Regaining Sovereignty in Europe: Back, Beyond or Below the Nation-State?

Peter J. Verovšek reviews “European Disunion. Democracy, Sovereignty and the Politics of Emergency” by Stefan Auer.

This is the first piece in a book symposium. Two more reviews (by Gábor Halmai and Petr Agha) and a rejoinder by Stefan Auer will be published in the course of the coming weeks.

Peter J. Verovšek is Assistant Professor (UD1) in the History and Theory of European Integration at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Next to his work on the European Union and memory studies, he also writes extensively on twentieth-century continental political theory and European intellectual history. In addition to his academic research, he also engages in broader discussions in the public sphere, with publications in Social Europe, the LSE Brexit blog, Eurozine, and The Duck of Minerva, among others. He is working on his book “Engaged Critical Theory: Jürgen Habermas as Public Intellectual”. You can read our interview with Peter J. Verovšek here.

In retrospect, the accession of the first postcommunist member-states to the European Union was the high point of integration history. As of May 1, 2004, the projet européen had achieved its most ambition political goals, ensuring not only peace on the continent, but also its unity under the banner of democratic capitalism. Almost two decades later, this perspective appears Panglossian at best, and delusional at worst. Instead of leading to further political integration and economic convergence, the last twenty years have been dominated by a series of crises. As a result, the Treaty of Rome’s promise of an “ever closer union” has been replaced by a European Disunion, to quote the title of Stefan Auer’s new book.

Auer is hardly the only scholar seeking to confront these challenges, which he roots in the deepening of integration in the 1980s and 1990s that resulted in the adoption of the euro and the creation of the Schengen area. Nor is he the first to locate the EU’s difficulties at the start of the twenty-first century in “its bold attempt to overcome the age of nation states and the concomitant ideal of territorially bounded political communities” (p. xvi). On the contrary, scholars have written a number of obituaries for the EU, while proponents of a “sovereigntist turn” have also called on Brussels to return power to its member-states.1

What is new about European Disunion is that it does not tackle these issues from the viewpoint of the EU’s Western “core,” but from the perspective of its “new,” post-communist member-states.

Moreover, unlike much of the literature on Central and Eastern Europe, Auer transcends the “worn-out categories of democratic backsliding and populist backlash” (p. xi). While he is wary of the dangers of ethnocentric nationalism, he argues that the “nationalist rebellions across Europe are based on legitimate grievances that European political elites ignore at their peril” (p. xvii), particularly as regards the loss of clear, democratic control and the ability to vote out leaders whose policies they reject.

Although Auer condemns the illiberal nationalist excesses of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, he argues that they are right to emphasize the need for a return to national sovereignty. In contrast to the EU’s attempts to create a “post-sovereign” political community, which has resulted in “more governance instead of government” (p. 68, emphasis in original), he “defend[s] sovereignty as a meaningful – and practical – normative ideal for democratic government” (p. xvii). By unwinding some of the EU’s federal features, Auer hopes to address not only the alienation of Europeans towards Brussels and the EU’s democratic deficit; he also argues that a return to the “world of sovereign nation states” (p. 179) will allow them to act, both alone and in concert within loosened, voluntary, intergovernmental European structures.

Auer’s book is a powerful and well-argued corrective to the overly-optimistic, teleological character of much of the scholarship on European integration.

I agree with much of his diagnosis as well as his emphasis on the continued need for sovereignty, but find Auer’s enthusiasm for the nation-state both unwarranted and dangerous.

It is unwarranted because it is not clear that the EU is the primary cause of the state’s decreased capacity for action and dangerous given the likelihood that re-empowered nation-states would push illiberalism even further than Hungary and Poland have already done. Overall, I argue that his legitimate concerns about the EU as it is blind him to its potential – to what it might become.

Auer is right to worry about the increasing lack of democratic control that accompanies the replacement of government by governance. However, tracing these problems back to the federal “quantum leap” (Delors quoted on p. 40) that the EU took in the Maastricht Treaty (1992) is unconvincing. After all,

the rise of international governance and the loss of local democratic control is not just a problem in the EU. On the contrary, the “logic of technocracy is thus pitted against the democratic impulse” (p. xvi) around the world.

Although Auer recognizes this fact – noting himself that “democracies everywhere have faced similar challenges” (p. 179) – he argues that the general process of globalization “was in Europe further reinforced by intensified processes of economic and political integration” (p. 5). However, this conclusion points the arrow of causation in the wrong direction: the EU deepened integration in response to globalization, not vice versa.

This gets to the issue of sovereignty, which traditionally refers to the ability of a state to make decisions about events within its borders without external interference. Auer draws on the Nazi German jurist Carl Schmitt to define this concept as a question: “Who is ultimately in charge in Europe?” or “Who decides on the exception?” (p. 56). While this conception differs slightly from older understandings of sovereignty – Schmitt specifically designed his approach to allow for the legitimation of dictatorship via the politics of emergency that Auer derides as undemocratic, thus setting the legal foundation of Hitler’s 1933 seizure of power in Germany – it also stresses the capacity to make meaningful decisions. As part of European Disunion’s critique of the EU’s post-sovereign project, Auer therefore argues that “Europe’s attempt to overcome a world of sovereign nation states has unwittingly weakened its ability to act” (p. 179).

However, seeking to solve this problem through a return to “a traditional political order based around popular sovereignty” (p. 67) is quixotic, given that globalization has robbed states of their capacity to act in the first place. As Matthew Longo points out, problems like global migration and border protection – not to mention climate change, global financial crises and the other major problems the world is facing –increasingly require “not mono-sovereign spaces, but overlapping areas of joint management and control.” 2

From this perspective, the pooling of sovereignty in the EU represents not a loss, but a gain. Auer may be right that the movement of powers from the nation-state to Brussels has led European citizens to feel that they have lost democratic control over important aspects of their lives. But while repatriating capacities to the nation-state might give individuals the feeling of control in the short term, it will only decrease their ability to influence the world beyond their borders in the longer term.3

The EU is indeed experiencing an “erosion of democracy at the national level, without an adequate compensation at the supranational level” (p. xxi). However, the answer to this is not to be found in a return to the state, but in an empowered and democratized Europe.

In terms of empowerment, it is clear that the EU needs to complete its Economic and Monetary Union by, for example, enabling cross-border fiscal transfers and developing supranational worker protections. (such as joint unemployment insurance).4 Such steps would have to be complemented greater democratization as well, such as through the creation of a second chamber of the European Parliament (EP), where the member-states would be represented (as the states are in the US Senate) and the transformation of the European Commission into a true executive branch accountable to the EP. 5

Although Auer’s Central European perspective leads him to call for a return to the nation-state instead, he is careful to note that this is “not an argument in favour of ethnocentric nationalism” (p. xvii). Instead he builds on the older tradition of liberal nationalism, which he believes can overcome – or sublimate, to use the standard English rendering of Hegel’s Aufhebung – the division between Western Europe’s liberal supranationalism and Central Europe’s illiberal nationalism by taking the best from both. This solution pushes back against the illiberalism displayed by the strongest proponents of the nation in the EU, including not only Orbán and Kaczyński, but also many far-right, Euro-skeptical movements in Western Europe.

Liberal nationalism is appealing. But it is not clear if this is a tradition that should be resurrected. In one of the stranger passages of European Disunion, Auer praises Hannah Arendt for providing “as eloquent a defence of liberal nationalism as any” (p. 24). However, the passage he quotes after making this statement is about the need for bounded political communities and territorially-limited citizenship, not liberal nationalism or the nation-state. Far from being a proponent of either of these ideas, Arendt was a strident critic of both. In fact, she saw nationalism as a key element in the development of totalitarianism, since it seeks to transform the state from the “supreme legal institution” that ensures “the protection of all inhabitants in its territory,” into a nation-state in which “only nationals could be citizens, only people of the same national origin could enjoy the full protection of legal institutions.”6

While the hyphenated construction of the nation-state appears to have logical unity as a result of its frequent use, Arendt’s analysis in the Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) actually shows that its two poles pull in opposing directions.

While the universalism of the state can potentially win out over the particularism of nationalism, the opposite – “the transformation of the state from an instrument of law to into an instrument of the nation” – is more likely, especially in periods of crisis. While Auer argues that this unstable, hyphenated construct can help to safeguard sovereignty, this does not resolve the problem as the nation-state encourages a slippage from democratic (based on universal legal citizenship) to national sovereigntism (based on the particularism of birth and ethnic belonging). As Arendt points out, this is dangerous because it allows the nation to “conclude quite democratically – namely by majority decision – that…as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof.”7

Far from supporting Auer’s arguments, Arendt’s analysis of how the “nation conquers the state” actually shows the dangers of returning power to the nation-state. As Benhabib points out, “the nation-state…[has] always carried within itself the seeds of exclusionary injustice at home and aggression abroad.”8 This does not mean that moving sovereignty up, above or “beyond” the nation-state is necessarily the right move. While Arendt herself offered some “unexpected support” for European integration, calling Europe “a totally godforsaken place except for the presence of the Coal and Steel Community” in 1958, like Auer she was generally skeptical of supranational solutions to political problems.9 

However, this does not mean that Auer can enlist her argument to support a return to a Europe of nation-states. Rather than calling for the creation of a non-national form of statehood, which is a reasonable implication of her argument against nationalism and the nation-state, Arendt instead supported the creation of a council system below the level of both the nation and the state. Interestingly, while she draws on a wide array of short-lived, powerful examples of councils that “sprang from the people as spontaneous organs of action and of order,” including the American revolution, a number of those cases come from Central and Eastern Europe, including the creation of soviets in the first days of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the worker’s councils formed during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.10 

Arendt never worked out the exact contours of such a council system or how it would work at the level of international politics. However, “[a] federated political structure more akin to Kant’s ‘republic of republics’ is certainly compatible with her views.”11 On this conception, councils would come together to form larger structures to tackle problems that they could not address themselves, while also retaining their individual autonomy at the local level.12 While it is unclear if this is a realistic solution to the problems of the modern world, the council system was the only form of government that “provide[d] Arendt with hope for the stabilization of political freedom within a lasting political regime.”13

As I hope this brief excursus on Arendt has shown, going back to the sovereign nation-state as the primary locus of sovereignty is ultimately unsatisfying and potentially dangerous. That said, Auer is right that the state cannot simply be ignored. On the contrary, due to their history, legitimacy and the greater solidarity they engender, states can and should continue to play an important role within the EU. In this sense, I would argue that

what we need is not the abolition of the state within a European superstate or a return to the nation-state, but a changed conception of the state within the EU.

In other words, we need nation-states to become member-states that understand their sovereignty as rooted not in the national state, but in a European community that embraces the universalism of the state unburdened by ethnocentric nationalism. Only in this way can the EU as it is overcome problems Auer so ably highlights and fully live up to its potential.

  1. See John Gillingham, The EU: An Obituary (London: Verso, 2016); Seyla Benhabib, “The New Sovereigntism and Transnational Law: Legal Utopianism, Democratic Scepticism and Statist Realism,” Global Constitutionalism 5, no. 1 (2016). ↩︎
  2. Matthew Longo, “Citizenship v. the Surveillance State,” Boston Review, 6 December 2018, (accessed 14 April 2023). ↩︎
  3. Peter J. Verovšek, “Book Review: The Left Case for Brexit: Reflections on the Current Crisis,” LSE Brexit Blog (26 October, 2020). ↩︎
  4. Richard Baldwin and Daniel Gros, Completing the Eurozone rescue: What more needs to be done? (London: Centre for Economic Policy Research, 2010); László Andor, Sebastian Dullien, H. Xavier Jara, Holly Sutherland and Daniel Gros, “Designing a European Unemployment Insurance Scheme,” Intereconomics 49 (2014), 184–203. ↩︎
  5. Ulrike Guérot, Warum Europa eine Republik werden muss! Eine politische Utopie (Bonn: J. H.W. Dietz, 2016); Jürgen Habermas, The Lure of Technocracy (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2015), 29-45. ↩︎
  6. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Brace Harcourt, 1951), 230, 275. ↩︎
  7. Ibid., 275, 299. ↩︎
  8. Seyla Benhabib, The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 61. ↩︎
  9. Quoted in Peter J. Verovšek, “Unexpected Support for European Integration: Memory, Rupture and Totalitarianism in Arendt’s Political Theory,” The Review of Politics 76, no. 3 (2014), 405. ↩︎
  10. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Classics, 1990), 263. ↩︎
  11. Patricia Owens, Between War and Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 146. ↩︎
  12. James Muldoon, “The Origins of Hannah Arendt’s Council System,” History of Political Thought 37, no. 4 (Winter, 2016); Benjamin Ask Popp-Madsen, Visions of Council Democracy: Castoriadis, Lefort, Arendt (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021). ↩︎
  13. James Muldoon, “The Origins of Hannah Arendt’s Council System,” History of Political Thought 37, no. 4 (Winter, 2016), 789. ↩︎

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