THE HANDSTAND

APRIL 2004

Nation, state
sovereignty and the European Union - some democratic principles

By Anthony CoughlanęSt.Patrick's Day, Wednesday 17 March 2004
Trinity College Dublin


Nations and nation states make up the international community. The trends constituting "globalisation" and the supranationalism of the European Union affect the environment of Europe's nation states, but do not make them out of date.  Nation-hood, shared membership of a national community, is the normal basis of democratic states in the modern world. This is shown by the advent of many new nation states to the international community since 1989, and the likely advent of many more this century. The following democratic principles are proposed as fruitful ways of approaching questions of nationhood, state sovereignty and the European Union. No claim is made for their novelty, but it may be useful to have them together as a summation of what is contended to be the classical democratic approach to these issues.


INTERNATIONALISM, NOT NATIONALISM, IS THE PRIMARY CATEGORY

We are internationalists on the basis of our solidarity as members of the human race.  As internationalists we seek the emancipation of mankind. The human race is divided into nations. Therefore we stand for the self-determination of nations. The right of nations to self-determination was the basis of the 18th century American Revolution. It was formally proclaimed as a democratic principle in 1789 in the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man. It is now a basic principle of international law, enshrined in the United Nations Charter. As democrats and internationalists, we assert the right of those nations that wish it to have their independence, sovereignty and a nation state of their own, so that they may relate to one another internationally on the basis of equal rights with other nations.  The democratic principle of internationalism does not mean that we are called upon to urge people of other nations to assert their right to self-determination; but that we respect their wishes and show solidarity with them if they decide to do that. It is as true of the life of nations as of individuals that separation, mutual recognition of boundaries, and mutual respect - i.e. political equality, neither dominance nor submission - are the prerequisite of free and friendly cooperation, of internationalism. In other words, good fences make good neighbours. Political integration, subsuming existing independent states into a larger supranational whole, is the opposite of this.



NATIONS EXIST AS COMMUNITIES BEFORE NATONALISMS AND NATION STATES.

To analyse nations and the national question in terms of "nationalisms" is philosophical idealism, looking at the mental reflection rather than the thing it reflects. Nations evolve historically as stable, long-lasting communities of people, sharing a common territory and language and the common culture and history that arise from that. On this basis the
solidarities, mutual identification and mutual interests that distinguish a people from its neighbours, develop.  Some nations are ancient, some young, some in the process of being formed.  Like all human groups, for example the family, clan, and tribe, they are fuzzy at the edges. No neat definition will encompass all cases. The empirical test is to ask people themselves. If they have passed beyond the stage of kinship society where the political unit is the clan or tribe, people will invariably know what nation they belong to. That is the political and democratic test too. If enough people in a nation wish to establish their own independent state, they should have it, for democracy can exist normally only at the level of the national community and the nation state. The reason is that it is principally within the national community that there exists sufficient solidarity and mutuality of identification and interest to overcome other social divisions and induce minorities freely to consent to majority rule, and obey a common government.  Such mutual identification and solidarity characterise the "demos", the collective "we," that constitutes a people possessing the right of national self-determination. They underlie a people's sense of shared citizenship and allegiance to a government as 'their' government, possessing democratic legitimacy, and their willingness to finance that government's tax and income-transfer system, thereby tying the richer and poorer regions and social classes of particular nation states together. When people speak of the "common good" that it is the duty of the state to uphold and advance, it is the community of the nation, "demos", people, whose welfare is referred to.  The solidarities that exist within nations do not exist between nations, although other solidarities may exist, such as international solidarity, which becomes more important with time, as modern communications, trade, capital movements and common environmental problems link all nations together in international interdependence in today's global village.



HUMANITY IS STILL AT  A RELATIVELY EARLY STAGE IN THE FORMATON OF NATON STATES.

Only a dozen or so contemporary nation states are more than a few centuries old. The number of member states of the United Nations has grown from some 60 in 1946 to nearly 200 today. The number of European states has grown from 30 to 50 since 1989. This process is not ended, even in Western Europe, where people have been at the business of nation state formation for centuries. It is ongoing in Eastern Europe. It has scarcely begun in Africa and Asia, where the bulk of mankind lives, where most people still form part of clan-tribal societies, and where state boundaries were drawn by the colonial powers, with little consideration for the wishes of indigenous peoples. There are over 6000 separate languages in the world. At their present rate of disappearance there should still be 600 or so left in a century's time. These will survive because, in each case, a million or more people speak them. There clearly are many embryonic nations. There are also long-established nations without nation states, which have a national identity but no independence - the Kurds, Palestinians, Chechens for example. A nation can keep its identity in servitude as well as freedom. Many new nation states, probably a couple of hundred or more, are likely to come into being during the 21st century. They will thereby acquire those two classical pillars of independent statehood: the sword and the currency - the monopoly of legal force over a territory and the monopoly of the issue of legal tender for that territory. A world of several hundred nation
states will be a world of several hundred national currencies.



THE RIGHT TO SELF-DETERMINATON OF NATIONS DOES NOT REQUIRE THAT A NATION MUST SEEK TO ESTABLISH A SEPARATE STATE.


Nations can co-exist amicably with other nations inside a multinational state, as for example the English, Welsh and Scots do within the British State. They can do this only if their national rights are respected and the smaller nations do not feel oppressed by the larger ones, especially culturally and linguistically. If that condition breaks down, political pressures are likely to develop to break-up the multinational state in question. The historical tendency seems to be for multinational states to give way to national ones, mainly because of the breakdown in solidarity between their component nations and the development of a feeling among the smaller ones that they are being put upon by the larger. Shared civic nationality is the political basis of multinational states, shared ethnic nationality the political basis of nation states. In both cases, if the state is a democratic one, all citizens will be equal before the law and the rights of minority nationalities in multinational states and of national minorities in nation states, will be equally respected. Historically, multinational federal states are all twentieth century
creations - the USSR, the Russian Federation, Czechslovakia, Yugoslavia, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Malaysia etc. Several have lacked, or lack, the stability and popular legitimacy that comes from centuries of tradition. Some have already dissolved, others are likely to in time, as various peoples within them assert their right to national independence.



THE EUROPEAN UNION IS FUNDAMENTALLY UNDEMOCRATIC AND CANNOT BE DEMOCRATISED, BECAUSE THERE IS NO EU SOLIDARITY AND SUPRANATIONAL "COMMON GOOD" THAT IS SUPERIOR TO THAT OF ITS MEMBER STATES.


It is the absence in the EU of anything like the underlying national solidarity that binds Europe's nation states together which makes the EU project, and especially the euro-currency scheme, so problematic and therefore unlikely to endure. The EU is a creation of powerful political, economic and bureaucratic elites, without popular legitimacy and authority. It is directed from the top down rather than the bottom up and is fundamentally undemocratic.  There is no European "demos", no European people, bound together by solidarities like those that bind nations and nation states. Rather the EU is made up of a plurality of Europe's nations and peoples. There is therefore no EU "common good" comparable to that underlying each one of its component member states, whose achievement could be regarded as justifying the establishment at supranational level of state-like governmental institutions.


Every nation state is both a monetary and fiscal union. As a monetary union, it has its own currency, and with that the capacity to control either the domestic price of that currency, the rate of interest, or its external price, the rate of exchange.  As a fiscal union, it has its own taxation, public spending and social service system. By virtue of citizens paying common taxes to a common government in order to finance common public spending programmes throughout the territory of a state, there are automatic transfers from the richer regions and social classes of each country to the poorer regions and classes. This sustains and is sustained by a shared national solidarity, a mutual commitment to the common good. By contrast, the euro-currency project (EMU/Economic and Monetary Union) means a monetary union but not a fiscal union. Never in history has there been a lasting monetary union that was not also a political union and fiscal union, in other words a fully-fledged state, deriving its legitimacy from a
shared national solidarity and a common good that its government existed to serve, which in turn underpinned a common fiscal transfer system. The euro-currency scheme deprives the poorer EU states and the weaker EU economies of the ability to maintain their competitiveness or to compensate for their lower productivity, poorer resource endowment or differential economic shocks, by adopting an exchange rate or interest rate that suits their special circumstances. It fails to compensate them for that loss by the automatic transfer of resources from the centre that membership of a fiscal union entails. Compensatory fiscal transfers at EU level to the extent required to give the monetary union long-run viability are impossible, in view of the volume of resources required and the unwillingness of the richer EU countries to provide them to the poorer because of the absence of shared national solidarity that would compel that. Currently expenditure by Brussels in any one year amounts to less than 1.3% of EU annual gross domestic product, a tiny relative figure, whereas expenditure on public transfers by the EU's member states is normally between 35-50% of their annual national products.


Consequently, the solidarity that would sustain an EU fiscal union and an EU multinational state does not and cannot exist. Democratising the EU without a European demos is impossible. The EU's adoption of such traditional symbols of national statehood as an EU flag, anthem, passport, car number plates,  youth orchestra, history books, citizenship and Constitution, are doomed attempts to manufacture a European "demos" artificially, and with it a bogus EU supranational "nation" and "national" consciousness. They leave the ordinary people of Europe indifferent, giving allegiance to their own countries and nation states. The more European integration is pushed ahead and the more the national democracy of the EU member states is undermined, the more the EU loses legitimacy and authority in the eyes of the citizens of its member states.   There will certainly be a great popular reaction against it. To align oneself with such a misguided, inevitably doomed project is to side with a supranational elite against the democracy of one's own people, to spurn genuine internationalism for the intoxication of building a superpower.



MINISTERS IN EUROPEAN UNION STATES TEND TO WELCOME THE TRANSFER OF STATE FUNCTIONS FROM THE NATIONAL TO THE SUPRANATIONAL LEVEL BECAUSE IT MEANS A CONSIDERABLE INCREASE IN THEIR OWN PERSONAL POWER.

At national level ministers are part of the executive arm of government. To get something done, they need the approval of their prime minister, their national finance minister if it involves the expenditure of money, and above all they must have  the support of a majority of their national parliament and implicitly, of voters in their country as a whole.  Remove that power to Brussels, shift the relevant competence to the supranational level, and the national minister in question becomes a European legislator, one of fifteen -  or twenty-five - others, making  laws for 400 million people behind closed doors, often on the basis of package deals, on first-name terms with the high and mighty of the European world.  There can be an intoxicating accretion of power to the politicians concerned, even if they wield only a handful of votes on the EU Council of Ministers, as they are transformed from mere government executives at national levels into European legislators, responsible collectively to no one.

Simultaneously there is a reduction in the power and competence of their own parliaments and peoples, who can no longer decide or make laws on the issue in question.  A member state on its own cannot decide a single European law. Its people, parliament and government may be opposed to an EU law, its government representative on the Council of Ministers may vote against it, but they are bound to obey it nonetheless once a qualified majority Council vote adopts it.  This devalues the vote of every individual citizen. Each policy area transferred from the national level to the supranational EU level devalues it further. It reduces the political ability of citizens to decide the common good.  It deprives them of the most fundamental right of membership of a democracy, the right to make their own laws, to elect their representatives to make them, and to change those representatives if they dislike the laws they make


RESPECT FOR STATE SOVEREIGNTY IS A FUNDAMENTAL DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLE AND THE CORNERSTONE OF INTERNATIONAL LAW.

Insistence on the sovereignty of one's own state is a natural right as well as a social duty. It is in no way an expression of misguided national egotism. Sovereignty has nothing to do with autarchy or economic self-sufficiency.  The national sovereignty of a democratic state is analogous to the freedom and autonomy of the individual. It means that one's domestic laws and foreign relations are exclusively decided by one's own parliament and government, which are elected by and responsible to one's own people. State sovereignty is a result of advancing political culture and is an achievement of modern democracy. It is not an end in itself but is an instrument of juridical independence, determining the possibility of a people that inhabits a particular territory deciding its own destiny and way of life in accordance with its own needs, interests, genius and traditions. It is the opposite of every kind of subordination to foreign rule. Without sovereignty a nations's politics become provincial, concerned with marginal and unimportant issues. Maintaining state sovereignty alone guarantees the political independence of a nation and creates conditions for its members to maintain their right to self-determination. The sovereignty of a democratic state means at the same time the sovereignty of its people. The end of the sovereignty of a state is at the same time the end of the sovereignty of its people. The sovereignty of a state and of its people is democratically inalienable. No government, no parliamentary or referendum majority, has the right to alienate it, for they have no right to deprive future generations of the possibility of choosing their own way of life and deciding the common good of that society.  The only mode of international cooperation acceptable to democrats is therefore one that will not demand of a state the sacrifice of its sovereignty.  That makes possible the free cooperation of free peoples united in sovereign states on the basis of juridical equality, which is fundamental to a stable international order.



CONCEPTS OF "SHARED SOVEREIGNTY", "POOLED SOVEREIGNTY" AND "JOINT NATIONAL SOVEREIGNTIES"  ARE COVERS FOR HAVING ONE'S LAWS AND POLICIES DECIDED BY EUROPEAN UNION BODIES ONE DOES NOT ELECT, WHICH ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE TO ONE'S OWN PEOPLE AND WHICH CAN HAVE SIGNIFICANTLY DIFFERENT INTERESTS FROM THEM

In the EU countries can no longer decide their own laws over a wide range of government. In practice countries and peoples that surrender their sovereignty to the EU become ever more subject to laws and policies that serve the interests of others, and in particular the bigger EU states. The claim that if a nation or state surrenders its sovereignty to the EU, it merely exchanges the sovereignty of a small state for participation in decision-making in a larger supranational EU, is simply untrue. The EU continually reduces the influence of smaller states in decision-making by abolishing or limiting national veto powers. Even if bigger states divest themselves similarly of formal veto power, their political and economic weight ensures that they can always get their way in matters decisive to them. Equally false is the statement that membership of new states in the European Union and their surrender of sovereignty to the EU would increase their sovereignty in practice. The nation that gives up its sovereignty or is deprived of it, ceases to be an independent subject of international politics. It becomes more like a province than a nation. It is no longer able to decide even its own domestic affairs. It literally puts its existence at the mercy of those who are not its citizens, who have taken its sovereignty into their hands and who decide the policies of the larger body. In the European Union the big states, in particular the French-German axis, decide fundamental policy. Juridically, EU integration is an attempt to undo the democratic heritage of the French Revolution, the right of nations and peoples to self-determination. Its profoundly undemocratic character makes the EU a project that must inevitably disintegrate.


DEMOCRACY MEANS RIGHTS OF EQUALITY, WHICH PEOPLE AGREE TO ACCORD ONE ANOTHER AND WHICH THE STATE RECOGNISES.

Democrats acknowledge the possession of equal rights by all citizens of a state, as well as equality of rights between people of different sex, race, religion, age and nationality. Ethnic minorities too are entitled to have their rights protected within a democratic state. Majority rights and minority rights are different from one another, but are not in principle incompatible. The struggle against racism, sexism, ageism and national oppression are all democratic questions. By contrast, the traditional issues that divide political right and left, proponents of capitalism and socialism, in modern industrial societies, are concerned with inequality in ownership and control of society's productive forces, in power, possessions, income and social function. The mass democracy that historically was first achieved under capitalism serves to legitimate and
make more tolerable the inequalities of power, wealth and income that exist in that form of society. Traditional left-wing thought holds that capitalism in turn creates the material conditions for the application of the principle of democracy to the economic sphere, as socialism, social democracy or a social market.



INTERNATIONALISM, NOT "GLOBALIZATION", IS THE WAY TO A HUMANE FUTURE.

The notion that globalization makes the nation state out of date is an ideological one. Globalization is at once a description of fact and an ideology, a mixture of "is" and "ought". It refers to significant trends in the contemporary world: ease of travel, free trade, free movement of capital. The effect of these on the sovereignty of states is often
exaggerated. States have always been interdependent to some extent. There was relatively more globalization, in the sense of freer movement of labour, capital and trade, in the late nineteenth century, although the volumes involved were much smaller than today. At that time, moreover, most states were on the gold standard, a form of international money. Modern states do more for their citizens, are expected by them to do more, and impinge more intimately on peoples' lives, than at any time in history, most obviously in providing public services and redistributing the national income. Globalization imposes new constraints on states, but constraints there always have been. States adapt to such changes, but they do not cause nation states to disappear or become less important.  Globalization as an ideology refers to the interests of transnational capital, which wishes to be free of state control on capital movement and seeks minimal social constraints on the private owners that possess it. The relation of transnational capital to sovereign states is ambiguous. On the one hand it may seek to erode the sovereignty of states in order to weaken their ability to impose constraints on private profitability.  On the other hand it looks to its own state, where the bulk of its ownership is usually concentrated, to defend its political and economic interests internationally.



PEOPLE ON THE POLITICAL LEFT AND RIGHT HAVE AN OBJECTIVE COMMON INTEREST IN ESTABLISHING AND MAINTAINING STATE SOVEREIGNTY AND UPHOLDING NATIONAL DEMOCRACY

People on the political right wish the state to legislate right-wing measures, those on the political left seek left-wing ones. Neither can obtain their wishes unless they are citizens of an independent state in the first place, with the relevant legislative power and competence to decide. This is why people on the political left and right of politics have an objective common interest in establishing and maintaining an independent nation state and a government that represents and is responsible to the nation. Likewise, within each state, different social interests align themselves for and against the maintenance of state sovereignty, seeking either to uphold or to undermine national democracy.  This is the central theme of the politics of our time. It is why democrats in every country today, whether on the political left, right or centre, are potentially part of an international movement in defence of the nation state and national democracy, against the political and economic forces that seek to undermine these.


THERE IS NO INTERNATIONAL, POSITIVE OR NATURAL LAW RIGHT THAT ENTITLES PEOPLE TO MIGRATE TO LIVE AND WORK IN OTHER PEOPLE'S COUNTRIES - APART FROM POLITICAL ASYLUM SEEKERS, WHO ARE RECOGNISED AS POSSESSING SUCH RIGHTS IN INTERNATIONAL AND NATURAL LAW.

All independent states have the right to decide who shall settle in their territories and how newcomers may acquire rights of citizenship.  Once people of different national or ethnic origins are resident in a country, they have the right to be treated the same as everyone else. It is evidence of how the European Union affects the sovereignty of its members that such classical components of citizenship as rights to residence, work and social maintenance must now be extended by the government of each EU country to the citizens of all the other member states as a requirement of European law. The states themselves no longer decide such matters. Two distinct democratic principles are involved in assessing international migration policy: the right of national communities to protect their social and cultural cohesiveness and integrity in face of uncontrolled or excessive immigration, and the right to equal treatment of all people within a country. It is the confusion of these two principles that makes rational consideration of migration issues often difficult.

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Anthony Coughlan is Senior Lecturer Emeritus in Social Policy at Trinity
College Dublin and is secretary of the National Platform Research and
Information Group