Is European Union Undermining the Sovereignty of Its Individual Member States?

In order to give an answer to the question above, it is worth mentioning that the two key points that this essay will analyse [the EU and the notion of sovereignty] are both really hard to define from just one point of view, therefore different theories will be taken into account to give a complete and fulfilling outlook of the effect that the creation of the European Union had given to the concept of modern sovereignty among its member states.

The essay will start with an introduction of the creation, shaping and then integration of the European Union, it will then move on trying to define what the EU and sovereignty really are, underlining the changes and innovations throughout history to eventually get to the solution that the answer can be found in the middle: yes, in some ways the member states are consciously letting the European Union undermine their individual sovereignty; but also no, because at the same time the EU is not a federation.

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So, member states are both sovereign and not (Hedetoft 2005). The United States of Europe imagined by Churchill is still a daydream (Pinder 2001:1). Plenty of writers and philosophers tried to analyse and give sense to the historical, cultural [and recently economical] links European states have always had [like Spinelli’s Crocodile Club] (Nelsen and Stubb 2003:91-92 and Bainbridge 1998:113).

Churchill was definitely not the first nor the last one to believe in it and, as we can see, Victor Hugo anticipated him in his ‘opening speech of the Peace Congress’ saying: A day will come when you, France, Italy, England, Germany – all of you, nations of the Continent, will, without losing your distinctive qualities and your glorious individuality, be blended into a superior unity, and constitute an European fraternity […]. A day will come when the only battlefield will be the market open to commerce and the mind opening to new ideas.

A day will come when bullets and bomb-shells will be replaced by votes, by the universal suffrage of nations, by the venerable arbitration of a great Sovereign Senate, which will be to Europe what the Parliament is to England, what the Diet is to Germany, what the Legislative Assembly is to France. […] A day will come when those two immense groups, the United States of America and the United States of Europe shall be seen placed in presence of each other, extending the hand of fellowship across the ocean, exchanging their produce, their commerce, their industry, their arts, their genius […] (Hugo 1849).

European integration has always been in the great intellectuals’ minds, so the building up of the EU was just a matter of time and occasions given by the historical context. The process that led to the birth of the European Union as it is known today, has been long and, being such a recent event, is still shaping and laying the foundations for what the European Union of the future will be. The first official attempt to create a European community was made in 1929 by the French Prime Minister Aristide Briand.

He had a plan: reach unification by presenting his ideas to the League of Nation (CLIOTEXT 2012). Unfortunately, the old continent still needed to get over the shock of the Great War and, due to long-standing controversies that still required drastic solutions, an agreement could not be reached. The end of the Second World War pulled the trigger. Peace and order had to be maintained -no matter what- because Europe [and the World] could not sustain the economic, social and moral burden that a hypothetical Third World War in the same century would have brought about.

The following definition of the EU can be found on its official website: ‘The European Union is a unique economic and political partnership between 27 European countries. It has delivered half a century of peace, stability, and prosperity, helped raise living standards, launched a single European currency, and is progressively building a single Europe-wide market in which people, goods, services, and capital move among Member States as freely as within one country’ (EUROPA 2011).

Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands were the six founding member states, the very first ones that progressively pooled their sovereignty to the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, signing the Treaty of Paris under Robert Schuman’s orders (Mccormick 2008:10). The basic idea was that whoever did not have control over coal and steel production would not be able to fight a war (EUROPA 2012a).

So the spirit of the community embodied the principle that ‘any war between France and Germany would become not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible’ (Pinder 2001:1) because the control over coal and steel would be taken by a supranational organization. The other reasons were merely economic and the creation of a single market was the first step to start a complementary process of political unification, which, since it involved the very intrinsic factor that defines a state – sovereignty -, was not that immediate and simple in the case of the EU.

In 1957 the Treaty of Rome produced the EEC [establishing the ‘common market’, breaking down the barriers between the EU’s national economies and establishing the 4 freedoms: free movement of goods, free movement of persons, freedom to provide services and free movement of capital] and EURATOM [concerning nuclear development] (Bainbridge 1998:287;518). In 1965 the Merger Treaty unified the three institutions forming the European Communities (Bainbridge 1998:376).

This forerunner organization was then replaced in 1992 by the official European Union with the Maastricht Treaty (EUROPA 2012b). By the time bureaucracy was moving forward, the union became bigger and bigger: five enlargements from 1973 till 2007 included countries that, just 30 years ago were not even close to such a revolutionary thought because they were still deeply dependent on the USSR. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the integration of West Germany into the EU, also Eastern Europe could now be part of the game.

Later on, the 21st century was ready to welcome an even more economic interdependent factor: the common currency, known as the EURO, which was introduced in 17 countries [with the UK and Denmark having out-puts while other member states being on hold] (EUROPA 2012c). However, as already mentioned, ‘the integration of modern economies requires a framework of law, and hence common political and judicial institutions’ (Pinder 2001:61).

The Treaty of Lisbon in 2007 was then fundamental for the desired [not by everyone though] political union because ‘[it was] designed to make the EU more democratic, efficient and transparent, and thereby able to tackle global challenges’ (EUROPA 2012d). It is thus giving more voice to the EU on the global stage and according to, for example, the realist theory, it is taking away sovereignty from the principal actors: the member states.

The dilemma is where sovereignty is being placed and what kind of sovereignty Eurosceptics and Europhiles refer to when they debate whether the European Union is undermining it or just bringing it to a new level. Since ‘concepts in International Relations theory are subjected to redefinition and re-interpretation as situations and time change’ (Kehoane 2002:743), it is vital to accept that the concept of absolute sovereignty evolved and went through a serious reconceptualization throughout the years (Postanationaleu 2011), after the peace of Westphalia gave its first definition in 1648 (Keohane 2002:746).

This theory of absolute sovereignty, so close to Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes’s principles, found a way to justified monarchical absolutism by saying that power should be vested in a single source free from external and internal constraints (Newman 1996:5-6). Also Morgenthau sustained that ‘sovereignty means supreme authority; it stands to reason that no two or more entities […] can be sovereign within the same time and space (Goldstein 2001:2).

Theorists like John Austin introduced the idea of ‘legal sovereignty’ denying the existence of international law because there is no sovereign authority that is able to enforce it on other sovereign states (so from the point of view of legal sovereignty the European Court of Justice should not exist). John Locke gave it a slight democratic hint by affirming that sovereignty no longer resided in states but in people. It was Jean Jacques Rousseau however who affirmed that a union between state and people was possible.

Popular sovereignty could even be able to strengthen a state that embodies its popular will [introducing the concept of popular state sovereignty] (Newman 1996:5-7). With the unique system that the EU has and the level of globalisation the world has reached, a change in sovereignty was more than predictable. The uniqueness in its structure makes the union much more than an international organisation [because it has a parliament, a European court of justice and its own legal system], but it still does not provide enough unity to form a one nation state (Milev 2005:9).

When this deep cooperation leads to the transfer of -partial- sovereignty, it moves away from a simple intergovernmental arrangement and flows into the realm of supranationalism (Mccormick 2008:5). As part of the European Union, member states preserve their sovereignty, but as long as they wish to keep on ‘playing the game called EU’, they have to follow its rules (Jakab 2006:14). Hence, as the integration process increased, they needed to gradually accept restraints on their external freedom of action, in return for the benefits of cooperation, reversing the mainstream theory of states’ indivisible sovereignty.

This means that a distinction needs to be made. The antique concept of absolute and inseparable sovereignty must be crossed out and it must be accepted that it is ‘not a matter of all or nothing’ (Keohane 2002:758). Only then can it be divided into external and internal sovereignty. The internal perspective concerns the internal interaction among member states: they still are autonomous nation-states but no longer sovereign units of governance.

For what concerns the external perspective, an additional separation parts the system. On the one hand the concept of orthodox sovereignty is kept: extra EU actors still recognize member states as sovereign ones [for example NATO membership is national not communitarian]. On the other, member states give away their bargaining right in certain external policy areas to benefit from the great power the Union has creating a form of national independence where each domestic policy is bound to the authority of the system.

The ambiguity is created; internally sovereignty is lost, externally it is retained but modified to strengthen it and use the EU as a shield (Hedetoft 2005). The EU therefore will never be able to transcend the member states in the sense suggested by Federalists. ‘Any conceivable European political union would be and will remain a multinational and multilingual political system for handling affairs no longer manageable at a national or regional level; it would not be transformed into a one-nation-state aimed at homogenizing societies and cultures’ (Newman 1996:207).

Furthermore, the European identity among every member state’s citizen, if perceived, is considered artificial and not able to replace the different national identities. It could only be complementary, a bonus (Newman 1996:207). There is one more controversy when talking about sovereignty loss: all treaties embodying obligations entail a loss of sovereignty; however in international law a capacity freely to enter into obligations laid down by treaties is part of the definition of sovereign state (Bainbridge 1998:479).

So, the balance of sovereignty lies with the member states therefore there is no obligation to be part of the European Union because the membership is voluntary. The process of decision-making is consultative and the procedures are based on consent rather than compulsion but the characteristics the European Union has, such as borders that are internationally recognized and its own system of laws, make it appear as an embryonic government while it is more similar to a governance (Mccormick 2008:13).

Sovereignty in the European Union happens to be a complex subject because of all its interpretations and facets. Giving a full definition of the European Union seems even more complicated. The answer depends upon who you ask (Mccormick 2008:21) and which theories, that work as analysis lenses, are considered. The Nation-state model the society is comfortable with since Westphalia is not static. New political developments produce new lines of though about sovereignty, so labeling the EU that is an institution sui generis is purposeless (Goldstain 2001:1-13).

The originality of Europe has been in constructing a polity which to date has achieved a level of legal and material integration far exceeding the one obtained by any historical confederation, and yet has managed to maintain the distinct political identity and essential sovereignty of its member states in a manner which has defied the experience of a federation (Weiler 1992:2). Sovereignty has not been lost in the EU but rather has been redistributed among its member states (Mccormick 2008:15).

List of References

Bainbridge, T. 1998) The Penguin companion to European Union. London: Penguin CLIOTEXTE (2012) Discours d’Aristide Briand devant la Xe session de l’Assemblee de la Societe des Nations [online] available from [20 March 2012] EUROPA (2012) Basic information on the European Union [online] available from [20 March 2012] EUROPA (2012a) Robert Schuman (1886-1963) [online] available from [20 March 2012] EUROPA (2012b) Europe without frontiers [online] available from [20 March 2012] EUROPA (2012c) Economic and Monetary Affairs [online] available from [20 Marc 2012]

EUROPA (2012d) The Treaty at a glance [online] available from [20 March 2012] Goldstein (2001) Constituting federal sovereignty the European Union in comparative context. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press Hedetof, U. (n. d. ) Sovereignty Revisited: European Reconfigurations, Global Challenges, and Implications for Small States [online] available from < http://globalautonomy. ca/global1/summaryPrint. jsp? index=summaries/RS_Hedetoft_Sovereignty. xml > [20 March 2012] Hugo, V. (1849) International Peace Congress [online] available from < http://www. avroche. org/vhugo/peacecongress. shtml > [20 March 2012] Jakab, A. (2006) ‘Neutralizing the sovereignty question’ European Constitutional Law Review 2 (3), 1-16 Keohane, R. O. (2002) ‘Ironies of Sovereignty: The EU and the US’ Journal of Common Market Studies 40 (2), 743-765 Mccormick, J. (2008) Understanding the European Union: a concise introduction.

New York: Palgrave Macmillan Milev, M. (2005) Democratic deficit in the European Union? [online] available from [20 Marc 2012] Nelsen, B. F. , Stubb, A. C. G. (2003) The European Union: readings on the heory and practice of European integration. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan Newman, M. (1996) Democracy, sovereignty and the European Union. London: Hurst Pinder, J. (2001) The European Union: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press Postnationaleu (2011) Post-national Sovereignty: The European path towards a political identity [online] available from [20 March 2012] Weiler, J. H. H. (1992) The European Union: enlargement, constitutionalism and democracy [online] available from [20 March 2012]

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Is European Union Undermining the Sovereignty of Its Individual Member States?. (2016, Dec 22). Retrieved from