On the inaccurate notion of “shared sovereignty”

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Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) is often described as a formation of states enjoying a shared sovereignty. Member States have bound themselves together under a single currency, the euro, by means of forgoing their sovereign authority over monetary policy. An independent institution, the European Central Bank, is tasked with the monetary function, mandated to pursue a policy of inflation targeting that aims at a medium-term price level increase that is “below but close to 2%”.

To improve the stability of the edifice, Euro Member States also commit to a set of targets regarding various economic magnitudes, including those peculiar to fiscal policy. In recent years and as a response to the [ongoing] economic crisis, the EMU ruleset has been expanded to include such instruments as the European Semester, which is a variant of the intergovernmentalist Open Method of Coordination, aimed at making states jointly enforce policies that account for a comprehensive list of macroeconomic indicators covering productivity, trade balance dynamics, and fiscal robustness.

While these common commitments do provide a solid basis for appreciating the structures as shared, they do not—and cannot by themselves—foster a common sovereignty. In the present article we shed light on the substantive aspects of the latter, to argue that the EMU is a system of shared responsibility, which devalues the sovereignty of each of its parts without compensating it with a common and indivisible one. Since the EMU is not a federal republic, but instead an intergovernmental order, the notion of “shared sovereignty” is not representative of the case and, thus, contributes to the conflation between a true federal republic and a quasi-confederal technocracy.

The meaning of sovereignty

Technicalities aside, the modern notion of “sovereignty” appeared in European history following the Peace Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 CE. Prior to that, the legitimacy of the state, the justification for its authority over a group of people, resided in the supposed divinity of the monarch. The sovereign was an individual, whereas under the scope of the Westphalian tenets of statehood, the sovereign became an impersonal agency: the state, which later evolved into the nation state.

The underlying principles of that treaty, as well as the inferences drawn from it over the passing of the ages, contributed to the modern understanding of international politics predicated on [at least] the following principles:

  • The hypostatisation of the state as the primary actor of diplomatic affairs;
  • The reification of the state as the agency exercising supreme authority over a clearly delineated territory;
  • The identification of the state with a given people;
  • The capacity for self-determination that, when applied universally, entails the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of another state;
  • The equal status of states qua states.

These principles substantiate the concept of “sovereignty”. Let us run a quick test to examine whether the EMU, with its ostensible “shared sovereignty”, satisfies the criteria on that list:

  • The EMU is not a primary actor in diplomatic affairs and, even if it did have a common representation, as does the EU, that would not necessarily entail a sovereign capacity to exercise foreign policy;
  • The EMU as such, if assumed to be a state, does not properly exercise authority over a given territory, not least because it cannot maintain its own fiscal policy (issue bonds, raise taxes etc.), it lacks the power to delineate its Exclusive Economic Zone, does not have its own power to use military might to protect its territory, and so on;
  • The EMU does not have its own people, for there still is no European Demos, properly so-called, with the capacity to participate in—and to formulate—its own politics, and, furthermore, the system is predicated on the notion of “common rules without common politics” (a limitation which I have explained in a previous analysis on the emergent contradiction of Europe’s inter-governmentalism, as well as in my critique of the five presidents’ report for the future of the EMU);
  • The EMU is not self-determined, as its Member States are the ones to define its sphere of influence and modalities thereof;
  • The EMU is not a state, but a quasi-confederation, a league of states bound by certain rules.

If the above are valid, then “shared sovereignty” is not the correct term to describe the EMU’s actuality or modi operandi. The term is best used in composite states, confederations that do have sovereignty in their own right.

Between sovereignty and responsibility

By removing the patina of state legitimacy from the EMU edifice, we are left with a complex system of rules that apply to all Member States, which specify their shared responsibility, commitment, and interconnected liability.

For genuine sovereignty to be incorporated in this architecture, a political sphere needs to be introduced, with the two-fold objective to: (i) address all of the shortcomings that were outlined in the second list of the previous section, and (ii) transform the EMU into a genuine republic, operating along federal lines.

In the absence of EMU-level sovereignty, and hence EMU-level democracy, Member States hold a several and joint responsibility to commit to a standalone set of rules that is not part of a wider corpus of policy-formation. As also explained in my latest article concerning the future integration of the Euro, common criteria cannot engender optimal states of affairs in the absence of an area-wide authority tasked with resolving tensions and addressing asymmetries in line with cyclical fluctuations.

A network of legal principles, against the backdrop of inter-governmental arrangements for decision-making, represents an inflexible order that inevitably becomes subject to abuse. There are no credible mechanisms for the enforcement of the common objectives, while any such exercise, given the lack of EMU-level democratic legitimacy, is akin to the annulment of popular will. The people of Greece have discovered that feature only recently, when their radical leftist party eventually committed to implement a “neoliberal” programme it so vociferously objected to, proving that its brand of leftism is not compatible with the single currency as it currently stands.

The gist is that not only the EMU cannot be described by means of “shared sovereignty”, but its actual characteristic of unidimensional “shared responsibility” contributes to an overall debasement of the quality of republican life in all of its Member States. An important part of each states’ economic policy is conditioned by exogenous forces, which themselves are beyond the reach of popular will-formation, to make them its own, revaluate and reformulate them in accordance with its own needs.

The EMU’s primary feature is heteronomy; heteronomy in the sense that for each democratically legitimised government, the rules it is forced to implement are always exterior to its scope of action, its mandate, and platform for governance; and also heteronomy as observed in the alienation of rules from the proper rule-makers, the sovereign people.

Accuracy of statement

All of the above could be cavalierly dismissed as a pedantic exercise in semantics. We would however have to counter such objection on the grounds that we use certain terms to achieve a couple of objectives: (a) to accurately describe a state of affairs, and (b) to express our desire regarding the optimal outcome of political life.

The notion of “shared sovereignty” as pertains to the EMU, is not considered inappropriate due to esoteric reasons, but because its inaccuracy contributes to the conflation between what we currently have—a quasi-confederal technocracy—and what we presumably want: a genuine republic.

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Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
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