EU’s inherent conflict: European integration vs state sovereignty
Defining European Union
Speech at Harvard University, Oct. 2012
Talks about the future of Europe are frequent, but explanations of what Europe is, how it came to being, are rare. But such an explanation is essential especially when discussing sovereignty with a non European audience. When asked what ‘what Europe is’, the same things come, more or less, to the minds of European citizens, whether they are Spanish, Italian or German. One can argue that the mixture of state sovereignty and integration is a common place throughout Europe, it has evolved throughout the decades of belonging to a Union.
This political formation, is however, a unique entity that may not be compared to any other formation, nor is there any identical Union to be found in the history of mankind. In the past, similar formations of different states with a common administration were formed as a result of war and occupation. In the case of the EU the common administration was the result of elections and democracy.
Indeed, European history is characterised much more by national divisions, tensions, and conflicts than it has by any common purpose or harmony of spirit. The idea of a nation state essentially emerged after the end of the thirty-year war and the Treaty of Westphalia. Following the thirty-year war, which was the last armed conflict based on religious differences, European nations fought for political and economical reasons.
The Treaty of Rome was the beginning of a peace project in which the participating states had great differences because of their strong national identities (cultural, religious, linguistic). At the time, there was no European identity with such characteristics.
Despite all these differences and the tensions stemming thereof, no-one questions the existence of a common European identity with common values and principles. It has its roots in the common history; in Ancient Greece, in Ancient Rome, in Renaissance, in the Age of Enlightenment. It is based “on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. [Europeans live in societies] in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”
Based on this common ground, and after the end of a disastrous war, a small group of politically influential figures put together a peace project. This peace project was based on the idea of states transcending national boundaries and national interests, to form a union where every state takes part in the decision-making. Therefore the EU is a supranational institution, being unique at the time as such (in 1951 with the Treaty of Paris the term supranational occurs in an international Treaty for the first time), designed to represent the common European interest based on the different national interests of all EU member-states.
We should conclude this introduction by pointing out that Europe is not a federation of states, but a union of states with sovereign national governments that has some supranational and some intergovernmental characteristics. That means that EU institutions play an important role in most of the policies but still some key policies such as external affairs and education belong to each state.
Consequently, the institutional characteristics of the European Union reflect an ambiguity between intergovernmentalism and federalism, between state sovereignty and integration. For example, the Council of Ministers constituted by the Ministers of each state is a typically intergovernmental institution coexists with the EU Parliament which is essentially supranational, as it represents the people of Europe.