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Populism and euroscepticism are on the rise everywhere in Europe. No longer confined to the margins of the political spectrum, they have become increasingly close to the mainstream. These movements perceive Europe as the main cause of all the current ills affecting our societies – immigration, unemployment, low growth, poverty and insecurity. But this is not a purely contingent phenomenon. The upsurge of these movements can only be explained by deep causes related to long-term historical evolutions.

If one accepts this premise, only alternatives addressing these underlying factors are likely to constitute adequate responses to this phenomenon. This is exactly what a renewal of European federalism creating an effective sovereignty at the European level is about.

Populism and Euroscepticism

Certainly, ‘populism’ and ‘euroscepticism’ are broad categories that make their heuristic or analytical use difficult. Whereas left-wing eurosceptics usually coin their opposition to the EU in social and democratic terms and only rarely challenge the very principle of European integration, right-wing eurosceptics express their anti-EU position in explicitly nationalist and anti-European terms. In other words, the discourses of both groups are linked to very different political ideologies.

By the same token, their populist dimensions have only limited similarities. In both cases, the objective is to defend a “pure” people led by a charismatic leader against a corrupt and remote elite. Nonetheless, for left-wing populists, the “people” are composed of the oppressed, disadvantaged and dominated groups, while for right-wing populists, they are mainly identity-based – a homogeneous “us” characterized by a singular and positive identity and superior to “others”, who are often described as threatening and inherently inferior. In that sense, these movements represent a form of extreme communitarianism, since they postulate a necessary congruence and overlap between political institutions and a cultural community.

Still, despite these distinctions, these actors express similar democratic aspirations that explain their increasing popularity among those citizens impatient to put an end to widespread (political and economic) deterministic narratives and recover genuine political agency.

The demise of political agency

All populists and eurosceptics promise a recovery of national sovereignty, understood in its historic, undifferentiated and demanding version. If they can find a popular echo, it is because supranational evolutions, such as European integration and, to a lesser extent, globalization, have indeed radically undermined national sovereignty in all its dimensions – democratic, socioeconomic, cultural and even coercive.

In an increasing array of matters, a partial Europeanization has taken place which is not only insufficient but also the source of intractable problems: for instance, the liberalization of the exchanges of goods, services and capitals has been implemented without a parallel harmonization of social, tax and environmental standards. This has led, in practice, to a ‘race to the bottom’ substantially reducing the effective power of social and political actors to act upon the level of these standards. In a similar vein, a common currency and financial institution was created without being backed up by a proper budget able to compensate for the huge divergences between regions and states within the Eurozone, or to finance demand-friendly investments.

This incomplete Europeanization also affects immigration policy. The free movement of persons within the Schengen space has not been completed by a fully fledged common asylum and immigration policy and management of external borders. By the same token, only fragments of representative democracy exist at the EU level: the European Parliament still does not hold the power to propose new laws, whereas the European Commission is far from constituting a proper executive power that would be accountable to the legislative. Furthermore, even if national armed and police forces have been involved in a partial Europeanization process for the last few decades, this has not resulted in the creation of a proper European capacity to use force. Finally, national identity, the most symbolic aspect of sovereignty proudly brandished by right-wing populists, has largely been impacted by these supranational evolutions as well as by the cultural diversification of European societies.

Along all these dimensions, it is as if the weakening of national sovereignties had been accompanied by a mirage, namely the promise of the eventual birth of an effective European government. But in practice, common policies at the European level are far from sufficient for commentators to speak of a genuine sovereignty at this level. Yet, this is the only credible response to the rise of populist euroscepticism.

An undifferentiated approach to sovereignty

But is this not what Europeanists are supposed to promote? Not exactly. The founding fathers of the EU and its most fervent current supporters have mainly aimed to tame the potential excesses of national sovereignty – nationalism and power abuse in particular. Thus, current Europeanists mainly defend the sui generis character of the EU – particularly its combination of supranational and intergovernmental features – and the new and original form of democracy it is supposed to embody and the ‘multi-level’ governance of which it is a part. In this ‘post-modern’ entity, the distribution of political authority is said to be horizontal rather than vertical, meaning that it is deliberately fragmented and shared between various institutional and individual actors.

At the heart of the founding of the European Community lies a very deep distrust, not only towards the state in general and its supposedly intrinsic nationalist biases, but also towards democracy and economic interventionism. And this still characterizes much pro-European activism and thought. The undifferentiated approach to sovereignty displayed by most Europeanists has consolidated this perspective: if sovereignty always comes with all the dimensions historically embodied by the nation state – a national identity that always contains the seeds of exclusive nationalism and potential power abuse – then it made sense to weaken it in all these dimensions. This approach has not only tended to justify the status quo but has also prevented a critical refurbishment of the notion of sovereignty.

Marrying federalism and sovereignty at the European level

However, as previously noted, the only way to rescue some political agency – and therefore the collective freedom indispensable to guarantee individual freedoms – would be through a genuine European concept of sovereignty. This could be done by renewing the old tradition of European ‘federalist sovereignty’, but in a way that would reinforce rather than impede political agency. The hybrid state of the EU’s institutional architecture – between a confederation and a federation – will not hold together much longer. The French philosopher Jean Bodin wrote that ‘sovereignty is indivisible’, a prescient warning from five centuries ago.

And indeed, the division and ‘sharing’ of sovereignty experienced in Europe in recent decades has, in practice, led to its almost total annihilation. Bodin also noted that any division of sovereignty tended to generate fragmentation and, in the end, lead to its reconstitution at another level. This is exactly revealed by the contemporary surge of nationalist and regionalist movements. A convincing response to such centrifugal forces would be to rethink federalism by marrying it with sovereignty at the European level. Contrary to a postulate shared by several Europeanists, European federalism should not be different in nature from classical forms of federalism developed at the national level.

Federalism does not equate to an abolition of sovereignty, but to a sharing of competences between a central government and federated entities – whether the latter are based on a linguistic, cultural or territorial basis. In that sort of configuration, the federal government is the only level at which sovereignty is held and exercised.

But what would a proper European sovereignty mean in practice? A European federation would require both the overcoming of national sovereignties and the creation of a common government. And a European sovereign federation would have to exist along the four dimensions mentioned earlier: a democratically legitimate government able to act swiftly and efficiently on economic relations and equipped with a ‘monopoly on the legitimate use of force’ over a specific territory – a common army.

Retaining the warnings of the first Europeanists

This goal should not, however, make us overlook the early warnings of the first Europeanists concerning the dangers inherent in sovereignty. The strict application of the principles of the rule of law and strong popular control over the legislative and the executive are indispensable for the subordination of a sovereign power to citizens’ interests and preferences. Besides, the distrust shown to nationalism by the founding fathers should be recalled and even widened. On top of being unnecessary and harmful, a European form of communitarianism would be largely impracticable. It is a profound illusion to postulate that a European feeling of belonging could supplant regional and, even more so, national variants of communitarianism built largely in a top-down manner over centuries and still deeply anchored in society.

Moreover, the sort of European sovereignty we are appealing to would not necessarily require a common identity. It is much more likely to be supported by citizens if it reflects their interests and preferences. In other words: if it is democratic and translates into policies satisfying their needs. Neglecting these ‘output’ and ‘input’ aspects of legitimacy and giving priority instead to a euronationalist justification of a European sovereignty in the making could also turn out to be detrimental to individual freedoms: the illusion of homogeneity it would produce could incite European citizens to support policies sold by political leaders as being in the interest of the European ‘community’ or ‘people’, but actually only serving a tiny minority.

Besides, a euronationalist perspective would create artificial divisions between a valued ‘us’ and devalued ‘them’, thereby opening the door to all sorts of exclusions and discriminations. Finally, the culturalisation of social and political problems would impede the elaboration of alliances going beyond identity. In a liberal and cosmopolitan approach, identity should be a personal resource for individuals but should not be the main legitimizing tool of politics.

Only a marriage between federalism and sovereignty is likely to recreate the political agency essential to build the conditions for effective individual freedom. Such an alliance, to be efficient and appealing without becoming harmful, should retain the best of both traditions. This also means freeing them from their respective idealism, illusions and determinism.


For a full version of this article see: Sophie Heine, “Federalist Rescue of Sovereignty in response to Populism  and Euroscepticism”, in Studia Diplomatica (to be published).





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