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Has sovereignty-sharing a future in international relations?

IN his famous Leviathan, published in 1651, Thomas Hobbes argues that the state is a social construct, freely entered into by human beings who seek to overcome the endless conflict and vulnerability of living in a 'state of nature'. In what became Hobbes' most memorable remark, the life of a human being in such a 'state of nature' was 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'.

People therefore agree to create a commonwealth, a 'Leviathan' or artificial man, whose soul is sovereignty, whose reason is law, whose strength is wealth, whose rewards and punishments are its nerves, and whose important officials are its joints. 'Leviathan' is not a monarch by blood or inheritance, a monarch put in place by the Deity just as God supported the patriarchs of old. Leviathan is a product of human design, man-made rather than instituted by God, a result of human need and voluntary agreement rather than divine fiat. Essentially. Leviathan was to be Oliver Cromwell rather than Charles I.

Looking back on Leviathan some three and a half centuries later, it might be felt that there was a limitation in Hobbes' approach. His suggestion of recourse to a social contract in order to resolve conflicts between individuals in a 'state of nature' seems understandable. But what if the nations that result from such an arrangement, receiving as they do the unswerving loyalty of their citizens, were themselves to become part of an anarchic tribal conflict between hundreds of states, a conflict that precisely mirrors that between individuals in a state of nature? What if all that Hobbes achieves is to transpose the state of nature to another level?

A social contract of the sort Hobbes envisaged involved the creation of national authorities bound by law, but the legal authority thereby granted included the power to override the wishes of the individual. However much people might regard the family as the basic unit of human life, and however strongly they may feel the power of sayings like 'an Englishman's home is his castle', they accept the fact that there may be times (for instance where there are cases of abuse or neglect) when those authorities should override all these sentiments, break into the 'fortress' and, if necessary, break the families apart.

However, it has been impossible for states to agree on an international social contract taking a similar form to that which came to apply, in one form or another, within individual states. There is no effective world army or police force, no effective system (whatever may be said of one or two successful interventions) for 'breaking into' nation-states whose leaders are guilty of systematic abuse of their citizens, no international Leviathan able to exercise the power over warring states that a national Leviathan can exercise over individuals or gangs. There are no powers of enforcement.

The reason for this is not hard to see. Such powers of enforcement are seen to entail a global 'superstate' with a world government and police force, a body as inescapable as the planet itself. It is feared that the consequence would be a dangerous monopoly of power concentrated in the hands of 'world rulers'. 'Leviathan', after all, is hardly a term for a creature determined to deal with problems like the democratic deficit.

Even after the devastation of the First World War, very few people mentioned what came to be called the 'domestic analogy', knowing that they would be tarred with the brash of the 'world state' idea if they did so. The League of Nations, whatever its other failings, was careful to talk of a 'Covenant' rather than a 'Constitution' (a lesson the EU might have learned something from with its ill-fated Constitutional Treaty eighty years later).

The Second World War produced similar results. Towards the end of it President Roosevelt talked of the four victorious powers (the US, Britain, the Soviet Union and China) acting as the world's 'Four Policemen", an idea that seemed to be clearly based on the 'domestic analogy'. But such analogies cut no ice at all with the Soviet Ambassador Gromyko, and they were to cut no ice with the US itself either. The UN which emerged from the Second World War, despite the many ways in which it was an improvement over the League, was clearly not structured in such a way as to make the 'domestic analogy' applicable.

The result is a world caught between the Scylla of destructive conflict between states and the Charybdis of world government. Mechanisms are sought which try to encourage states to modify their behaviour towards one another, through meetings, congresses and an alphabet soup of organisations at global and regional level--UN, NATO, IMF, WTO and so on--but the effectiveness of these has proved limited. The World Trade Organisation's own self-effacing website confesses that it is 'a negotiating forum'. It cites a radio discussion in which various people were suggesting things for the WTO to do. One participant then says: 'Wait a minute. The WTO is a table. People sit round a table and negotiate. What do you expect the table to do?' This is a perfect illustration of the limits of inter-governmental arrangements.

The suggestion which I have tried to make in a recent book (1) is that the partial sharing of sovereignty comes closest to combining a respect for the nation-state as an enduring institution commanding passionate support, on the one hand, and the need to regulate relations between states in an effective way on the other.

Because the only regional or world body within which a partial sharing of sovereignty has been practised effectively is the European Union, such a conclusion can be interpreted as a form of cheerleading for that organisation. It is not. Indeed, the book firmly rejects the idea that the sharing of sovereignty is a natural expression of 'European values' and still less of the history of a continent that has been so often at war. After World War Two European states were compelled to abandon their usual mutual hostility and beggar-my-neighbour policies by the USA through the implementation of the Marshall Plan. The first seeds of later economic cooperation were sown by the enthusiastic Roosevelt-inspired New Dealers of the immediate postwar era, who had as much faith in the virtues of planning as the European Social and Christian Democrats. The impetus to the shared economic recovery programmes that eventually led to a degree of sovereignty-sharing came from outside Europe as much as from within it.

Nevertheless, the particular mechanism of cooperation which the European Economic Community (and later the EU) had stumbled upon (and to some extent been forced into) was very useful. Why should this be? Because it is possible for a sovereignty-sharing organisation to make common and binding legislation. Unlike the sort of treaty arrangements where nation states make agreements which they fail to honour, or accept 'targets' which they can fail to meet, European law is binding upon member states of the EU and overrrides national laws in areas where sovereignty is shared. Since the Treaty of Maastricht, non-compliance has been met with fines that are high enough to be taken seriously. Thus the common fisheries policy entails various arrangements like TACs (Total Allowable Catches) and other provisions which are not 'recommendations' or 'targets to aim for' but binding regulations. In 2005 the French were fined 20 million euros for allowing their fishermen to catch fish that were too small (this does not give the fish time to breed and severely depletes stocks), and a further 60 million euros every six months until they complied. Such sums are not insignificant and on the whole states comply.

Certainly there are numerous ways in which the system doesn't work as well as it should, with states finding ways in which to delay sanctions or even argue successfully that the rules should not be applied. But overall it gives EU legislation the bite that is lacking in mere agreements. After all, there is a reason why the rules over fishing have twice dissuaded Norway from joining the EU, are causing Iceland (because of its whaling industry) to hesitate even now and drove Greenland to be the only country so far to have left it.

Moreover, a sovereignty-sharing organisation has 'own resources'--its own budget. The EU budget for 2010 is 141.5 billion euros, a sum far in excess of that made available to the UN by its 192 members. The largest single slice of this budget goes on regional funding, and the prospect of receiving such funding is a significant incentive for countries to comply with the whole range of European law.

However, the partial sharing of sovereignty is precisely that--partial--leaving other areas to be decided by nation-states. In the EU it is the states that decide whether to go to war, whether to contribute to NATO forces (countries like Ireland, strongly neutralist, will not), or whether to support 'coalitions of the willing' such as the one that intervened in Iraq. Within the EU there is a right of withdrawal, formally enshrined in the Treaty of Lisbon (and already exercised de facto, as mentioned above, by Greenland).

If this gives some idea of what a partial sharing of sovereignty looks like, how might such a system be applied at global level? In the first place, it would begin with a limited number of countries involved. In doing this any Global Union would be following the example of the European Union, which advanced in stages from six to twenty-seven members. The EU would itself join this Global Union, but only as a single member--otherwise it would dominate it.

The initial members might be very few indeed, for example Canada, Botswana, South Africa, Chile and the EU. Countries would join the Global Union at the same time as they began to develop sovereignty-sharing unions in their own regions. This avoids a process of ending up with competing regional blocs. Current enthusiasm in some quarters about a world of regional blocs and 'balancing superpowers' is a recipe for instability--the world of 1984 where competing regional powers struggle vainly for supremacy or a new version of the nineteenth-century Great Power game. (2)

A Global Union cannot be over-ambitious. It must not only involve just a few member states, but it must involve them in sharing sovereignty only in a circumscribed area. The European Union is once again a useful example: it began by being focused on two particular industries in the form of the European Coal and Steel Community.

What might be the global equivalent to the coal and steel in which the Europeans began the experiment of sharing sovereignty? One example that is already being discussed is that of food security. (3) It is worth examining this specific case further, in order to reinforce the point about the practical benefits of a sovereignty-sharing approach.

The main problem where food security is concerned is price volatility, and this makes it extremely hard for farmers to commit resources to production and investment. They simply have no way of knowing what the market will do. So on the whole they don't invest in their farms to make them more productive, and the problem of food shortages thereby becomes more pressing.

The issue, therefore, is one of how to stabilise prices. One method would be to buy food when the price is low and then stock it as emergency reserves, which are then released onto the market when prices begin to increase. But in order to do that the world would have to develop a system of strategic reserves to be kept for release in an emergency. Most current stocks are operating stocks.

Some people at the UN are already talking about the need for strategic reserves. But they do not think through the steps that are necessary for such a system to work. Firstly, it is necessary to build up and store the reserves. Secondly, it is necessary to prevent traders in the country to which the stocks were released from selling on the grain to another country where the price was higher, rather than using it to help the people in their own country. There would have to be an export tax, in other words. And the government would have to accept a legal obligation to introduce such a measure as a conditon of its receiving stocks.

This is precisely why a sovereignty-sharing organisation would have to be created to manage these food stocks. It would have to have a legal right to oblige member countries to take particular actions. As in the EU there would have to be binding laws upon member states in the area (in this case food reserves) where sovereignty was shared. The stocks would be the property of (let us say) a body called the World Community for Food Reserves, and the Community would determine a 'release price', the price on the local market at which grain starts to become unaffordable. At that point the Community would release some of its stock for sale.

Would countries be prepared to share sovereignty, even in this one single area? Many would not, but as has already been pointed out it is not ncessary to begin with more than a few members. Moreover, the prospect of receiving significant support through Community funding would provide a significant incentive for poorer countries to participate. At the same time it is important to stress that the cost to the EU, as a member of a Global Union, would be no more than at present. The EU spends 6 per cent of its budget on what it calls being a 'global player' and boasts of its generosity in the field of aid, being a larger donor than any other part of the world. The existing aid budget would be ample for any food reserves programme and it would be money much more effectively used. It has to be borne in mind that so much of the aid given nowadays is wasted. Record sums are raised but much of it is then siphoned off into the hands of corrupt officials and governments. The result is a great deal of unhealthy cynicism about the value of development aid. A sovereignty-sharing mechanism provides a way of avoiding this.

This article has stressed that it is not written in order to commend the EU as such. Ironically, this is made perfectly clear by the fact that the EU currently has very little interest in commending a global sovereignty-sharing mechanism. Its 'foreign policy', if it has one, is to cosy up to existing organisations. Its various 'neighbourhood policies' fail to see that they can have little effect on countries with no prospect of membership, such as those on the North African Mediterranean coastline. The European Union fails to see the importance of what it stumbled upon in a postwar crisis, and continually reveals itself to be bureaucratic, incompetent and frightened to take initiatives as in its recent dithering about how to deal with Libya.

Yet for all its failings, 27 nations have tried to implement a system which is arguably the only practical way of managing a 'social contract' between 'nasty and brutish' (at least from time to time) states. That's the basis of this proposal to transfer the idea of partial sovereignty-sharing to a global level, not simply for the idealistic motives which anyone who talks of a 'global body' is inevitably associated with, but for practical and hard-headed reasons to do with ways in which waste and corruption can be driven out of areas like development aid.

This is not an article suggesting that a Global Union should replace other global bodies, but that it should complement them and indeed is needed as a complement. Where organisations like the UN, the WTO or the African Union begin with everyone round the table and consider what they can do, those built like the EU on a sovereignty-sharing basis begin from a small group and then build up their numbers as they become used to this way of managing their relations. A body like the UN has the merit of being comprehensive, and the demerit of very often being ineffective. A Global Union would be very effective, but it would have to begin from a small number willing to participate and hope that success might provide some momentum both to increase its membership and the areas within which sovereignty was shared.

Both bodies have their place. Just as Europe needed a sovereignty-sharing body to complement an intergovernmental body in the form of the Council of Europe (which with nearly fifty members is comprehensively European), so the world needs a sovereignty-sharing body to complement the work of organisations like the UN. The sovereignty-sharing will be in some areas but never in all. Where sovereignty is shared binding legislation can be effective, while the areas in which sovereignty is not shared will assuage the fears of those who see nation-states being legislated away or overly diluted.

Of course proposing anything in this area is a minefield, not least because there is so much room for misunderstanding. Moreover, anyone with ideas for a new global organisation is surely required to have a degree of humility. The idea of proposing as a model something realised so far only in the case of the EU risks alienating critics of the EU (who may well be right in many of their criticisms). Yet it is equally clear that some thorough structural thinking is necessary (and to some extent is being done by those who seek to reform existing bodies like the UN and the WTO). It is not enough to show sympathy or even to appeal to the better natures of rulers who don't appear to have one. If someone thinks that bribing a nation to be good doesn't sound as compelling as trying to educate or plead with it, then they surely need educating themselves in the value of systems. Christ once taught His disciples to be innocent as doves and yet wise as serpents. This article has tried its best to make the serpent's case.


200 Years of the Dulwich Picture Gallery

The Dulwich Gallery is an unassuming brick building, not easy to Find among the playing-fields and parks of a verdant stretch of south-east London. It hardly looks as if it was designed by the architect of the Bank of England, Sir John Soane, to house a mausoleum hung with most of the pictures assembled for the National Gallery of Poland. The projected Polish gallery failed because of disturbances in eastern Europe and the tribulations of that endlessly oppressed country. The British government of the time, its funds depleted by the Napoleonic wars, declined to buy what was in fact a magnificent acquisition. In 1811 the vendors decided that the 37 unsold pictures, by artists ranging from Mabuse to Watteau, should remain permanently at the school in Dulwich where they had been stored.

The pictures had been collected by two dealers, Noel Desenfrans and Francis Bourgeois. The capital for their purchases was provided by Margaret Morris, a Welshwoman from Swansea, who had married Desenfrans with a dowry of [pounds sterling]5000, a large sum in those days. Margaret outlived both Desenfrans and Bourgeois, and so inherited the collection. With extraordinary generosity she waved her right to the pictures and handed them over to the Dulwich Gallery forthwith. At her death in 1814 she joined her husband and his friend Bourgeois in the mausoleum which Soane had included in the gallery, so creating a spectral menage a trots. In this haphazard way the Dulwieh Picture Gallery became the first British National Gallery and a memorial to an unobtrusive but exceptional woman.

Donald Bruce


(1) Mark Corner The Binding of Nations: From Global Union to World Union (London: Palgrave Macmillan: 2010).

(2) This is one of the problems with Mark Leonard's ill-conceived Why Europe will run the twenty-first century (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), a title guaranteed to bury the idea of sovereignty-sharing foreover.

(3) This specific issue is discussed in the third and revised edition of John McClintock's The Uniting of Nations: An Essay in Global Governance (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2010).

Mark Corner lectures at Hogeschool Universileit Brussel (a Dutch-speaking university in Brussels) and is part of a team of speakers who introduce the EU institutions to visitors from around the world.
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Author:Corner, Mark
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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