The Left needs a Better Conversation on National Sovereignty

EU flagAs many parts of Europe continue to suffer from the Eurozone crisis and austerity, and as populist and far-right political parties continue to gain in importance, voices of the left across Europe are reclaiming the concept of national sovereignty. Renaud Thillaye, Deputy Director of Policy Network, examines these arguments, and suggests that the member states might be able to achieve freedom, and the capacity to act in their interests, only in and through the EU.

Gone are the days when talking about national sovereignty was associated with backwardness and narrow-minded conservatism. Everywhere in Europe, a section of the left is standing up to reclaim this concept and explain that regaining control over one’s own country’s destiny is a priority. The debate is particularly vivid in the UK and France.

In the UK, Owen Jones popularised the idea of ‘Lexit’ (the left version of Brexit) in July, which prompted reactions by Caroline Lucas and Philip Cunliffe on the Current Moment blog. More recently, Paul Mason dubbed the EU an “undemocratic semi-superstate”. On the account of Greece’s acceptance of a third bailout package and the sidelining of Yanis Varoufakis, Jones argued that the EU was killing national democracy and that there was no space within the EU for progressive solutions. Over the summer, Jones supported Jeremy Corbyn, whose initial ambiguity over EU membership can be seen as another element of the renewed yearning for sovereignty on the left. Since then, the new Labour leader made clear he would fight for a more social Europe from within.

In France, the left intellectual sphere has gone through a very recriminatory battle in the last few weeks, which has reopened the wounds of the 2005 referendum on the EU constitutional treaty (which a significant part of the left helped to vote down). It all started with Jacques Sapir, an economist close to hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who defended the idea of a “national liberation front” against the euro. His comment that, in this context, an alliance with the Front National would have to be envisaged sparked a lot of criticism, including from anti-euro circles. However, Michel Onfray, a popular leftwing philosopher, fuelled the controversy further after saying on the French public radio that Sapir was just stating the obvious and that “to be sovereign” meant “to be free, to have control over one’s life”. In early September, in an interview with Le Figaro, Onfray sharply criticised the EU’s “emotional” response to the refugee crisis and the tendency to “criminalise” all those who opposed letting in more migrants.

To see the Greece/austerity debate and the migration crisis brandished by leftwing intellectuals as evidence for an anti-EU case is worrying. On both accounts, the diagnosis drawn by Jones, Onfray and many others is that ordinary people are losing out. In the eurozone less competitive regions and countries have no choice but to adjust wages and living conditions downwards on a permanent basis. At the same time, asking for financial solidarity in northern countries is foolish given the already fragile legitimacy of domestic tax and welfare systems. The reading on migration and the Schengen open border area is similar: some countries, which should not have been let in in the first place, are too weak and unable to fulfil their duties. Other countries have to jump in, with the risk of fuelling further political instability (typically, a boost to the UK Independence party and Front National in France). The tale of win-win EU integration is a pipe dream.

Yet, standing up for sovereignty and against the EU in the name of ordinary people pays lip service to what sovereignty is about in an interdependent world. Applying the traditional distinction between negative and positive freedom to sovereignty, it is not hard to understand that one can be sovereign from (external intervention) but also sovereign to (act in the outside world in one’s interests). This dividing line cuts across those who think EU membership condemns national democracy and those who see it, on the contrary, as a much-needed toolkit to protect the country from external threats and risks shared with neighbouring nations. The case for the latter was probably best captured by Alan Milward’s revisionist book about EU integration: The European Rescue of the Nation State. The British historian demonstrated that weakened, postwar states turned to Europe to pursue their goals by other means and, ultimately, to survive. Limited parcels of sovereignty were pooled, but states’ capacities were preserved and reinforced.

Those who think that the first option – returning to a strict notion of national democracy – is the best way to secure benefits for the people ignore the fact that supranational institutions contribute to resolving clashes between national democracies and finding collective solutions. Rather than being something which is “imposed on us” (to use a much-loved expression of British Eurosceptics and anti-euro voices), the continuing flow of EU laws and decisions is the codified expression of hard political bargains which allow EU countries to pursue their cooperation and find resolutions to common problems.

This is not to say that there are no winners and losers from EU decision-making. This has long been recognised by pro-EU leftwing thinkers and politicians. However, the fact that winners and losers are not always on the same side highlights the reality of Europe’s burden sharing: southern member states might take a bigger hit today when it comes to preserving the common currency area, while Germany and northern member states provide most of the effort in the migration crisis. Both situations are far from being irreversible, and politics is always possible at the European council table (though one country alone cannot take the whole bloc hostage).

In both cases, returning to national sovereignty would not help solve a common problem, neither is it certain that countries like Greece or Hungary would win from permanently opting out from the euro or Schengen. Indeed, with membership come collective strength, technical and financial assistance, and the assurance not to be left alone in case of a crisis. The Greeks who gave Alexis Tsipras a new mandate in September understood this intuitively.

The UK current context also provides an illustration of what could be achieved at EU level to defend British interests. Had the British government done more in the last few years to push for a tougher EU response to the problem of China’s cheap steel exports, the UK’s (and other countries’) steel industry might not be experiencing thousands of jobs cuts today. A similar case came up two years ago with cheap solar panel imports (a case into which the European commission opened a probe in June). Rather than competing to build each a ‘special relationship’ with China, EU member states should spend more time working on a common industrial strategy in strategically important sectors.

Therefore, EU membership is not a contradiction to national sovereignty. It has rather become a condition for it. Speaking in the European parliament with Angela Merkel, François Hollande pitched the concept of ‘European sovereignty’ against nation-based ‘sovereignism’. This was no rallying cry to federalists, but simply the point that, on strategic issues, pooling decision-making and resources is the only way to stand up for self-interest.

If the left wants to reclaim sovereignty, it should make the case for a two- or multi-level approach as the way to effectively regain control of our lives. Westminster alone will not bring better results. ‘Engage with Europe’ should be the rallying cry of those on the left who are not happy with the status quo.


Renaud Thillaye is Deputy Director of Policy Network.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.


This article was originally published on Policy Network. Featured image credit: Giampaolo Squarcina (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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