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The European Union and state sovereignty – Brian Wicker

page 1 southwark war memorial page 1 Gruorn memorialThe European Union and state sovereignty.

Brian Wicker

If you look at a map of Europe before the 1914-18 Great War, the most obvious thing that strikes you is that it consists of a multitude of sovereign nation-states. What is more, most of these states are recognisably similar to those which emerged from the peace of Westphalia in 1648. For it was roughly at that time that the pattern of nation-states developed. In the Middle Ages ‘nation-states’ did not really exist. Of course, humanity was divided up into various kinds of communities: princely states, kingly states, etc., as described by Philip Bobbitt in his massive study of war, peace and the course of history entitled The Shield of Achilles.

But these were not sovereign nation-states as we understand them today. The division of human beings into sovereign states is really quite a modern phenomenon. Consequently, conflict among these communities, i.e. our notion of warfare, is also quite modern. Things have not always been thus, and do not need to be so in the future.

The map of Europe since 1919 is still much the same as it was in 1914, although a few states have disappeared, or been absorbed into each other. The Austro-Hungarian state no longer exists, and the boundaries of the states in the Balkans have changed. But the major players – Britain, France, Germany and Russia – are still recognisably the same as they were before. The pattern of European divisions inherited from 1919 was also still much the same in 1939. Indeed, the Second World War was a product of the First, and it makes sense to see warfare in Europe in the twentieth century as a single long conflict lasting from 1914 until 1945, or even (if we want to push the point further) until 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

page 2 Tyne Cot War cemetry

This conflict was really the result of trying to cope with the rise of Germany’s industrial might, which was rivalling or even outshining that of Britain or France in the late nineteenth century. The creation of the League of Nations in the nineteen-twenties did not make all that much difference, for it was still a ‘league’ of separate nation-states. Much the same can be said about the creation of the United Nations after 1945, as well, except that the UN represents almost all the nation-states of the world, and can in some circumstances speak for the whole of humanity. But it is still a collection of distinct nation-states, and the ‘Security Council’ reflects the distinction between the most powerful, because nuclear-armed, states and the rest.

The really interesting new thing that has happened since 1945 is the emergence of the European Union, designed to cope with the threat of industrial competition among the advanced states of Europe, by creating (to begin with) a coal and steel ‘community’ of Germany and France, later to become the European Economic Community (EEC). The EEC’s successor, the EU, is a definite challenge to the institution of sovereign nation-states. It claims to speak for Europe as a whole; the sovereignty of its various parts is strictly limited, and is being further limited by the steady development of its various economic and legal institutions. The development of a common currency is a key factor in this process of integration, even though some states remain outside it. For the fact is that with the EU state sovereignty is being replaced by something else, despite a lot of resistance by politicians who don’t understand what is happening and want to hang on to the old pattern of nation-states, and (by implication) of warfare within it. For going to war (including ‘cold war’ in this nuclear age) is a key factor in any system of national sovereignties, whereas the central purpose of the EU is the preservation of peace, i.e. the prevention of war (including if possible ‘cold war’) among the states of Europe. That always was and is its core function, whatever UKIP and co. say – or rather fail to say.

Today, however, we confront many new challenges to national sovereignty, not anticipated when the European project began after the Second World War. To list just a few of these, there is first of all the massive fact of climate change, which takes no notice of political boundaries but has to be dealt with on a global scale.

Secondly, we need to understand the global impact of the computerisation of almost all economic and intellectual activity, and the fact of the internet, which makes global communication instantaneous and routine, taking no notice of state boundaries. A result of these and other developments is the rise of super-rapid air transport, of ‘defence’ by nuclear missiles, drones etc., the globalisation of industrial and monetary activity, and the universal impact of television and radio. We have only to reflect on, for example, the efforts to find and rescue the recently crashed airliner in the Indian Ocean, or the attempts by China to restrict the capacity of its citizens to see and understand radio and TV information from around the world, not to mention the Julian Assange and Philip Snowden affairs, to understand the fact of globalisation. The attempts by Putin to wrest the Crimea from becoming part of a Europeanised Ukraine is only a last-ditch effort to halt the tide towards what Bruce Kent has called a ‘global village’.

A key point to recognise in all this is the fact that the church claims to be, and indeed truly is, catholic, that is global or universal. It is not based on a division of humanity into sovereign states. A ‘church of England’, and indeed the RC ‘national’ conferences of bishops, are anomalous. They do not express the true catholicity of the church to which the New Testament is witness. This is a profound theological point to be remembered as we contemplate the differences between the world of the Great War of 1914-18 and the world of today. f


Brian Wicker is Vice-President of Pax Christi in the UK, and a retired adult educator and university teacher at the University of Birmingham. He was also Chairman of the Council on Christian Approach