political revue

Year XLII, 2000, Number 3, Page 191



The very significant difference between confederation and federation was well analyzed by Francesco Rossolillo.[1] The unsatisfactory characteristics of confederation — “almost complete incapacity to act” and “democratic deficit” — can be overcome, he states, by true federation, replacing “intergovernmental cooperation… with… the democratic formation of political will, in other words, the creation of a power which, in its designates spheres of competence, will be controlled by citizens”.
Elaboration of this concept tends to run into difficulties with the words sovereignty and nation-state. The difficulties may be due either to ambiguities in definition or to real differences in viewpoint. Sovereignty is sometimes used to mean only ultimate birthright authority not properly subject to transfer, but other use the term sovereignty even for secondary powers delegated by citizens to a government. The word nation-state can mean only the citizens, or only the government, or both together. Whenever some one uses the term “sovereign nation” while thinking of its government, what that person seems to mean is “independent nation”.
It seems useful, both philosophically and pragmatically, to assume that sovereignty resides only in the people, either individually (as for human rights) or collectively (as the active body of voting citizens). Including “only” in the definition implies that the ultimate authority of sovereignty (at least in democracies) is not transferable. Instead, sovereign people transfer by consent certain “delegate powers” (not sovereignty) to representatives to operate governments. Thus it may be held that no government has any sovereignty whatever. If one accept this concept, the nation-state likewise can be assumed to have no sovereignty if it is thought of as a government. Yet the nation-state is sovereign if the term applies exclusively to its citizenry.
Among those who believed sovereignty is a birthright and resides only in the people were John Locke, Emmanuel Sieyes, Thomas Paine, James Wilson, James Madison, and George Mason. Despite a possibility suggested by Mario Albertini,[2] it seems unlikely that the last-three named persons and other founders of the United States constitution ever were confronted with a problem of how to divide sovereignty between the federation and member states. On the contrary, they believed that sovereignty was by nature undivided in the people and that their task was to divide between the federation and member states something quite different — namely secondary delegated powers.
In the European situation discussed by Joschka Fisher, “the political will to found a federal core”, Rossolillo prudently advises, “must be accompanied by a very clear awareness of the nature of what is at stake, and of what the institutional implications are”. The proper place to put such proposal would seem to be a written constitution drafted at a constitutional convention. Heads of European nation-states should certainly be invited, but other leaders from all walks of life should surely be included, perhaps by popular election. What about some from the United States, Canada, and other democracies? Finally, the constitution draft should be submitted by referendum to the sovereign citizens in each nation for approval and legalisation…
Allan Matthews

[1] F. Rossolillo, “A call for the Creation of a Federal Core” in The Federalist, XLII (2000), pp. 79-86.
[2] M. Albertini, “Federalism” in The Federalist, XLII (2000), pp. 100-101.

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