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Europe's Sovereignty Crisis, Moving Beyond The Nation-State

There is no contradiction between feeling French (or Catalan, or Berliner) and becoming a European citizen. But it is time for that citizenship to have real civic meaning.

The European Union flag
The European Union flag

-OpEd-

Emmanuel Macron's use of fainéant, the French word for "slacker," caused an uproar in France. But the real "slackers' are the commentators who scatter hashtags to the wind of social media and avoid any in-depth debate longer than 140 characters. The only controversy we should be focusing on is the substance of President Macron's speech in Athens, which marked a major break from France's perception of European construction.

His assessment is that the people's lack of trust in the European Union reflects a sovereignty crisis. We are living with the myth that decisions made in Brussels are the result of compromises made at the European Council, where each country supposedly continues to exert its prerogatives in an independent and reversible way.

This is an argument put forward by opponents of Brexit, like the think tank Chatham House, before the June 2015 referendum. Essentially, they said, the EU is just a sophisticated multilateral agreement that does not question the democratic process of its member states. It is no wonder that in a country so attached to its parliamentary tradition as the United Kingdom, voters did not fall for this fallacious argument.

With its powerful Court of Justice, capable of slapping fines on governments and overstepping their decisions through the qualified majority rule, the EU narrows the field of national sovereignty. The competition policy in fact condemns any economic voluntarism.

More than half of our national legislation comes from Brussels. Political leaders who pretend not to see the democratic problem this poses and continue to nurture the illusion of national independence are dooming Europe to an eventual populist implosion. In this context, it is only natural for extremist parties to demand the return of national sovereignty.

European sovereignty would make our nation-states obsolete.

But then comes Macron offering the opposite and equally radical solution: the creation, over the next 10 years, of a European sovereignty. "Real sovereignty," he insisted, "can only be built in and by Europe." It is, as far as I know, the first time a head of state uses such language. It means no more and no less the accelerated formation of a European demos and granting it real political power, which is the only way to tackle issues such as immigration, sustainable development, or financial regulation. Hence Macron's proposal to form transnational lists in European elections, in an effort to fuel a pan-European political debate.

Even though Macron denies it, logically, European sovereignty would make our nation-states obsolete, little by little. This is actually the vision of the famous German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Europe could, therefore, take on the form of a post-national state, separating cultural identity (confined to the private sphere) from legislative and civic commitment in an enlarged public sphere.

There is no contradiction between feeling French (or Catalan, or Berliner) and becoming a European citizen, impregnated with what Habermas calls "constitutional patriotism." It probably isn't a coincidence that the German philosopher, who went from the Frankfurt School to liberalism, was such a staunch supporter of Macron during the presidential campaign.

There is, however, a third way for those of us who worry about the emergence of a European Leviathan, with its own budget and appetite for norms and regulations. You could argue that, in a networked world, the very idea of democratic sovereignty has had its day.

In his speech, Macron quoted the famous early 19th-century European liberal Benjamin Constant. But more specifically, Constant called to overcome the "Liberty of the Ancients," which is based on belonging to a homogeneous people and not on collective deliberation. He favored a "Liberty of the Moderns," in which an individual with indisputable rights would be able to lead his life and go about his business without worrying about politics. We should, therefore, be imagining a European (or global) governance that is decentralized and participative, unconstrained by elections and representation. Macron announced the organization of "democratic conventions' open to everyone across Europe. Count me in!

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