The concepts of sovereignty, intergovernmentalism and supranationalism are key concepts when it comes to defining the nature of the European Union. In order to explain how these concepts can be employed in examining the nature of the EU and comparing it to other organisations or political entities, it is first necessary to define exactly what is meant by these three terms. Once properly defined it will then be useful to compare the current EU to such political organisations such as a state, an intergovernmental organisation (IGO) and any other political model which could aid our understanding of the exact nature of the EU.
Sovereignty is a word which one associates with power, authority, independence, and the exercise of will. Perhaps the most common general usage of this word is the one which will be relevant to any attempt to define the EU, that which refers to the legal capacity of national decision-makers to take decisions without being subject to external restraints.1 Intergovernmentalism can be defined as arrangements in which nation states, in situations and conditions they can control, cooperate on matters of common interest. National sovereignty is not directly undermined by such cooperation. A good example of intergovernmentalism in the EU is in the European Council, where all major decisions need the agreement of all states. The final necessary definition is that of supranationalism. This term refers to states working together in situations in which they do not have complete control over developments. States may be obliged to do things against their preferences and will, because they do not have the power to halt decisions. This form of inter-state relations therefore involves some loss of national sovereignty. An example of supranationalism can be seen when qualified majority voting (QMV) is used in the Council of Ministers.
If we are to define the nature of the EU, a first useful step would be to investigate how the EU describes itself. In fact the EU has never officially defined itself very clearly at all, although in the Common Provisions of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) we can find the following in Article 1 : “This Treaty marks a new state in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen”. This does not tell us very much about the political nature of the EU, although it does emphasise the fact that the EU is in constant transition.
Taking into account the limited definition (if it can be described as such) given by the EU itself, the next logical stage is to compare the EU to the state. The EU is obviously not a state but it is very helpful when conceptualising the EU to see exactly how it differs from a state. Focusing on defining a state using sovereignty, a state stands above all other associations and groups within its boundaries and all of its population is under the jurisdiction of the state. Sovereignty rests with the leadership or government of the state, which monopolise public decision-making and enforcement. If we try to apply this to the EU, we can see that the EU does enjoy a certain amount of sovereignty with EU law taking priority over national law, EU jurisdiction applying to the whole of the EU, and the Commission being supranational.
However, it must be conceded that the policy areas in which EU law and the Commission work are not very far-reaching and some of the most important sovereign areas such as foreign affairs and security and defence lie firmly in the hands of national state governments. Individual states may cooperate intergovernmentally on these policy areas, although without relinquishing full control. One very important sovereign area is management of the currency, and although the supranational European Central Bank (ECB) now manages the Single European Currency, not all EU member states have adopted this currency – therefore its jurisdiction does not extend to all the EU’s population. In addition to this, the ECB is still subject to Ecofin (an intergovernmental committee) and is therefore not entirely supranational.
Thus, from this comparison on the state with the EU, it is clear to see that the EU falls a long way short of being a state as although the EU does enjoy many supranational powers, overall sovereignty over the more important policy areas lies firmly with the individual EU member state. If the EU falls short of being a state, it would now be interesting to compare it against an IGO and see how, using sovereignty as a measure, we can gain a clearer picture as to how the EU can be defined.
An IGO can be characterised as an organisation in which representatives of national governments come together to cooperate on a voluntary basis for reasons of mutual benefit. These organisations have little if any decision-making independence and they cannot force member states to adhere to decisions. From this definition, it is safe to say that the EU is far more advanced in terms of structure and operation as it incorporates many supranational characteristics into it’s decision-making. The Commission is an entirely supranational institution of the EU and takes by far the most decisions in the EU. In addition to this, as European law has primacy, member states can be forced to adhere to directives. From our analysis so far, we can comment that in terms of sovereignty the EU is less than a state but much more than an IGO.
Following on from our comparisons of the EU with a state and an IGO, the conclusion can be drawn that if we had a scale from one to ten, with one being a IGO and ten being a state, the EU is somewhere in-between. We can also theorise that when European integration was in its early days in the form of the EEC it may have been little more than an IGO on level one of the scale, it has now progressed, gaining supranational elements and has made a determined move up the scale. It would therefore be a reasonable assumption to make that the more supranational the EU becomes, the more it ascends the scale, moving away from the limited powers of an IGO and acquiring more of the characteristics of a state. In order to currently assess the true position of the EU, it will be valuable to examine just how supranational the EU actually is.
If we consider the European Commission, the European Parliament (EP) and the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to be the principle supranational elements of the EU and the European Council and the Council of Ministers to be predominantly intergovernmental, then it would be fair to say that we can ascertain the extent to which the EU is supranational by assessing the influence and major decision-making powers that these groups have. The vast majority of all major decisions on the general direction and policy priorities of the EU are taken by Heads of Government in the European Council. It is very rare for the European Council to use majority voting and all important decisions on EU policy need the approval of the Council of Ministers. Although QMV is sometimes used in the Council, if a state makes it clear that it has strong national interests at stake then an attempt will be made to reach a consensus. From this it can be seen that the most important decisions must be taken by the European Council and the Council of Ministers, which take these decisions in a largely intergovernmental way. Thus it is a fair assessment to state that on the key, major issues and policies that the EU deals with, decisions are reached primarily intergovernmentally.
It is also important to stress, however, that the Commission is an important decision-maker when it comes to regulatory and secondary decision-making and does have a lot of influence in the whole decision-making and EU policy agenda. In addition, the EP has increasing influence over decision-making even if it does not have the final say on such decisions.
One final point that should be made is that even if all the institutions of the EU were entirely supranational, under the current policy areas covered by the EU, ultimate sovereignty would still rest with the individual nation states, due to the fact that currently virtually all major areas of public policy, areas which are the key to a nations sovereignty, remain firmly under the control of national level governance. Such areas include foreign affairs, defence, fiscal policy, education, health and justice and home affairs.
In conclusion, we have seen that in order to define the nature of the EU, the concept of sovereignty, which can be determined by assessing the level of supranationalism and intergovernmentalism in the EU, is vital. It is a key concept which, reverting back to the scale of one to ten, can be used to determine just how much the
EU has evolved. While it is clear that the EU has progressed way beyond the lowly level one of an IGO, it is still light years away from resembling anything like the political system of a state. The EU is constantly evolving, usually gaining more important policy areas and increasing its amount of supranational elements. Who knows just how far the EU will climb up the scale?