August 27, 2020

The European Union: Sovereign or Soprano?

The world order is changing, but the contours of the order (or the absence of one) that will replace it emerge only in the process of sketching them out.

Hence, Europe has not felt comfortable in geopolitical games, preferring to remain an economic force. In recent years there has been a deepening understanding that the world will not remain as it is, and that Europe, whose share of the global economy is diminishing, needs to take action. Thus, a European global strategy was born in 2016, and the European Commission that recently took office refers to itself as geopolitical. As part of the above-described, still-emergent pattern, the concept of European sovereignty crops up ever more frequently.

At first glance the idea of the sovereignty of Europe (or the European Union) seems alien. We have been accustomed to associating sovereignty with states, more specifically with nation-states. This has not always been so, and nor should it be, but the question unavoidably arises whether the EU is striving to be a superstate, hoping for a greater degree of centralisation. Those who support a union of nations over a united nation do not wish to see additional loss of sovereignty to Brussels. However, the main focus of this article is elsewhere, on alternative ways of understanding sovereignty and the question of external dependences.


It is misleading to consider the 16th-century Frenchman Jean Bodin the father of the idea of sovereignty. He did, however, define sovereignty as absolute and perpetual power. Historically speaking, the term sovereignty originated in the late Middle Ages and underwent extensive change in the early modern concept of the state. However, it would be wrong to say that sovereignty was unknown before that. Sovereignty could be regarded as the maiestas of Ancient Rome (from which the later word majesty was derived), which in its day characterised the Roman people, later extended to holders of high office, and finally to the Roman Emperor. Maiestas derives from the Latin comparative form magis, that is “larger/greater”. From the second millennium on, a more familiar word—sovereign—began to appear in European languages. The 12th-century French soverain, as well as the Italian soprano (from which the familiar musical term soprano was derived) evolved from the low Latin word superanus (“the highest”) and the Latin word super (“over” or “on top of”). The word super is connected to the Greek huper, from which in turn we derive the term “hyper”. Nevertheless, one should not immediately take a mental leap from hyper to the concept of “supreme force”.

In the guise of etymology there are various ways of comprehending sovereignty. It would be wrong to think that a democratic concept was in any way involved in the sovereignty of the Roman people, in either practice or theory. The Roman res publica represented a multilayered partnership between the divine and human spheres. This entity was not ruled exclusively in a top-down manner (by bearers of power or holders of office), and definitely not bottom-up (by a popular assembly, or a gathering of voters). Even if the ruler was considered to be above the law (the Latin legibus solutus), he was limited by divine and natural law, in addition to custom and practice, that is by tradition. The same principles remained in effect, one way or another, during the Christian Middle Ages. Numerous sovereignties could coexist in parallel. The power of the sovereign was not indefinitely extensible, because the state was not an absolute phenomenon, nor did it hold a monopoly of power. Absolute and arbitrary power signified abuse and tyranny.

Because it does not recognise something higher than positive laws (ius positum), the present idea of the state, like the idea of sovereignty, contains the potential for despotism. The trend that began in the early modern period culminated in revolutions and, in its worst forms, in the ideological totalitarianism of the 20th century. But even regimes based on positive laws limited by constitutions retain the possibility of arbitrariness with the attendant danger of tyranny, either by an individual or by a majority. Nothing can prevent the changing of constitutions by a majority of the people once the Overton window of social norms has been sufficiently shifted. It is even easier for state or constitutional judges with a “progressive” world-view to bring innovative interpretations to constitutions. Over recent decades we have repeatedly witnessed such shifts: everything seems to have changed while in fact nothing has changed, and what we only recently considered unthinkable has become everyday reality.

As a non-state, the EU has had the potential to revive an original and multilayered sovereignty, which would be in harmony with the principle of subsidiarity, already in effect on paper and consistent with expanding freedoms. However, since this idea has not been fully developed, applying it presumes a change in world-view, the recognition of higher metaphysical norms and ethical principles. We will return to this prospect later.


Seen from the perspective of all European states and the EU as a whole, the question of dependences and independent efficiencies is pertinent, including resources ranging from energy to raw materials, the newest communication networks to artificial intelligence in the field of technology, and from physical infrastructure and the military to financial architecture. The European states are so small and their economies so tightly interwoven that no one has the power to develop sovereignty on their own, at least independent of external factors.

One cannot change one’s geography or geology. As a region relatively poor in energy and natural resources, it is inevitable that Europe cannot achieve independence until it learns how to conjure electricity from the air or abandons already habitual expectations of material well-being. A highly technological economy depends on raw materials, some of which cannot be found beneath the ground in Europe, or at least not in sufficient quantities. Even the chosen direction of the green turn cannot be accomplished without imported resources and energy, such as electric cars and batteries. Similarly, the sustainable energy sector, whether it gleans power from sunlight or the wind, entails new relationships of dependence on strategically necessary materials. If these problems are made conscious, solutions can be sought. For years, the EU has compiled a list of critically important raw materials, and a new canon is expected later this year. Each time the list has got longer, and we can look forward to the same: one good candidate is lithium, which is needed for batteries. With respect to the rare-earth metals on the list, China has a monopoly for various reasons, though this has begun to diminish, and elements from this desirable group can actually be found over quite an extensive area (though mining is expensive and entails environmental pollution).

In order to mitigate the lack of resources and resultant dependencies, this hand has to be played as well as possible. It is therefore understandable that Europe is taking an interest in Africa, for example, and in the Arctic, which holds great potential. The geostrategic significance of this region is also underlined by the fact that a few years ago China declared itself a western Arctic state. The large reserve of rare-earth metals in the Arctic extends to Lapland and, in particular, Greenland, leaving an opportunity for Europe. Through the differentiation of markets and supply chains, new technologies and economic circulation, there is much that can be done in Europe’s interests. A fresh take on trade strategies can enable support for Europe’s interests and sovereignty throughout the world.

Dependence on strategic materials accompanying the green turn and the needs of Europe’s highly technologised economy is no small matter, but it should not be compared to dependence on oil or natural gas; in addition, the supply chain of such materials is not as vulnerable as that of fuel. From the perspective of maximising sovereignty, complete or overdependence on a single supplier, energy/natural resource or commercial group is not useful, nor is the total exclusion of any source or resource. The growing share of sustainable energy could help in this regard. At present, the EU imports almost 60% of its energy, mostly from Russia, though accounts of Europe’s almost total dependence on Russia for its needs are exaggerated. About 30% of imported petroleum does come from Russia, as well as about 40% of solid fuels and gas. Altogether this means that about one-fifth of the energy consumed by Europe originates in Russia. Even if the dependence on natural gas (as relatively pure fossil fuel) slightly increases in the near future, the goal has been set to strive for the use of hydrogen-based fuels. In order for this chosen direction to be reasonable (with respect to both cleanliness and reduced dependence), green energy will also be required to produce hydrogen-based fuel (hydrogen has so far been produced largely from fossil fuels). Existing oil infrastructure can be used for hydrogen. However, oil and gas will not disappear in the near future, or perhaps at all.

In addition to smart moves in the area of natural resources, one must collect a wide variety of cards for a chance to win. Merciless global competition calls for the articulation of a fresh perspective. Rules regulating competition will not necessarily improve the position of European companies, nor can the market prevent undesirable takeovers, investments and loans that would endanger sovereignty. Neglecting the science and development sector would greatly weaken the pursuit of sovereignty. There were times when the West’s primary worry was industrial espionage, but now China is ever more often in the lead and the number of patents registered in China is growing at a tremendous rate. Current discussions on 5G technology and artificial intelligence are leading Europeans to think about digital sovereignty and ask whether it is not already too late to implement efforts in this direction. In addition, it makes sense to take a broader view of supply chains, logistics, infrastructure, industry and trade, in order to reduce dependence and increase independence, in relation to both food security and the fragility of the healthcare sector that has emerged during the latest crisis.

The world’s financial architecture, which is still controlled by the US, continues to hold a central position. However, opposition to the hegemony of the dollar and (secondary) sanctions has deepened, and is no longer limited to China, Russia, Iran or Venezuela. Such dissatisfaction has quietly extended to Europe (as confirmed by a step that is marginal in practice but noteworthy in a symbolic sense: INSTEX, a mechanism created in 2019 to circumvent the dollar-based SWIFT infrastructure for financial operations in trade with Iran). In a way, one can place the blame on the US for the strength of its position and falling victim to its own success. By owning and using excessive pressure tactics, the US continues to alienate those who it has sought to influence, or against whom it has leveraged influence. The European Commission is already thinking about ways to strengthen the euro. In addition, if the green turn strikes out against one of Russia’s income sources, oil, this has the potential to hit America much more painfully. (This despite the fact that the level of prices Russia needs to balance its budget has steadily decreased.) The climate turn may undermine the dollar because of its connection to oil. The so-called petrodollar, which followed the era of the gold standard, is maintained by global demand for oil. There is certainly no reason to expect the collapse of the US or the dollar any time soon. Besides, such a collapse would not be in anyone’s interests in China, Russia or Europe. Let us keep in mind that no hegemonic reserve currency in the world has lasted forever. Preparations are being made for such a scenario (in which the relative degree of sovereignty is important), even if changes in the world order resemble the slow shift of tectonic plates. Even then, earthquakes cannot be ruled out.

If we look at the military aspect, we should recall the principle that obtained during the Cold War: keep the Germans down, the Americans in, and the Russians out. This model, which up to this point has been convenient, is now under pressure. Over the course of several administrations, the US has objected to the low defence spending of Europe, which ostensibly has not lived up to its responsibilities. But what would Europe spend extra defence resources on? Would this be directed towards fulfilling America’s interests and the support of the US military-industrial complex, or rather on developing the potential of its own defence industry, towards the achievement of Gaullist-sounding strategic autonomy, which is feared on the other side of the Atlantic? In any case, it remains clear that, without any independent military muscle, the term “economic force” is almost an oxymoron.


What, then, is the outlook for European sovereignty? In the end, this is based on two interconnected levels: the less dependence there is on external factors, the more independent are the choices pertaining to world-view and material well-being. If Europe continues to be dependent on someone else’s raw materials, financial system or defence force, that someone can dictate unacceptable conditions.

Clearly it would be utopian indeed to aim at true autarchy or a rise to superstate status. At the same time, the trend towards sovereignty, which is gathering strength around the world, along with the aspirations of different and variously abled forces, point to striving for increased independence from external dictates and influences. Europe’s prospects, in terms of both its starting position and its multi-vector diplomacy, could be above average. The advantage of the current discussion on sovereignty includes the fact that there is no need for complicated changes in contracts or for a federal state. There is no requirement for the establishment of an absolute sovereign in the early modern sense (nor in the sense of Europe’s non-existent demos or ruler).

As we weigh Europe’s internal stakes, we see that there is a great deal of disagreement both within states and among them. For this reason, readiness to apply the understanding of sovereignty derived from ancient and medieval times on a more extensive scale is questionable, particularly if this calls for major changes in world-view. Clearly, Europe has never been a unified nation, and it never will be, hence the sovereignty of a nation-state is not in question. Europe has only ever been unified in Christian terms, and in current circumstances the presumed prospect of a restored Europa christiania is limited. This only leaves totalitarian experiments, which have so far failed. Despite the irrationality of such a step, the bewitching prospect of a techno-dystopia may cause some groups to step into the same old trap; however, we can regard this as a warning rather than an acceptable choice in the discussion about sovereignty.

If disagreements over world-view cannot be overcome in an acceptable manner, this is a significant weakness and shortcoming. Neither is an artificial agreement based on false ideology preferable. Indeed, a less ideological and pedantic politics would help to further Europe’s interests (given that the current human rights policy is selective, if not hypocritical). Without an agreement on world-view, the unity that would remain would be motivated only by material interests. If no agreement is reached on this at the EU level, it remains possible that countries interested in geopolitical sovereignty will gather together, thus reviving Charles II’s empire in a contemporary form (if strong Franco-German cooperation takes shape). Another possibility would be the emergence of regional groupings that place less importance on sovereignty, such as the theoretical Hanseatic League 2.0, Middle Europe, or some more narrow partnership, which may then in turn choose a closer or looser connection with the European nucleus or with America, and by extension even with China or Russia. The potential sovereignty of smaller groupings would unavoidably be less than that of larger ones. By choosing a side with a monolithic approach, one would lose sovereignty to one’s favoured hegemon in the hope of avoiding or significantly restricting the influence of other undesirable forces.

Paradoxically, the main external difficulty in increasing European sovereignty is connected to its apparent biggest ally, the US. This is mainly concerned with financial and military aspects. On the one hand there is Western Europe, traumatised from the last world war and seeing the Cold War as a period of comfortable stability, and on the other there is Eastern Europe, which fears its neighbour; both refuse to take steps that would change the status quo. At the same time, many—particularly those in the West—believe that America will change of its own accord, accompanied by the whims common to fading or falling empires. The dispersal of attention and the decrease in resources allocated to Europe will be accompanied by demands deriving exclusively from the interests of the US. From the perspective of purchasing power parity, China has been the world’s largest economy for some years now. (The IMF prognosis includes the possibility that with respect to this indicator Russia will pull ahead of Germany in 2020.) Thus, Europe and the US—the influence of both of which is decreasing—might theoretically cultivate an alliance. However, the likelihood of this scenario is reduced by the degree of disagreement and the paradoxical nature of dual hegemony: the absence of the prospect of parity. In reality, this would mean the perpetuation of the current situation under the leadership of the US while putting European sovereignty on hold. Some nations would genuinely welcome an enhanced dependence on America. On the other hand, others may not have faith in the possibility that America’s limited resources would extend to Europe on the same basis, or that the US would allow any leeway for independent initiatives.

Of course, it is possible that, because of the attendant difficulties, the idea of European sovereignty will be cast by the wayside. In this case, and based on the etymology of the term “sovereign”, the EU’s choice would remain relevant in its musical meaning, that of the soprano. As a soprano with a beautiful voice, Europe might sing a swansong or perform under some other conductor’s baton, reading a foreign score.


The author is expressing his personal, not professional, opinions.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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