nineteenth-century nationalism was promulgated by liberal intellectuals (Kossuth, Mazzini, even perhaps Simón Bolívar, the Napoleon of South America) and the sovereignty they asserted was not only against arbitrary, foreign, often tyrannical rule, but also a kind of sovereignty over their country’s history by means of a revised historiography. Contrary to the maxim that history is written by the winners, in Central Europe it was mostly written by the losers. The Poles focused on their tragedy of partition, the Hungarians stressed their exceptionalism, surviving 150 years of Turkish subjugation and centuries of dispute over the legitimacy of Habsburg rule. The Hellenic spirit re-emerged and Balkan countries discovered an independent national identity. Contemporaneously notions of Pan-Slavism and Pan-Germanism gained ground. The idea of the nation-state took hold, almost invariably based on a narrative of ethnic victimhood for which other members of the relevant family members (Slavs, Germans, Anglo-Saxons) felt sympathy.

We should never underestimate the pulling power of victimhood, especially when allied to a sort of intellectual masochism in the West. Today in Britain and the US even the one-time oppressors of the past are often anxious to ally themselves (especially in academe) with the narrative that their forefathers were no more than genocidal racists (for example the “stolen lands” historiography of America, or the depiction of the British Empire as no better than what Tacitus put in the mouth of the Pictish chief to describe the Roman conquest: “To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.”)

However, the “Herder to Hitler” narrative is based substantively on a distortion of Herder, who was a pacifist, and his romantic notion of the Volksgeist. On the other hand, his insistence that the spirit of a people lay with its least formally educated layer, its Volkskultur, and its linguistic unity, has been interpreted as fuelling aggressive or racist nationalism. It surely accounts for the allergic reaction of contemporary metropolitan liberals and Eurocrats to populism. Remainers in the Brexit dispute hastened to depict Leavers as ignorant xenophobes, racists and nativists. The attitude of the EU liberal establishment to Brexit veered between regret, derision and a determination to exact revenge, summed up in Guy Verhofstadt’s comment, “The UK has shot itself in the foot; now we will shoot it in the other one.” To Brexiteer advocates of the sovereign state, the EU began to look like the Hotel California—you can check out, but you can never leave.

Behind the posturing lies the issue of sovereignty. In the aftermath of the trauma of the Nazi power grab, the idealistic aim of the founders of what was to become the EU was to construct by peaceful means a European governance safeguarded against populist nationalism. Schuman and Monet were convinced that the best way to do that, starting with rapprochement between the two major players, Germany and France, was to ensure that disinterested technocratic government and pooled sovereignty took precedence over popular democracy. This doctrine stems from the Enlightenment, which lies at the heart of what are considered “European values”. The Enlightenment of Central Europe, however, was founded in absolutism and the belief that rationalism, championed by thinkers like d’Alembert and Montesquieu, could overcome all difficulties of governance and consent.

The Enlightenment was reform from above and conceded a circumscribed toleration of differences (especially confessional); but the EU embraces a more ambivalent doctrine where lip service is paid to the sovereignty of the people—as long as they behave. It finds itself in the position where it needs to enforce consent for its authority and governance, but it can achieve this only by eroding the sovereignty of member states. This is the real “democratic deficit”, not the evident lack of direct democracy to be solved by rather specious propositions advanced for elections Europe-wide with anybody from any member state able to stand in any other member state for a European Parliament with real democratic powers. Even in the unlikely event that the European Commission and the Council of Ministers give up their present powers, the link between MPs and their necessarily large constituencies would probably be tenuous. Perhaps they would end up more like the governors of Roman provinces.

De Gaulle would never have subscribed to such an idea—at one point he withdrew from Brussels decision-making altogether to blackmail his partners—but he was shrewd enough to leverage his indispensability. His refusal to let Britain join the EEC was not just Anglophobia and dislike of upsetting the Community’s economic and political balance to the disadvantage of France. He also—accurately—outlined how such a consortium was alien to British political, constitutional and diplomatic tradition. It would, he predicted, meet with opposition once the British understood what it involved.

The EU has been likened to a man riding a bicycle—dynamic forward motion is required to prevent him falling off. This is why it has progressed from a free-trade agreement to political and economic union and is set on a course to become a European federal state. As the aggrieved would-be EU ambassador to the UK indignantly pointed out, the EU already has its own parliament, a flag, a national anthem, a foreign minister (sort of), a common currency (partly), and a judiciary. The bicycle nearly crashed when de Gaulle resisted an attempt to provide a tax base for the parliament, and only returned to the table at Brussels with veto powers agreed, declaring, “Supranationality has gone. France remains a sovereign power.”

With de Gaulle out of the way, however, the bicycle was on the road again—and even before de Gaulle’s démarche, the European Court of Justice had suddenly confirmed itself (1963) as having powers to overrule national law. This was the beginning of the end for national sovereignty, but it was with the presidency of Jacques Delors (1985 to 1995) that transfer of power became turbo-charged, clearing the way for Maastricht (1997) and Lisbon (2007). Maastricht laid the groundwork for the single currency, Lisbon endorsed a constitution. The constitution had failed when put to national electorates, but Jean-Claude Juncker had proclaimed even before the referendums: “If it’s a no we go on, if it’s a yes we continue.” The constitution was repackaged as a treaty, its drafter, Giscard d’Estaing, observing with cynical satisfaction that the treaty’s content was exactly the same as that of the rejected constitution.

In all this we see an uncompleted quest for both power and democratic legitimacy—in short for sovereignty. Despite vigorous atttempts to create a unitary European identity, the EU is faced with the Benedict Anderson “imagined community” problem. You can see that in the controversy over the proposed constitution when strongly Catholic and Protestant countries wanted to include a reference to the Europe’s “Christian roots” (a historical fact after all), but this was left out as too divisive, or even discriminatory against Europe’s Islamic communities. However that may be, more power and legitimacy to Brussels must necessarily involve less national sovereignty. Do the populations of the member states want that? It is doubtful they will be asked.

Nicholas T. Parsons is a freelance author, translator and editor who lives in Vienna. He wrote on Viktor Orban in the June issue. This article is a revised and expanded version of a lecture he gave to the Institute of Advanced Studies Koszeg (iASK) in Hungary in 2021.


One thought on “The Rise and Fall of Sovereignty in Europe

  • ianl says:

    The thrust of the essay here – that the EU is determinedly building its’ own sovereignty at the expense of its’ individual nation components, well obviously yes. And I did laugh out loud, although with considerable sympathy, at the Greek Finance Minister’s “fiscal waterboarding” description. A perfect example of modern political brutality.

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