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National Sovereignty in Crisis

National Sovereignty in Crisis What does it mean and how does it work today? Should it gradually be abandoned?

No. 7-8, Sep.-Dec. 2017 » Bridging News

In the following article, we will analyze the issue of sovereignty, its characteristics and the elements that form and compose the term. Afterwards there will be a historical overview, so that we can observe what was the springboard that led to the introduction of the concept, who dealt extensively with the issue and what were the views that prevailed over the centuries. There will be also an examination of the issue in the modern world and the so-called New World Order, whether with positive or negative connotations. Τhe role of sovereignty will be examined within the international and European organizations, such as: the European Union, the UN, etc. We will also look at the reasons why national sovereignty is indispensable for states, as well as the risks that need to be avoided for it to continue to exist in practice. 

The concept 

The term sovereignty is embodied and determined by the existence of the state since, without it, this would be a meaningless concept. By using the term sovereign state, we mean a state autonomous, independent and capable of deciding its own affairs within its territory. Practically, a sovereign state handles its own affairs without foreign intervention.

What are the elements that constitute the concept of sovereignty?

Sovereignty exists in a nation and thus in a state where the following features exist[i]:

  • there is a specific territorial area with defined borders within which it exerts its external and internal sovereignty;
  • there is a permanent population;
  • there is a stable and independent government;
  • there is independence from the influence of other states;
  • it has the capacity to conclude relations and treaties with other sovereign and independent states.

Sovereignty can be divided into two categories: internal and external. Internal sovereignty is related to the rule of a state, so that either a person or a group according to the prevailing constitutional power may exercise the executive and legislative functions, ensuring the proper functioning of the state. External sovereignty is related to the execution of all the responsibilities of any sovereign and independent state, such as: the conclusion of agreements, treaties, alliances, peacemaking, war declarations, etc[ii].

However, sovereignty has some characteristics, which are:

  • Permanence – as long as the state exists and is still independent, there will be sovereignty;
  • Exclusivity implies that the master of a state must be one and one only;
  • Completeness – the dominant power is not subjected to any kind of discrimination, but instead it is applied universally;
  • Inalienable – another feature of sovereignty, which states that no one has the ability to remove the sovereignty of a state;
  • Unity is the quintessence of the concept of sovereignty. Unity stems from how united the members of a state are;
  • Undeniable - its strength is not at stake as long as there is a state.
  • Sovereignty is absolute and is not subjected to any other authority;
  • Another feature is the indivisibility of sovereignty. It cannot be divided but is presented as one and the same;
  • Originality – the sovereign state chooses the very way in which it will exerts and uses sovereignty[iii]

In a nutshell 

If we look at modern philosophy, we will come across a variety of opinions, conflicting or agreeing on the concept of sovereignty. First, Jean Bodin used the term in the 16th century, wishing to strengthen the prestige and power of the French king over the aristocracy and thus to support the transition from a feudal regime to a nationalist one[iv]. Grotius considers that sovereignty is the origin of the state and it is not dependent on the parties. However, the thinker who gave us the term sovereignty, as we know it today, is Thomas Hobbes, who said that in a state of affairs as a city or a state, the person or group of people who undertake to enact laws and to proceed with the distinction of powers usually accomplish the elimination of the unity of the state. Practically this means that sovereignty exists only with the consent of the parties and its characteristics are that it cannot be divided, transferred and is absolute.

Later, in the 17th and 18th century, it is noted that the perceptions of John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau converge and introduce the basis for the establishment of the sovereignty of the people, expressing the perspective that the citizens decide freely to designate a government they have chosen in order to defend their interests and to ensure the harmonious coexistence of their people[v]. This latter view is also reflected in the text of the Declaration of American Independence of July 4, 1776. Conclusively, the interest is focused on the fact that the people's and the national sovereignty are terms that are inextricably linked, since the existence of a nation (a set of people associated with common characteristics such as language, race, religion, origin) and the existence of an organized state[vi]

Sovereignty in the 21st century 

In the 21st century, various views on sovereignty have been formulated. Many have criticized the overwhelming influence of the Westphalian system and the persistence of the nation-state as the main repository of sovereignty. However, many questions arise about the assignment of national sovereignty to the European Union, as well as the transfer of sovereign powers to supra-national organizations. According to one of the greatest fathers of International Relations, E.H. Carr “The lack of determination of state sovereignty is the ideology of sovereign powers who consider the sovereignty of other states as a barrier to their dominant position”[vii]. Like other concepts, the concept of sovereignty is confronted with many challenges, which may alter it and change its meaning altogether. This contributes to the strengthening of international regimes and the pooling of natural resources and territories with international organizations and bodies on the global political stage. 

Sovereignty in Europe and its place in the European Union 

Europe has a strong need to strengthen its position and role in the global political arena in order to regain the confidence of its constituent states (mainly because they are small and medium-sized states) on global issues such as economy, immigration and, in particular, the issue of sovereignty. It must be borne in mind that Europe is a mosaic of ethnicities and all voices, whether they are majority or minority, should be factored into consideration. Consequently, the transfer of sovereignty from state level to the level of organization of the Union cannot be accomplished in the form of coercion, but on the basis of accession conditions. In order to enable the European Union to deal effectively with any threat either external or internal, it should improve its internal organization through greater integration.

Generally, what is actually a hindrance to the effectiveness of the Union is the lack of legislation that would clearly and easily address economic and immigration issues. In addition, the Union has all the necessary resources to guarantee its members security against the threats of globalization.

In conclusion, what needs to be emphasized is the need for a greater involvement of the Union in international affairs and in actively charting an economic future through the signing of trade and economic agreements. Its emphasis should also be on smaller Member States when it comes to the negotiating table[viii]

Sovereignty and globalization 

By establishing global governance structures at the level of trade, finance, environmentalism and other areas, it is perceived that there is a transfer of state power to various unaccountable international institutions. States often voluntarily restrict an important part of their national sovereignty by participating in international organizations. This does not necessarily mean that sovereignty falters, but that international coordination implies assuming obligations in exchange for benefits. There is clearly a reorganization of roles within the states which mostly affects the internal sovereignty. The main advantage of globalization is the liberalization of the markets on the one hand and the advancement of the information society and technology on the other. This has led to a reduction in transaction costs and in other forms of friction and to the establishment of the world market. There is a gradual shift in the sphere of competences from state power to other areas of influence and the development of transnational relations as well as the relations of states with other international actors and non-state actors. In a globalized environment, sovereignty is changing form and, from an institution that implies the autonomy and independence of a state, it is morphing into an institution that implies legitimacy of consultation when participating in transnational structures.

Certainly, these transnational structures have some degree of autonomy due to the fact that there is no perfect control by the governments, especially when there is a lack of consensus among these with regards to means and interests. However, even by operating in this form, the states have a unique capacity to exercise some of their responsibilities and to continue as individual units to play a dominant role in the global political process. The above version is a positive development within this everchanging environment. The negative version presents the state completely weakened within the globalized framework without being able to influence directly and effectively its national economy and society[ix].

There is also the view that states almost automatically obey the requirements of the new order and change their form and that it is better to address new issues globally rather than at national level. At this point, there is an interdependence of the world with the national level. It is noteworthy, of course, that even if sovereignty is a complement to the existence of a state, this does not mean that all states are dominant and there are many examples around the world, such as Somalia, Zimbabwe, Congo and others which have failed to exercise key attributes of sovereignty. These states are unable to control both their borders and their internal affairs[x]. Moreover, the fact that a state can participate in global governance, either through an international organization or through another entity, does not automatically imply an eternal commitment, a recent example of which is the United Kingdom. It is a sovereign state with full internal and external organization and has decided through Brexit to sacrifice its participation in a shared governance with other states on the altar of its national sovereignty and government[xi]

The future of sovereignty 

Despite any alterations it has suffered, sovereignty is relatively unscathed and retains its glory. Multi-level governance, on the other hand, aims to break down any wall that arises between international and domestic politics. There are three main features of multilevel governance[xii]:

  • The decision-making center is gradually shifting from the national level to other agencies even on a global scale;
  • In addition to the previous feature, the fact that decisions are no longer taken at national level de facto implies a reduction in the influence of national governments, possibly a loss of control;
  • The center of gravity is moving towards the transnational associations that have been created. States undoubtedly play a role in decision-making, but certainly not a leading one and policies undermine their individual roles. Transnational structures are the ones that are taking the lead and are increasingly involved in shaping national policies and the external policies of states.

The concept of multilevel governance is not trying to undermine the state with its traditional meaning and to overcome it, but to enable governance beyond the limited jurisdictions of individual states and enable coordination. At this point, distinction must be made between intergovernmentalism and supranationalism; in the first case, the states voluntarily transfer part of their sovereignty and national interests to structures such as the European Union, while, in the latter case, they resign from the exercise of sovereignty in the context of the establishment of a super-democratic structure. But, in essence, what the EU does not have and cannot completely abolish from the reach of state sovereignty are the repressive mechanisms, i.e. police or army, in order to be able to use it in the event of non-compliance with its laws, which would erode another bastion of state sovereignty. Hooghe and Marks, on the other hand, point out that it is not necessary to have the above mechanisms, and the political control is sufficient. 

What are the risks to sovereignty 

The consequences of globalization on the structure of the nation-state's sociopolitical system has become visible in recent years. A typical example of the current situation is that the restriction of sovereignty implies a limitation of popular sovereignty. Whether by engaging in a globalized system or by participating in supranational organizations, the ability of the national political community to make decisions based on the democratic principle of majority-rule is in doubt. Moreover, globalization and increasing competition tend to exacerbate the economic and social inequalities that have successfully decreased welfare despite the increase of the welfare state over the past few years[xiii]. Another danger is the development of an alienated individualism, which deeply undermines the cohesion of the political community and the principle of solidarity in order for people to compromise, sacrifice and live in harmony[xiv]. Therefore, the pressures on the constitutional state and its undermining through the consolidation of globalization are intense both for the pursuit of national policy and for the fulfillment of the objectives for which the state was created. In summary, globalization has a corrosive effect on state sovereignty, bringing to the fore the vital issues concerning the functioning of the national state and the organization of community policy. It is worth noting that sovereignty as a legal concept has not ceased to exist, as it is also accompanied by its regulatory nature. The nation-state is legally sovereign, possessing the ultimate power of coercion, while preserving its independence. 

Why is sovereignty important 

It is imperative that the notion of sovereignty continues to exist, not only theoretically but also practically. Sovereignty in the form of public sovereignty is the springboard of the democratic government. It is essential for the existence and operation of representative bodies that will be aimed at the public interest and the aggregation of public preferences in order to inform policy. In addition, in order to ensure the peaceful coexistence of groups and individuals and the progress of a state, citizens must show interest in, and engage in common political affairs in a meaningful way that affirms their influence. The aforementioned contribute to the renewal of cohesion, to the resumption of the sense of solidarity and to the healthy functioning of democracy[xv]. Public participation is of vital importance. There are global issues which affect not just one country but all countries and which require coordination and concerted action which are best dealt with above the national level[xvi].

In order for the state to succeed and adapt successfully to these new conditions, it must make a number of concessions and it must fundamentally change the traditional forms of operation. A characteristic area directly affected by this globalized model is the foreign policy. This is an area that is particularly sensitive to each state. Here, the aspirations of a globalized society are clearly revealed and the decision-making function is gradually transferred away from the national level. It is therefore clear that one of the vital areas of sovereign deliberation and decision-making is trending towards elimination and the decisions on the development of different issues are made by other decision-makers than those who are directly concerned or affected.

To sum up, there is a golden mean to globalization and sovereignty. On the one hand, the concept of sovereignty should not disappear, but, on the other hand, transnational structures with appropriate controls are necessary for the handling of various issues of global importance. The thresholds of sovereign compromise are set by States so that the actions of the structures line up with the best possible consensus on the extend of the sovereignty of the Member States. 


[i] Prachi Juneja, ‘What Is Sovereignty’,

[ii] Hazel Ann Nash, ‘Sovereign State’, Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2015, 2.


[iv] Άρης Στυλιανού, Θεωρίες του κοινωνικού συμβολαίου(1η έκδ,Πόλις, 2006, 60).

[v] Μανόλης Αγγελίδης,Θεωρίες της πολιτικής και του κράτους(Σαββάλας, 2005, 21).

[vi] The editors of encyclopedia <>.

[vii] Carr E, The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-1939. An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, 1939, 18.

[viii] Anderson B, ‘Imagined Communities’, London: Verso, 2006.

[ix] Bauman Z, ‘Παγκοσμιοποίηση. Οι συνέπειες για τον άνθρωπο’ , 2004, σ. 92-93.

[x] Väyrynen Raimo, ΄International Relations of the Asia-Pacific’, 2001, 227-246. Database: Political Science Complete.


[xii] Hooghe L. and Marks G, (2001b) ‘Types of Multi-Level Governance’. European Integration Online Papers 5(11), available at < 011.htm >.

[xiii] Bauman Z, ‘Παγκοσμιοποίηση’, σ. 33 επ.

[xiv] Giddens A, ‘Ο Τρίτος Δρόμος’, 1998, σ. 54.

[xv] Giddens A,’Ο Τρίτος Δρόμος’, σ. 102, Runaway World, κεφ. 5 («Δημοκρατία»).

[xvi] Habermas J, ‘Η παγκοσμιοποίηση χαρακτηρίζει <<την αυξανόμενη έκταση και ένταση των σχέσεων κυκλοφορίας, επικοινωνίας και ανταλλαγής πέρα από τα εθνικά σύνορα>>’, σελ. 101.




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