Event Recap: Can Europe be Sovereign?

Joelle Theubet
March 22, 2021

The final session of the “Debating the Future of Europe” series tackled the question of European sovereignty, asking whether Europeans have made progress towards President Emmanuel Macron’s call for "a sovereign, democratic, and united Europe."

The conversation, moderated by Carlo Invernizzi Accetti, assistant professor at City College of New York, brought together a panel of leading experts in politics and legal studies, including: Anu Bradford, director for Columbia’s European Legal Studies Center; David Goodhart, journalist and Head of Policy Exchange’s Demography, Immigration, and Integration Unit, Boris Ruge; Vice-Chairman of the Munich Security Conference; and Dominique Reynié, a professor of political science at Sciences Po.

What is sovereignty and can this concept apply to the EU?

Panelists began the debate by defining the concept of sovereignty, which, in an increasingly globalized, modern world has drifted away from its traditional interpretation.

Anu Bradford, a leading scholar on EU regulatory powers and author of the book The Brussels Effect: How the European Union Rules the World (2020), offered the following definition: “The simple way I would define sovereignty is that it refers to both the capacity and the authority to govern oneself…. I think a critical component is that you can be in charge of your own destiny, that you are not at the mercy of the choices imposed on you by others, but that you can independently decide on the key choices that pertain to your sovereign territory.”

For his part Dominique Reynié, whose research focuses on transformations in political power and public opinion in Europe, emphasized that sovereignty should be predicated on the existence of a public power or a public sphere of influence: “A fundamental dimension of sovereignty is the capacity to defend and promote one’s own interest. We also have to consider sovereignty as popular sovereignty and specifically in a democratic order, and when we are talking about the EU, we are obviously talking about democratic nations. There is a link between sovereignty as the capacity of a public power and sovereignty as the will expressed by the people, and in a democratic system it’s crucial that both are connected.”

Journalist David Goodhart – whose most recent book The Road to Somewhere: The new tribes shaping British politics addresses the value divides in western societies – noted
that the EU was not created to respond to the will of its members: “The EU was founded as a sort of elite, regulatory process that didn’t really involve democratic majorities…Soft power projection has been an enormous success by the EU in all sorts of areas of life that none us really know anything about, but when it comes to political and military expressions of external power the European Union has completely failed because that’s not really what it was set up to do and is still a combination of nation states who, when it comes to the projection of power, have very different priorities and traditions so it doesn’t really work.”

Former German ambassador Boris Ruge offered his viewpoint on EU sovereignty based on his career as diplomat: “As someone who is focused on the projection of power, traditional diplomacy, and military power as well, … I think it’s about the ability to act towards the outside world, that’s a key element. In that sense, it’s an aspiration, it’s not an absolute, so when people talk about European sovereignty, in reality what they’re talking about is reducing the dependency of the European Union on the United States first and foremost, and enhancing the ability of the EU to be an external actor in diplomacy in the projection of force in the 21st century.”

Sovereignty, technology, and the demos

 “In many ways the EU has been very powerful in asserting itself and its values and norms as the regulator of technology,” remarked Bradford. “It has been very successful in making sure that it sets the rules for the game. It has been the referee and it has managed to compel or convince or persuade the big American technology companies to follow the EU’s regulatory guidance and rules, such as their General Data Protection Regulation, and many anti-trust regulations in technology sector, the regulation of hate speech online and so forth.”

However, she reminded the audience of the weaknesses of the EU approach to big data and the fact that the EU itself is not producing tech companies to compete with US and China: “In many ways, the EU has chosen to be the referee instead of getting on the field and playing offense. And I think that is a good conversation for us to have today: what would it take for the EU to not just be a sovereign regulator of technology, but actually a technological superpower that produces those big companies?”

“The real test for all of this will be when we – as Europeans, as individuals, through the EU – decide to tax the digital giants differently. That’s when we’ll really discover if the EU does have the power,” argued Goodhart, continuing: “During the pandemic there was an interesting period where the Test & Trace system was being developed, and I think lots of European countries went through this process of trying to develop their own systems and eventually realized they couldn’t and had to submit themselves to the preferred systems of the digital giants. If that is anything to go by, when the argument gets more serious, we may find that the EU has less power than it imagines.”

Reynié highlighted big technologies infringement on the sovereignty of the public sphere in Europe: “For the first time in the history of democracy in Europe, the public sphere is not intricately connected with political organization because, as we know, freedom of speech in Europe is regulated – not by American free speech – but by the conception of free speech coming from the private companies, the big techs.  It’s not possible for Europe to impose its own rules, even national rules. I don’t see how it’s possible for Europe to take back the control of this regulation and I can’t imagine a sovereign Europe without this capacity to impose on big tech the principles for the regulation of these platforms.”

Ruge agreed that the EU lacks a common public sphere: “All of us within the EU are ultimately small or medium-sized countries compared to China and the US and we have no alternative but to stick together to have enough impact on the world scene. What is missing is a public sphere and we have many of these conversations going on at a national level…If you look at most Europeans and where they get their news, it’s mostly from nationally based sources and so we don’t have a common discourse.”

How desirable is EU sovereignty?

For Goodhart the transformation of democracy in Europe from an elitist form to a more inclusive, deferential form, in which the public demands more accountability from their politicians, means that the EU will face serious challenges in its quest for increased sovereignty: “For the European Union to function more efficiently it’s going to have to have more majority voting and that is going to mean an even greater loss of national sovereignty. I think there is this permanent tension between international sovereignty sharing and national identity and national democracy. It’s going to be a constant juggling game. Europe will always be a kind of strange hybrid – and that’s as it should be – because if it goes too far into integration there will be revolts in lots of countries.”

Bradford remarked on the need to combine sovereignty with international cooperation: “We actually need to think about harnessing the best of the global alliances and capabilities. … How can we ensure the economic openness and our commitment in an interdependent world to global cooperation which can be a very important way to advance Europe’s strategic interests? We cannot do it by insulating. We need to be better partners and an actor internationally, but ultimately, in today’s interdependent world, few are truly sovereign.”

The talk concluded with questions from the audience on factors that influence EU sovereignty, such as Brexit, immigration, and the growth populist movements in Europe.

This discussion is part of the series “Debating the Future of Europe,” organized by Columbia Global Centers | Paris, the European Institute and the Alliance Program.

Co-sponsored by: Columbia Alumni Association,Columbia Maison FrançaiseColumbia University Libraries, the Institute for Ideas and Imagination, European Legal Studies Center at Columbia Law School, Le Grand Continent, La Maison de l'Europe de Paris,and Sciences Po American Foundation. With additional support from the Erasmus + programme of the European Union and the Advisory Board of the Paris Global Center.