How can European governments create a new conceptual framework for a sovereign Europe? This question looms over the European Union at a time when the United States is undermining multilateral institutions and alliances, and the tyranny of the US dollar is becoming ever more overt.
Indeed, in his September 2018 “State of the Union” speech, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker argued that “the geopolitical situation makes this Europe’s hour … Europe has to become a more sovereign actor in international relations.” His claim evokes political scientist Ivan Krastev’s warning that the greatest threat the EU faces is that it will become the guardian of a status quo that no longer exists – one in which the US exercised global influence through alliances.
As European governments gradually adjust to the nature and implications of the new world disorder, they need to elaborate a common set of strategic interests that they can defend worldwide. To do otherwise would be to risk succumbing to the rise of nationalist, anti-EU politics across Europe.
In July this year, ECFR Director Mark Leonard put forward four lines of action for European countries: develop the ability to “start thinking for themselves”; invest in military-economic autonomy; increase their leverage over great powers such as the US and China; and enhance their political outreach to other states. He also considered whether “the EU is capable of putting up a united front. With the bloc splintering into distinct political tribes, it is becoming easier for other powers to pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy.” In other words: is the EU sufficiently united at home to exercise its sovereignty internationally?
Social security is a fundamental element of human dignity, from which sovereignty is inseparable
If one truly wishes to see the emergence of a sovereign Europe that can act decisively in world affairs, it is essential to address this issue first. Without sufficient internal unity, the four lines of action will have only a limited effect, at best. This is because Europe’s current political crisis is closely linked with growing doubt about the EU’s democratic legitimacy.
As Krastev points out in After Europe, the loss of legitimacy largely results from the fact that, since 2008, Europeans’ belief that the EU defends them against corrupt national elites has gradually disappeared. Many European leaders’ guiding principle that, in democratic Europe, there is no political alternative to austerity has also had a profound effect. Thus, voters feel able to change governments but not economic policy. By constitutionalising key macroeconomic decisions, the EU has extracted these issues from the sphere of electoral politics.
In this way, the EU’s original challenge of reconciling national sovereignty with supranational powers has re-emerged with a new urgency. In his September speech, Juncker provided a sunny assessment of the problem: “European sovereignty is born of Member States’ national sovereignty and does not replace it. Sharing sovereignty – when and where needed – makes each of our States and nations stronger.” If only it were that simple.
As Jean Monnet contended in June 1950 – at the Schuman Plan conference – the purpose of the EU’s forerunner, the European Coal and Steel Community, is “to provide for the delegation of sovereignty” (author’s emphasis). Since then, this founding principle has guided the gradual transfer of new areas of national sovereignty to what is now the EU.
Today, the process raises basic questions about the nature of sovereignty – both nationally and at the EU level. According to the German constitutional court, Germany may only transfer powers over public policy, and not sovereign rights, to the EU. However, as critics of this position point out, the EU acquires the ability to exercise these policy powers according to its own judgment once it receives them. Still, reply those who agree with the German court, the power to implement policy does not amount to sovereign rights, since it falls short of constituent powers (those that promulgate constitutional legislation) – with member states remaining the masters of European treaties.
Several studies on the views mentioned above are to be found in essays collection Constitutional Sovereignty and Social Solidarity in Europe. As its editor remarks, while, for some, concerns about sovereignty might have to do with considerations of national identity, there is also a very different set of concerns having to do with social solidarity and the notion of the common good that reject the reduction of human coexistence to the vagaries of economic freedom and the arbitrariness of irresponsible individualism.
Social security is a fundamental element of human dignity, from which sovereignty is inseparable. And it is the imposition of a market-based notion of the common good, including by the European Court of Justice, that forces national governments to dance to the tune of the markets, thereby undermining European citizens’ connection with the EU.
Therefore, Europe may only attain real sovereignty with the consent of its peoples. This should involve the protection of social solidarity and security within a reconstituted EU as a Social Union– one that is capable of denying nationalists’ claim to be the true defenders of citizens’ vital interests. Only this version of the EU can merge national and European sovereignty in the way that voters demand, and can act on the global scene with definitive authority, determination, and success.
Georgi Pirinski is a Member of the European Parliament from the S&D Group, representing the Bulgarian Socialist Party. Previously, he was President of the Bulgarian National Assembly (2005-2009) and Minister of Foreign Affairs (1995-96).
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.