European sovereignty Peace Palace blog Jaap Hoeksma

As newly elected President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron has made his mark on the debate about the European Union by introducing the term European sovereignty. In his speech at the Sorbonne of 26 September 2017 he elaborated his vision on European sovereignty in detail. The reason why this term raises distrust among lawyers is that it contains an apparent contradiction. Sovereignty in Europe rests with the member states, not with the Union. According to the highest constitutional court of Germany, the member states are the ‘masters of the treaties’, not the Union. So, has President Macron merely launched a political slogan or will closer examination reveal that his approach gives fresh impetus to the smouldering debate about the future of Europe?

Sharing sovereignty is only feasible among democratic states and is implemented on a voluntary basis. In the case of the EU, the democratic states of the Union have agreed to share the exercise of sovereignty in a number of fields in order to attain common goals. The theory of democratic integration suggests that, if two or more democratic states agree to do so, the organisation they establish for this purpose should be democratic too. The aim of the EU is not only to form an organisation of democratic states, but also to function as a constitutional democracy of its own. In consequence, exercise of sovereignty on the level of the Union must also be democratically controlled at Union level.

Shared sovereignty does not vanish in a democratic hole. Instead, the purpose of the EU is to ensure that all exercise of power within the EU will be democratically controlled at the appropriate level. The voluntary character of European cooperation is accentuated by the fact that member states, intent on resuming full sovereignty, have the possibility to unilaterally withdraw from the Union (article 50 TEU). At the same time, this cooperation is not free of obligations. Candidate countries wishing to join the EU have to demonstrate their respect for the values of the Union (article 49 TEU). Member states in risk of seriously breaching the values of the Union may face the suspension of some of their rights (article 7 TEU).

The exercise of shared sovereignty by the institutions of the Union is therefore founded upon the national sovereignty of the member states. However, the joint sovereignty of the EU proves to be more effective than the isolated sovereignty of the separate member states. Far from being a zero sum game, the sharing of sovereignty enhances the position of the EU and its member states in global affairs. Seen from a slightly different angle, it may be submitted that the member states do not evaporate in a central European state, but rather strengthen their position in the world by sharing the exercise of sovereignty in the framework of the EU.

The way, in which the euro has been saved, shows how the exercise of shared sovereignty reinforces the position of the EU and the euro area at the global level. After the relentless attacks on the single currency by speculators and hedge funds during the crises decade the euro has established itself as one of the world’s major currencies. A similar evolution can be demonstrated in the domain of international trade. In fact, the EU proves in a considerable number of fields that the practice of shared sovereignty leads to an increased influence at the global level. European sovereignty is therefore neither an empty shell nor a contradiction in terms, but a living reality. To put this conclusion in the language of President Macron: La souveraineté partagée, c’est la souveraineté renforcée.

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