Dangerous to stick to outdated ideas of sovereignty

by Javier Solana 

Published: Business Day, 15 March 2012


DESPITE the huge sums spent to write down Greece’s foreign debt, there has been an outcry against "interference" in the country’s national sovereignty. True, in exchange for considerable European aid, Greece’s ability to manoeuvre independently will be limited. But are complaints that Greek sovereignty has been severely impaired justified?

The idea of a nation-state’s sovereignty is rooted in the 17th -century Treaty of Westphalia, which embraced non-interference by external agents in states’ domestic affairs as the guiding principle of international relations. But, taken to its logical extreme, national sovereignty would require the complete physical and social isolation of states from one another. Indeed, an excessive emphasis on national sovereignty leads to serious problems: any international agreement entails a certain transfer of sovereignty.

Europe’s aid to Greece is an example of a co-operative agreement in which the parties negotiate with the others’ interests in mind. Greece asked its fellow European Union (EU) members for help and they have obliged with an enormous amount of aid. Regardless of whether this is the best solution to Greece’s problem, it is logical that the EU participated in designing it. 

Participating in the international community of states implies bearing others in mind and, when necessary, giving up certain prerogatives of sovereignty.
For example, when Spain joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO), it ceded sovereignty by accepting the WTO’s rules. Spain accepted this in exchange for being able to trade on equal terms with the rest of the world. 

States co-operate because it is advantageous for them to do so, but at the same time they lose control over certain internal matters. They shift from unilateral to co-operative decision-making.

Whether this is a violation of sovereignty depends on our conception of sovereignty. National sovereignty depends on how its components are defined. The debate about the meaning of national sovereignty consists of what we consider "domestic" matters. Depending on where we place the emphasis and how wide our focus is, we prioritise either a "global" dimension or a "national" dimension. The EU seems to represent a halfway point between the two. But it is becoming difficult to determine the difference between purely domestic matters and those that require international collective action.

Globalisation has made frontiers more porous. We see how one country’s policies can have a direct effect on others. And we see such interdependence even more clearly in their economic performance. 

On a global scale, this complex and interdependent world needs an organisation of states and structures of governance oriented towards responsible dialogue, the aim being to mitigate abuses of power and defend global public assets. Without such structures, the world risks a competitive and disorderly race to the bottom among states, together with a protectionist backlash. History has shown that such developments often lead to disastrous conflicts.

On the European level, legitimacy is essential and — let’s be realistic — won’t be achieved unless and until Europeans overcome certain antiquated ideas about sovereignty. Paradoxically, when the crisis struck, the EU was criticised for its lack of integration. Now that it seeks to advance in that direction, the union is accused of crimping national sovereignty.

Citizens must have the feeling that the institutions that govern them account for their interests and make them part of the decision-making process, which implies a union based on rules rather than power. The fact that the EU does not instantly have all of the answers to a problem does not mean it has no future. The EU is a new and marvellous experiment, which, as with all experiments, entails a degree of uncertainty. But that should not make us ignore the opportunity cost of a more "national" conception of sovereignty.

The dynamics of interdependence have become well established — so much so that they cannot be reversed. To adhere to a narrow Westphalian concept of sovereignty is an unwise anachronism at best and a dangerous gamble at worst.
The poet Jose Angel Valente might call this a desire "…to wait for history to wind the clocks and return us to the time in which we would wish everything could start". But, in the prosaic world of the here and now, the concept of sovereignty has already moved on. 

Project Syndicate, 2012 www.project-syndicate.org 

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