“The term sovereignty,” remarked the historian of ideas Howell A. Lloyd in 1991, “denotes a complex abstraction which defies concise definition.” Most attempts follow a compound form, he noted in that essay for the august Revue Internationale de Philosophie, with both of the definition’s elements necessary to warrant any use of the fuzzy noun. One half of “sovereignty” concerns the “coercive ability” that flows from a given raw power over a group of people. To reach the more subtle form of authority that “sovereignty” denotes, however, the wielding of that force requires legal validation of some kind. Forms of “lawful power” befitting this definition can be traced back to the very dawn of humanity. Indeed, the pre-political, lawless “state of nature” of social contract theory can afford to obviate sovereignty precisely because it’s fictional, or in the words of analytic philosopher Aloysius Martinich, an “expository device” designed to underscore sovereignty’s centrality to any form of politics.
Yet the neologism didn’t arise from the vulgar Latin root “superanus” by way of the Anglo-French “sovereynete” towards the mid-14th century out of pure coincidence. Around that time, European philosophy embarks on a prolonged, methodical reflection about the legitimate grounds of state power to a depth that neither the Classical nor the Christian traditions had quite achieved, thus midwifing a quintessential hallmark of European modernity. “A stable moral basis,” wrote Lloyd in the aforementioned essay, “is precisely what the leading proponents of the modern idea of sovereignty have affirmed that idea to possess.” The term’s spelling was later influenced by a folk-etymology association with “reign,” entering the philosophical jargon half a millennium ago with Jean Bodin’s Six Books of the Commonwealth (1576) and becoming mainstream nearly a century later with Thomas Hobbes’ more famous Leviathan (1651). In the early 18th century, sovereignty acquired its current meaning of “existence as an independent state.”
Since then, various classes of “sovereigns” ruling at a variety of scales—divine-right monarchs, emperors, tyrants, parliaments, and presidents—have been vested with portions of this shiny, intangible object, part of a modernizing wave expanding outward from its European cradle. Yet more recently, sovereignty seems to have dead-ended at its most common scale since the 19th century—the nation-state, whether democratic or not. As that century saw in Europe the emergence of democratic polities from the rubble of defeated empires, the locus of all legitimate power narrowed around the nation, never to bounce back towards a larger multinational perimeter of the kind that bounded the politics of the Holy Roman Empire or of Christendom at large.
The kind of supranational institutions that have increasingly governed the West’s political and economic life since the end of World War II have doubtless wielded immense power. Nonetheless, their claim to sovereignty—to a moral anchor buttressing that power and grounding it, however distantly, in popular consent—has not been entirely convincing. The European Union, chief amongst this new-sprung set of political entities, seems to increasingly invoke, without quite the same legitimacy, this mantle previously worn by its member-state governments—cue Emmanuel Macron’s incessant talk of “European sovereignty” in the realms of technology, defence, and energy as an alternative to a feckless EU subservient to China and the United States. European integration has gradually eroded national sovereignty. In other words, the supranational locus of power has largely failed to pick up the nation’s torch. To assess the present state and future of national sovereignty—and to grasp under what conditions the EU could overcome this dead-end—one needs to detour first into the evolving meaning of “sovereignty” across centuries of political theory.
A seminal 1896 article for Political Science Quarterly by the American historian W.A. Dunning nicely sets up the guideposts for just that detour by highlighting the eerily similar historical circumstances of religious strife in which the two main theoreticians behind the concept of sovereignty—Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes—wrote their respective treatises, almost one century apart, in France and England respectively. Bodin penned his Six Livres de la République (1576) amidst France’s bloody wars of religion (1562-1598), or in Edward Andrew’s more detailed account, “four years after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in which thousands of prominent Huguenots were killed by the Catholic League a few days after the marriage of Margaret of Valois to Henri of Navarre, a Protestant who later converted to Catholicism when he ascended to the French throne as Henri IV in 1589.”
As for Hobbes, “one need only recall that his De Cive appeared in 1647 and his Leviathan in 1651,” writes Dunning in the aforementioned article, “to realize how closely the general conditions amid which he wrote paralleled those that surrounded Bodin. English and Scotch Puritans were declaiming as vigorously against tyranny as had the Huguenots before them and were even more vigorously resisting the tyrant.” From that similar context, then, arose a not dissimilar theory of sovereignty. “Sovereign power, Bodin hoped, could police and moderate religious conflict,” as long as that sovereignty was “absolute, perpetual, and undivided.” Hobbes called for much the same unquestioned, central authority in the Leviathan when he depicted an alternate world without it in which “life was nasty, brutish and short.” For both authors, only sovereignty—”supreme power over citizens and subjects, unrestrained by law”—could forestall a war of all against all.
By producing a philosophical rationale for a modern, all-powerful state as the only viable alternative to centrifugal chaos, the concept theorized by Bodin and Hobbes had successfully passed the test of their respective countries’ domestic politics. Making that concept operational in the messy chessboard of international politics, however, was still an altogether different matter. Indeed, without clearly delineating the remit of the state’s sovereignty—the impartially established portion of land over which its power reigned uncontested—the idea introduced by Bodin and Hobbes risked justifying one state’s aggression against another. This would be so on the spurious grounds that a state’s interests transcended its boundaries, thus ‘sovereignty’ could foster the very turmoil the concept had been invented to prevent. In 1648, the end of the Thirty Years’ War was to provide for sovereignty that crucial, diplomatic test. A staggering 109 delegations—with the Habsburg kingdoms of Spain and Austria on one end, and a coalition of protestant principalities allied with Catholic France on the other—met in Osnabrück, in today’s Lower Saxony, to put a formal end to a conflict that had claimed eight million lives. The peace accord they signed, the Treaty of Westphalia, constituted the other side of sovereignty’s coin by enshrining the inviolability of national borders: states had no higher locus of authority to contend with, but they also committed not to interfere in one another’s territory. Westphalian sovereignty thus became in practice a more refined version of Bodin’s and Hobbes’ theories, one that held the promise of a peaceful world made up of national units respectful of one another’s borders. According to historian Joachim Waley, a slate of future thinkers from Rousseau and Liebniz to Kant and Schiller saw 1648 as the closest the world had ever got to universal peace.
Westphalia went down in history as a watershed moment of successful intergovernmentalism, but the tide of empires, invasions and conquests would soon come washing over anew. At its core, the reason for this relapse lay in the inadequacy between states—the entities that Bodin and Hobbes had entrusted with sovereignty—and nations—the only viable group over which that sovereignty could be exercised democratically. Too many nations lacked their own state (Hungary, for instance, wouldn’t be uncoupled from Austria until 1918), and too many states like Napoleon’s imperial France had cast their sovereignty over other contiguous nations, making that sovereignty undemocratic by necessity. This inadequacy would take another two centuries to be bridged.
The 19th century—beginning not in 1800 but with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo fifteen years later—is best remembered as the “spring of nations,” the time when states were definitively fitted into pre-existing national bodies, a time of intellectual and cultural effervescence that historian Anne-Marie Thiesse credits with birthing every European country’s particular national imaginary. In a lecture at the Sorbonne in March 1882, philosopher and philologist Ernest Renan gave a twofold definition of the nation, one that sets the French nationalist school in sharp contrast to its more essentialist German cousin. For it to be considered one, a nation ought to have a common past (whether real or, in Thiesse’s account, imaginary) and a political desire to perpetuate that ancestry into the future. A nation, intoned Renan, is a “daily plebiscite.” This cultural innovation enabled a political one: by advocating that each nation be afforded its own state, the era’s ambient nationalism fixated all European political life at the scale of the nation-state. Again, this didn’t quite sound the death knell of empires—the last European one to crumble did so at World War I’s close—but it ensured that whatever empires remained couldn’t function democratically, since only within a nation can a demos emerge.
The 20th century, for its part, didn’t actually start until sometime between the close of World War I through the armistice signed in November 1918 and the definitive settling of that war’s territorial fallout through the Trianon Treaty towards 1920. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were broken up into their underlying national units in a vindicative dénouement for the nation-state, whilst the other losing power, Germany, was downsized considerably and made to pay a fortune’s worth of exacting war reparations. But as the smoke cleared from above the trenches and the victors finalized the official account of what had happened, a larger diagnosis of the war had begun to settle in the minds of a non-negligible share of the elites from every country involved. The hostilities had been triggered, granted, by a little more than a fait divers—the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo—but the long simmering tensions between Europe’s set of competing nationalisms and imperialisms could have reached any other boiling point. This post-war recoil, in effect, led many in the increasingly globalized intelligentsia to seek a definitive resolution, through international law, to age-old contests over what land belonged to whom and what rights were owed to minorities stuck astride arbitrary borders, a project that would see the day with the Geneva-based League of Nations, only to reveal its fragility a decade and a half later when it failed to avert Nazi aggression in the build-up to World War II.
A winding, steady trend toward supranationalism had begun that would reach its apex momentum at World War II’s close in 1945. In both instances, the same diagnosis floated in the air—the war had evidenced the ravages of nationalism run amok, an unruly cauldron of passions that could only be reined in through peace-securing international cooperation and legally-binding treaties. This, of course, is far from a unanimously shared reading among scholars. Yoram Hazony has most eloquently argued the view that far from the excesses of nationalism, World War II showcased the excesses of nationalism’s antithetical force: imperialism. Hitler, the racial imperialist who annexed, invaded, or subdued Germany’s neighbours, claims Hazony, can’t possibly be considered a nationalist in the philosophical, Westphalian sense.
Thus was born supranationalism, strictly speaking, as the legal attempt by six countries to forestall the path to another war by merging into a “single market” their ability to produce war’s inputs—coal and steel. Does “European integration” of this sort necessarily erode national sovereignty? Likely not, since any group of countries can, as have most, freely choose to forfeit control over a given set of products in the interest of setting up a free-trading area. Consenting accords of this kind predate the EU and have since proliferated in sync with globalization. The EU itself governs this deliberate transfer of sovereignty through its so-called “principle of conferral” limiting the bloc’s powers to those explicitly delegated by its members. Conferral’s companion rule, inherited from Catholic social teaching, is “subsidiarity”; namely, that decisions are best taken as close as possible to those affected, and should thus be taken in Brussels only when significant impediments exist to the 27 members acting on their own.
This arrangement could all work, in principle, to reconcile European integration—the deepening of ties between the EU’s member states—with national sovereignty, but in practice the EU has often veered from its own principles. The UK’s—now lapsed—membership provides a case in point. In his remarkable book This Sovereign Isle (2022), Cambridge historian Robert Tombs traces the country’s decision to enter what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) to “post-imperial syndrome”: the widespread fear, in Whitehall and Westminster, of becoming globally irrelevant unless the UK, deprived of its colonial possessions, latched onto the continent’s embryonic single market. This policy assumed that the single market wouldn’t call forth a political superstructure out of Brussels. The presumption turned out naïve, with the EU since amassing considerable powers beyond those strictly necessary to govern the free flow of goods, services, capital, and people across its territory. The UK thought it joined a free trading area but ended up joining a federal project instead. When given the chance to decide in 2016, 17 million Brits—the country’s largest-ever electoral majority—voted to leave.
What, then, holds the future of sovereignty in Europe? Some hoped Brexit would be a wake-up call for the Eurocracy to rebalance away from supranationalism—where decisions are taken by bodies sitting above member states, often unaccountable to them and the people. Such a move would, it was hoped by many, bring about greater intergovernmentalism—that is, the voluntary cooperation between sovereign member states through their democratically accountable governments. That call was not heeded. The bloc’s supranationalist forward march, launched with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 and upped a notch by the Lisbon Treaty of 2007, has continued unabated. Aware of supranationalism’s undemocratic nature (the EU’s official euphemism is “democratic deficit”), that latter treaty gave the European Parliament (EP) the right of introducing bills on the mistaken assumption that it reflects the will of the peoples of Europe, even as it empowered the supranational European Commission (EC) as co-legislator on an equal footing with the intergovernmental Council of the EU.
Now, fifteen years after the Lisbon Treaty, elections to the EP remain largely fought on national battlegrounds (in the absence of a European demos, parliamentary candidates hew to their member state’s news cycle), and the efficacy of supranational action remains in serious doubt, as evidenced by the EC’s disastrous vaccine procurement effort in February last year. This undeterred supranationalist impetus has lately culminated in that harebrained boondoggle of a summit called the “Conference on the Future of Europe,” yet another pointless opportunity for the EU to proclaim its supranationalist direction of travel on the back of an unsuspecting public. Besides COVID, the latest source of fuel to the EU’s federal ambitions has been the geostrategic rivalry between the U.S. and China, with Emmanuel Macron successfully persuading EU institutions of the need for the bloc to evolve from being a geopolitical playing field to being a geopolitical actor in its own right, by developing what he variously calls “strategic autonomy” or “European sovereignty.”
“European sovereignty,” however, would sound like an oxymoron to Hobbes, Bodin, and anyone with a basic grasp of political philosophy. In a democratic age, the source of all legitimate power is the nation, and whatever power is exercised at the European level will be democratic only to the extent that accountable governments, not supranational institutions, are doing the exercising. Someone who truly understood the relevant political principles at play was Sir Roger Scruton, in whose honour was held New Direction’s Nostos Conference in Oslo on May 21st. A passage from the preface to his book Where We Are (2017) nicely sums up the current crossroads:
When David Cameron asked the British people to vote on whether to leave the EU, he did his utmost to persuade the electorate that the question was a purely economic one: would we be better off in or out? For many ordinary citizens, however, the question was not about economics at all. It was about identity and sovereignty. For such people, matters were at stake that the politicians had systematically marginalised, and which were more important to them than all the economic and geopolitical arguments. Their question was not “what will make us better off,” but rather “who are we, where are we, what holds us together in a shared political order and on whom have we conferred the right to govern us?” It is not only the British who are faced with these questions, they are the political questions of our time, and across Europe people are beginning to ask them. Moreover, they are not questions that can be settled by economic arguments, since they must be answered before any such arguments make sense.
I, for one, wish we were offered more opportunities like this conference to ask these probing questions.
This essay is adapted from the author’s remarks at a panel on “Sovereignty and the Nation-State from a European Perspective” at New Direction’s Nostos conference in Oslo on May 21st in honour of the late Sir Roger Scruton. The other panelists were Prof. Hannes Gissurarson (University of Iceland), Danish literary critic Kasper Støvring, and Norwegian philanthropist Christian A. Smedshaug. The panel was chaired by New Direction’s Senior Policy Advisor Robert Tyler.