Challenging the nation-state and conventional sovereignty

In modern political theory, the nation-state is still the most important actor. International relations are based on this idea and most international agreements begin with the statement that they respect the sovereignty of the state. The largest international organization, the United Nations, recognizes only states as actors. Yet, there is a tendency which is being observed for states to be losing their sovereignty. In the European Union, this can be seen from the supranational tendencies where states have agreed to hand over sovereignty in different areas to a higher institutional set-up. That is only half the story though, because it outlines a bottom-up approach, while there is a strong top-down tendency as well. That is what we can call dispersion of sovereign power.

What we often forget is that the smallest unit of power on the political scene is the individual citizen. That person, assuming they have full rights of participation in the political process, is the one who gives power to a higher entity, whether it be the local municipal authority, the state or even the federation. For example, in the USA, citizens vote for mayor of a city, governor of a state and president of the nation. In this way, they allow entities higher in the political hierarchy to ensure their security and organize society.

We can observe a similar occurrence on the inter-state arena. In modern international politics, states prefer to work together and to resolve conflict without resorting to war. In the attempt to act according to commonly agreed rules of cooperation, states discover the benefits of working within the framework of an international organization. As already stated, the basis for these agreements come from the sovereignty of the state and their willingness to work together.

Yet, there is a strong tendency for moving away from the nation-state as a central political entity. There is a rising tendency to include state actors from within a federal framework (e.g. Bavaria), regional organizations on an international or national level, and even agreements by municipalities (e.g. Eurocities) in the modern political debate. Entities such as the European Union’s Committee of the Regions allows for a voice different than the nation-state in the politics of the organization. Also, the fact that the European Commission has a Directorate General for Regional Policy makes a strong statement: regions and regional cooperation are important. On 17 December 2009, an article in the EUObserver describes a statement made by the Eurocities cooperation agreement to President of the European Commission: “Europe’s 1000 major cities have called on Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to involve them more directly in the bloc’s regional policy.” This demand for inclusion in the political process is just one example of the need to change the contemporary political structure.

Right now, we cannot realistically speak of a complete dispersion of sovereignty in the direction of the regions from the nation-state. The latter remains the most important political structure and is not keen on ceding power. And yet, the Eurocities agreement shows a clear rising demand for this to happen. The major policy area where this can be observed is in environmental issues, which have been a constant highlight in the media lately. In an article by Alex Forbes in the European Energy Review, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California is quoted from his speech at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit on 16 December 2009. The Governor states: “Attempting to reach such an agreement is very very important. But why do we put so many hopes and eggs in the national agreement basket? According to the UN itself, up to 80% of greenhouse gas mitigation will be done at the sub-national level … The national agreements, critical as they are, will never do enough…” This directly points to the fact that more regional entities have a very large role to play in environmental policy, bringing them to the forefront of the political debate, and yet excluding them from the agreement (because they do not have national sovereignty). But the above statement is one which only states the need for a change in the political system, while near the end of his speech, the governor made his wish more explicit: “I would ask the UN to convene a climate summit, like Copenhagen, but for cities, for states, for provinces and for regions. And I would be more than happy to host such a summit in California.” The message behind the statement: where national governments fail to agree, sub-national entities can make all the difference.

When it comes to environmental issues, there is no denying the fact that nation-states are not making progress towards an agreement. Regional, sub-state and even municipal actors can and should take the initiative in this policy area. If that happens, there can definitely be a spill-over effect into other areas, especially energy. What we can envision for the future is that nation-states will lose importance in some areas, but not in all. It will always be the sovereign right of the state to conduct foreign policy, ensure security (both external and internal) and participate in the formulation of macro-economic policy. All other areas can be transferred to regional authorities. This can happen easily within the framework of the EU, since most barriers to cross-border cooperation (like financial aspects, foreign policy aspects etc.) can be coordinated through the supranational structure of the Union. The situation at the moment has created a final hurdle for this, namely the requirements for the regions to submit their project proposals through their respective nation-states. If the Eurocities demand for greater autonomy in these matters is heard by President Barroso, then this can also be overcome. Then, we might see not only a greater local government initiative but also greater local society involvement in development projects. Bringing decisions closer to the citizen is, after all, the idea behind the EU’s principle of subsidiarity.

Realistically, what can we expect from such demands? Maybe not a lot from the legal viewpoint, but there can be significant results from simple cooperation between regional and municipal political units. Allowing them to make their own decisions without the red-tape required at the moment should become something to strive for. In the end, we are heading for a situation where the political sphere might be split into two categories: macro politics and micro politics, where the nation-state is in the middle between the two. Whether such a configuration can happen, only the future will tell. But it is becoming more obvious that with a dispersion of sovereignty a lot more can be achieved for the benefit of everyone.


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