• English

28 August 2000

Speech delivered by Danuta HÜBNER

Executive Secretary,  United Nations Economic Commission for Europe at the Plenary session:

Limits to national sovereignty - European Forum Alpbach

1. The basic question is why do we choose such a topic for a debate on Europe at the dawn of the XXI century, why is it one of the major worries of the world and of Europe?

2. Another important question concerns the meaning of national sovereignty. What seems essential is to see that national sovereignty is a living concept, of a dynamic character, and the nature of national sovereignty debates has been definitely evolving over the last century. In the world of today when we are all increasingly depending on each other, when everything increasingly depends on everything else, national sovereignty means something different than years ago. Some time ago the participatory sovereignty has been invented, reflecting massive and deep changes in the world around us, and suggesting the need for a new approach to traditional understanding of national sovereignty. What is surprising, however, is that whenever the national sovereignty concern emerges, it tends to wake up the old understanding, the old approach. It seems also that though legal and constitutional aspects of national sovereignty are of paramount relevance, what should not be overlooked and underestimated is the social perception of national sovereignty.

3. Yet another question is why there should be limits to national sovereignty? The title, making reference to the limits, suggests the existence of something I would call the right amount of national sovereignty. There can be too much of it and also, too little of it. How are we going to know that? What are the criteria? Who can decide?

What is the mechanism to ensure the right amount of national sovereignty? The only mechanism that comes to my mind is democracy. The link between national sovereignty and democracy is of great importance. Democracy is the only political mechanism that allows people to sit at the same table on equal footing with a view and a chance to find a sustainable solution to a conflict. For the same reason democracy is also good for conflict prevention.

European dimension

4. We seem to be overwhelmed with the European dimension of our concerns related to national sovereignty. The truth is that national sovereignty concerns have been, if not generated than at least fueled, by globalization, by importance of regionalization – European integration and enlargement, by transition and by failures of national policies.

5. This issue exists in the debate on Europe, encouraged by the eurosceptics rather than euroenthusiasts. Within EU it is reflected in referendum campaigns, during elections, in the context of enlargement, of EMU. In the debate on European integration, the dilemma of united states of Europe versus united Europe of states has been with us for quite some time and Nice summit most likely will not herald a surprisingly new situation. Europe will continue to move forward on the intergovernmental basis with vital national states and of course with many problems that require European solutions. Though this debate relates to the future of the European integration, but, may be paradoxically, it has been enhanced by the end of the absurd division of Europe and enlargement.

What mattered for the debate on national sovereignty on which we have embarked in Europe in 1990s, was the fact that in that decade, as never before, people in Europe reached out to the European history. For various reasons – for lessons, for arguments, to upgrade their value. That was also partly related to the famous search of a definition of Europe or f limits to Europe. This search was triggered by the perspective of EU enlargement and justified pragmatic feeling that there must be a physical limit to the enlargement process. Of course we have discovered that it is impossible to define Europe on the basis of geographic, ethnic, religious or linguistic criteria. So we ended up without a definition but, in the meantime, we have generated, among some countries, feelings of fear to be left out, strengthened by sharp disparities in the advancement of transition related reforms, in economic performance and in the outlook. Paradoxically, this has contributed to the national sovereignty awareness and sensitivity among those feeling rejected.

European continent has a long 2000 year old history of divisions, wars and shifting borders. It has been the history of continuity and change, of dark tragic periods and great times of enlightenment. We have in out history tens of years when neighbouring cultures did not communicate. Somebody asked recently who knew about Shakespeare in Poland in the XVII century? When I think what has kept us, Europeans, together through all those good and bad times, the only mechanism that comes to my mind is the European culture. When I listen now, in my own country, to the voices of those who are the loudest in raising the issue of national sovereignty being threatened, these are the voices of those concerned with the alleged cultural identity crisis. This is not the political interference which is the major concern but the risk to cultural identity that is identified as national sovereignty concern. That is why the more integrated with Europe we become, the louder is the reaction to the alleged crisis of national identity and national sovereignty being in danger.

This is not difficult to understand. Europe is a continent with a long history of rivalry among nation states, culture was always part of this process. In some countries, for decades or even centuries, national culture was needed to substitute for a non-existing state. This is not the challenge of today. Artists cruise throughout Europe. They are contributing to European culture. Only through direct participation in creating European culture, those who fear to lose national identity can be calmed down.

In this context one should emphasize the importance of having European public opinion, European awareness, European media. Europe seems to continue not having that yet, in spite of having Arte. There have been over the last years moments in the European reality when Europe tried to defend common values against xenophobia and populism. There are examples of European solidarity around values which are perceived as shared. Feelings of belonging and participation have begun to develop. The more European solidarity we develop, the weaker the national sovereignty concern will be. Participation and belonging is by far the best antidote against fears of external interventionism.


Transition challenge

9. National sovereignty concern can also be raised in the context of transition. When transition exploded, national identity and sovereignty have become part of the agenda. The question was asked whether those countries would be ready to enter into new integration networks. While they refused to re-establish any regional integration that would resemble the old one, they desperately wanted to belong somewhere. The need of belonging was reflected in mushrooming subregional intergovernmental organizations. The very process of transition also has generated national sovereignty concerns, in particular with regards to the role of fdi in countries with economies in transition, and to the process of privatization. The most debated issue has been the one of the role of foreign capital in the banking sector. National sovereignty is seen as being threatened by increasing foreign ownership.

11. It is also extremely interesting to watch the evolution of reactions of countries with economies in transition to European integration. On the one hand they want to be in, on the other they continue to defend their own national particularisms against Europe, seeing EU demands as attacks on national sovereignty, tradition. These attitudes exist as marginal but cannot be ignored.

Globalization and national sovereignty

12. There is also a link between national sovereignty and globalization which is a reality of the time. Globalization could develop (trade liberalization, technology, multinationals, financial openness) because back in the 1960s it was possible to achieve social consensus, based on a generous welfare state which made openness and liberalization feasible and socially acceptable. Now - mainly because of the competitiveness pressure - we face erosion of this consensus, leading to the need of a new social bargain. Again participation seems to be the right way out of the problem as people increasingly start to understand that national sovereignty argument does not free them from globalization consequences but contributes to their marginalization.

14. If we agree that increasing role of the national sovereignty concern in the approach to development is strengthened by essential civilizational changes on a global scale, we cannot ignore this process. Alienation feelings and fears are overwhelming among losers. As globalization interferes deeply into social fabric and traditional social structures collapse, it undermines traditional cultural norms and values. This in turn generates reaction which is reflected in defending social norms and maintaining the awareness of social and historical roots of individuals. Feeling helpless vis-à-vis new challenges, people reach out to tradition, to history, to what gives the feeling of security, what defends them from unwanted impacts of external interference.

15. What is important about globalization in the context of national sovereignty argument is that it leads to reducing the role of political power. This is already visible - also within the nation states the role of political power is being reduced. The rationalism becomes increasingly economic. This process of gradual reducing political power makes political leaders more open to national sovereignty policy line, exploiting the argument of national sovereignty as being threatened.

Why national sovereignty

16. The national sovereignty concern becomes really dangerous when it is used in the debate as an argument against others. For example when we scare people with the vision of millions of citizens of potential new members of EU flooding labor markets of the 15. This provokes euroscepticism and frustrations, petrifies division lines in Europe.

17. Why do people need national sovereignty and why certain processes are perceived as threats to national sovereignty? Part of the answer is that changes go so fast around us that people do not have time and capability to reflect and this produces anxiety and stresses. Speed of change, transition, competition, new rules of game, disparities, market turbulences, increasing complexity – all that generates anxieties, but at the same time all that points to the importance of investment in people. These concerns should be a part of educational curricula as individual fears translate into national sovereignty concerns.

18. National sovereignty concerns may slow down the process of seeking of global and European solutions to problems which require such solutions. There are more and more transboundary problems that to be addressed properly require transboundary solutions, often also structures. Demographic explosion, mostly in cities, energy and water scarcities, technological revolution which goes much deeper into the fabric of society than ever before, new trends in economy whose consequences cannot be seen and understood today – all these are global problems which require global solutions. But these problems are felt on national level and people see search for global solutions as a threat to national sovereignty.

Unless they participate.

19. Between national sovereignty concern and nationalism or national protectionism there may be a very thin line. National sovereignty concerns, if not properly and timely addressed, may lead to nationalism and nationalism is a major threat to democracy. Also, another threat to democracy comes from the lack of capacity to properly address social concerns. Lack of capacity to properly address social concerns strengthens the threat of nationalism.

National sovereignty and our future

I believe that in Europe the national sovereignty concern is still a challenge and not yet a problem. The crucial thing about challenges, what really matters is how we respond to challenges, this is what really shapes the future. It would be indeed stupid to pretend that national sovereignty concerns do not exist or that the world of today and tomorrow does not generate threats to traditionally understood national sovereignty. What is essential therefore is how we respond to national sovereignty concerns. First of all, we need a lot of pragmatism in approaching the issue of national sovereignty. National identity, cultural identity – to what extent these are sustainable values – real life decides about that. The openness, close links with other societies – this verifies the strength of national identity.

Second, we have to well understand what forces are behind the national sovereignty argument. In countries with economies in transition there seem to be two major phenomena there: well known political forces, based on radical ideology and political interests, but also all sorts of economic vested interest groups who feel threatened by competition, liberalization, openness.

Third, if we agree that the major task for Europe now is to be accountable, to make an effort to answer the basic question, how to get where it decided to go ten years ago when the absurd division of Europe had been abolished and to decide what to do in the meantime – in the meantime Europe should cooperate. European cooperation is the best answer to challenges Europe is facing, including national sovereignty concerns. Peace and stability in the world of today, when we are increasingly dependent on each other, are not guaranteed by well-protected borders or balance of powers but by international cooperation.

For this cooperation, to be effective and welcomed, we need reflection on the tragic past, we need a vision of future, and we need common values to which we can always refer without losing, or even with strengthening, our feelings of identity.

Fourth, the response to the national sovereignty concerns is through participation. This is particularly visible with regards to the enlargement process. Applicant countries yearn to participate in the debate on the future of EU, they cannot imagine not being given the post of commissioner after accession.

Fifth, institutions and values shared on a global and/or European scale must be embedded in a framework of national political and social values (making global and regional challenges local ones). Participation in decisions shaping our environment will not eliminate national sovereignty concerns but will make them more people friendly. As standardization generates fear of loss of cultural identity, maintaining diversity becomes a must. Maintaining diversity in a united Europe makes the national sovereignty concerns less acute.

Sixth, in the context of national sovereignty challenge, the future of Europe will depend on three essential issues:

much will depend on how we will address the greatest challenge of the xxi century – how to reconcile domestic policies with demands and opportunities of globalization, international economic integration, to avoid the disruptive backlash against it in the form of a resort to national sovereignty argument and national protectionism.

much will also depend on how the eastern enlargement will proceed, as this is the regional level which provides demands for standardization, coordination of policies, which creates feelings of subordinating domestic policies to accession related demands. In our approach to eastern enlargement we are obsessed with technicalities and modalities while enlargement is much more than that.

much depends also on how micro-level will react – how open domestic companies will be and ready to accept the reality of the time, i.e. the end of era of national companies, the must to become part of global/ European trade and production networks.

There is no doubt that in all three challenges there is a room for sound national policies. With such policies we shall hear less about the loss of sovereignty to ineluctable global and regional forces and more about the need both for international cooperation and national action to deal with pressing problems.