Year LX, 2018, Single Issue



Who is Sovereign
in the Era of Global Interdependence?





We are living an era in which, practically everywhere in the world, “democracy seems to be losing its way”. As a result of the growth of interdependence between states and societies in all sectors that affect the lives of individuals (from security to the production and consumption of the goods that are the basis of the levels of wellbeing and comfort defining the standards of living achieved by humanity), public opinion is becoming increasingly unsure of where sovereignty and the power to decide now lie,[1] in other words, what role should be played by states and individuals in governing processes that have expanded beyond the scope of both local and national levels of government. This is the reality that should be our starting point in attempting to analyse the two opposing forces that are increasingly conditioning political struggle and debate in society as a whole, namely the one that is driving the process of integration on a continental and world scale, and the other, which is fuelling calls for a return to national sovereignty. Historically, this is not a new problem, having emerged, for example, in the differences between federalists and confederalists during the process of consolidating the power of the United States of America. But in Europe, however, it is an issue that risks derailing the (still ongoing) process of creating the supranational institutions that are indispensable for leading the development of the world towards a more peaceful and democratic, and also more environmentally sustainable, global order. Were this risk to materialise, the effects, regardless of the intentions of those claiming it would represent a recovery of the freedom to decide, would be a return to a situation of violent competition both between and within states, and a barbarisation of political and social relations, in other words an arrest of progress and of the process of civilisation of human relations. What we are currently seeing in Europe, with the re-emergence of micro-nationalist aspirations, is emblematic in this regard. Here we have a union of states that are no longer sovereign, but at the same time still not truly united, and the political consolidation of this union is proving to be a process so painfully slow that it is allowing the rebirth of nationalist and micro-nationalist feelings (the latter both at regional and even urban level). As shown by some governments’ stances on where the European unification process should ultimately lead, and by the call for referenda on regional independence and the resurfacing of the absurd notion of absolute sovereignty for regions such as Scotland and Catalonia, a sense of nostalgia for an imaginary past golden age seems to be prevailing over the capacity to innovate. But all the above positions are incompatible with the ongoing globalisation of production, the economy and social relations. The problem, unfortunately, is the great difficulty that is being encountered in establishing a supranational institutional model that might be followed in order to overcome these contradictions.Europe bears a huge weight of political and historical responsibility in all of this, in the sense that, having been the creator of the concept of the nation-state, and having nurtured, for five centuries, the development of this construct, in which the forces of modernisation and the development of civilisation were born, it is now struggling to go beyond this particular dimension of sovereignty. It has to be recognised that this dimension (albeit sometimes through historical upheavals and terrible bloodshed) was instrumental first in overcoming the era of the European wars of religion, and then in ending armed and violent conflict between city-states, between regional states, and finally, after the Second World War, thanks to the start of the process of European integration, between nation-states. However, twice in the last century, the forces of nationalism led Europe very close to exiting, completely and definitively, the stage of world history. It was only after the Second World War that these nationalist tendencies began to be harnessed, as an effect of the process of European integration and unification.

Today, the idea of ever closer unions of states is destined to remain topical and to dominate political debate, precisely because, in the wake of the evolution of the mode of production, the real challenge of the present century is the need to affirm a new institutional model for governing the increasing interdependence that we see within and between continents, within and between economies, and within and between societies. In short, what is needed, on an institutional level, is a solution to the problem of how to frame and apply the principle of sovereignty in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world.[2] This problem, closely linked to the issue of the division and sharing of powers between the various levels of government within a common jurisdiction, today carries new implications on account of its central role in defining individual freedoms in a world in which the freedom of action of the individual is now severely restricted. This is certainly not the place to look back over the various stages in the course of history, or to reconstruct the struggle between the forces favouring relations of equilibrium as opposed to hegemony among states.[3] But the fact is that the Philadelphia Constitution of 1787 saw mankind taking its first partial step towards the establishment of an order showing that the sovereignty of states that have agreed to form a union can and must be shared within a federal system.

This innovation in fact marks the point, in history, at which those who believe in preservation of the rights of individual states (or parts thereof) that have joined a union, and those who instead argue that sovereignty should remain with the supranational government, began to engage in a more concrete and more heated debate. And as global interdependence has deepened, this debate, initially confined to the English-speaking world, has become global too. However, as the recent story of the entry into force of the EU-Canada trade agreement shows — this agreement risked being blocked due to the reluctance of a regional government (the Flemish government) to sign it —, it clearly remains essentially unresolved both politically and legally. Contrary to what happenedfollowing the militarisation and centralisation of those European societies that, historically, found themselves exposed to international tensions and the recurrent risk of war, the historical evolution of the United States demonstrates that it is possible to rise to the challenge of becoming increasingly involved in global power politics without encouraging, internally, the formation of excessively centralised and tyrannical governments. What is more, the United States also showed, before the Europeans, that it is possible to acquire the institutional dimensions necessary to tackle major global challenges without falling back on national or micro-national remedies to resolve problems that have gradually assumed supranational dimensions. Europe, on the other hand, continues to fall victim to “solutions” of this kind, so much so that, in order to remain in the field, even political forces originally inspired by universalist and internationalist values have, in turn, found themselves forced to endorse populist and demagogic arguments purely to secure the popular support that, in a democracy, is indispensable in order to be able to implement national and local government policies, and thus maintain the institutional status quo.

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Debate and discussion of these aspects, central to the future of democracy in a global system of increasingly interdependent states, must be kept open and alive in order to establish which subject or subjects should be entrusted with the task of spearheading the transition from the era of sovereign nation-states to that of a world of interdependent and united states, and also how this should be done. And it should also be appreciated that, in this context, Europe still has a historic role to play, provided it can manage to equip itself with the supranational government it currently lacks, and whose absence is leaving it powerless and turning it into a constant source of international disorder.[4]But, for this to be possible, it is necessary to overcome the feelings of nostalgia for a past based on divisive political confrontations — a mindset that arises from an absolutist and populist conception of sovereignty, and fails to consider the wealth and complexity of the changing world, which cannot be reduced to a series of conflicts, more or less justified and justifiable, between the many centres, and equally numerous peripheries, of governance of world affairs.

The antagonism, more or less justified and justifiable, between centres and peripheries is precisely what is nourishing the populism we are seeing today. As remarked by journalist Claudio Bastasin, “if there is anything that all Western countries share, in terms of the social and political phenomena that have characterised the past twenty years, it is the difficulty individuals have had in adapting to the rapid transformation of economic structures in the era of new technologies, global trade and the shift from industry to services. With respect to this industrial transformation it is possible to identify two distinct types of reaction. In regions that, for geographical and historical reasons, are well integrated into global production chains (Catalonia, Veneto, Lombardy, Greater London, Holland, Bavaria and so on), the transformation has forced individuals to adjust, for example, to greater mobility and a level of autonomy that foments uncertainty, and this has made them impatient with the inertia of their states and with those who, in their eyes, are still sheltered from the realities of competition. In regions lying on the edge of this global change (the central states of the USA, large areas of Russia, the North of England, Greece, Southern Italy and Spain, Eastern Germany), a syndrome of backwardness and sometimes impotence has developed. In all these regions, the industrial transformation has been exacerbated by a reduction in the once hefty capital assets of nationalised industries (compared with the levels of the 1950s-1970s) and a decline of the basins of labour-intensive raw materials, phenomena that have come to represent, metaphorically, a lack of public help for individual citizens. A further and even more painful phenomenon, both culturally and geographically, seen in almost all these regions, has been the mobility of individuals, which ends up creating a sense of rootlessness and increasing feelings of victimisation and longing.”[5]

The new tide of populism in Europe is not based on a single ideology. Indeed, there exist many different populisms. But, the fact is, they are all forms that oppose the supranational course of history, and that tend to submit to, rather than attempt to govern, the factors at the root of the phenomena that are changing the way of life in and increasing the differences between cities, and revolutionising the way of life in and increasing the differences between geographical areas. These populisms are incapable of coming up with credible and democratic institutional responses to the need for better control of migration, of offering policies for the social integration of migrants, or of addressing the issues of the regulation and exploitation of the vertiginous increase in the flow of data and information in and between urban centres.

As far as the migration issue is concerned, the Western societies are clearly struggling to absorb and integrate the millions of migrants arriving in search of living conditions and prospects they could never aspire to in their countries of origin. The difficulties these societies are experiencing have a real material basis, in that no city can develop rationally if its population is constantly and rapidly increasing, and a growing percentage of its inhabitants are individuals who, from the perspective of their political, social and productive participation, are only partially integrated into the urban system that they have become part of. Indeed, for at least one generation, these individuals are unlikely to enjoy, within this system, the same rights as all the other residents, and this fact generates serious social imbalances both in and between urban centres, imbalances that in turn generate social conflicts and forms of protest.[6]

Modern societies are trapped by an ideological representation of the composition of post-industrial society that no longer corresponds to reality; similarly, they seem unable to go beyond beliefs and debates based on an old mode of production that is now fast being replaced. For this reason, the greatest contradictions within our societies are emerging in the ambit of the digital revolution. In today’s world, where production processes reflect the pace and methods of data transfer, this phenomenon, to the extent that it becomes ubiquitous, with data becoming readily available and accessible in real time on a global scale, is destined to transform roles, professional profiles and urban behaviours.[7] In truth, given the scale of this evolution, the time is ripe to review some of the principles underlying the flow control and quality (and reliability) of data transmitted, as well as the very concept of data and privacy protection, and the nature and size of the institutions that need to be in place in order to ensure correct use and operation of the relevant system. Obviously, the control and the material use of such a system will inevitably depend more and more on the technology that becomes available, and thus on the expertise of those entrusted with using it, on the efficiency of the law regulating its use, and on the application of the relevant rules. But in practice, with regard to the protection of privacy, there is a real need for legal instruments that, far from aiming to verify in all circumstances the correctness of all the procedures put in place to ensure confidentiality, correctness and reliability in data transmissions, should focus primarily on the ability to ascertain, and sanction, the existence of actual malice in behaviours,[8] and the clear intent to cause material damage by violating privacy in communications.

However, all this would require the existence of an effective common legal system operating at a global level, in other words, a world federation with a single supranational institutional and juridical hierarchical order to which to refer and appeal. To date, no such order exists, either globally or even at continental level in those parts of the world where integration processes are more advanced. In this regard, Europe, for example, has no uniform system for regulating taxation of the new multinationals, a fact that has resulted in phenomena of tax avoidance. As shown by recent cases relating to the problem, raised by the European Commission, of the need to tax the proceeds of commercial transactions carried out through multimedia platforms such as Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, or by multinationals such as Apple, legal disputes in this field tend to turn into confrontations and trials of strength between states —[9] confrontations that are ultimately decided not by law, but by the outcomes of these trials of strength (in which all available means are deployed) between different national interests, as illustrated by the showdowns between North Korea, Iran, Russia and the USA. A significant example in this regard has been the confrontation between European and American institutions over the attempt by the EU, but also by its individual states and/or institutions, to enforce adequate taxation of commercial activities that, beginning in the United States, have been developed on the Internet, without generating practically any tax burdens for the major American companies involved. Such tests of strength have the effect, on the one hand, of undermining public confidence in the democratic institutions and their ability to promote development and prosperity,[10] and on the other, of strengthening those forces and government solutions that do not take into account the general interest, but tend, rather, to favour those sectors of society that are able to exert greater pressure and influence on their respective governments. Such situations, which in the past encouraged movements whose rise resulted in conflicts and nationalistic military endeavours, have today become increasingly anachronistic and full of unknowns, also from a security point of view.

This is precisely why, today, the issue of the type of defence that European countries, especially France and Germany, want to (and can) pursue is intertwined with that of the state’s role in promoting the safety and prosperity of its citizens. It is no coincidence that, today, as well as a drive towards integration, we are also seeing the emergence new military challenges, in both conventional and non-conventional arenas, as a result of a return to aggressive policies in different continents, from the Middle East, to Asia and Africa. As shown, among other things, by a recent French Defence Ministry report (Initiative européenne d'intervention) and by the first German reactions to it,[11] as long as the issue of European political unity remains unresolved, Europe will not be able to make any significant and lasting progress outside the extra-institutional national and European framework of voluntary, and therefore uncertain, cooperations between states.

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The only way of making the progress that needs to be made, and can be made, remains that of promoting institutional development, primarily within regional integrations at continental level (so as to link the government of the different local areas with the government of continents). In the case of Europe, the area where the process of unification on a continental scale is most advanced, this means giving political substance to the euro area, i.e. the area where the greatest steps towards overcoming the principle of national sovereignty have already been taken. In this regard, it must be noted that the way in which the eurozone was structured — the objective of monetary sovereignty was envisaged before creating sovereignty in the fiscal and economic field — introduced two permanent threats to its stability. On the one hand, the monetary union set the conditions for a single monetary policy, but among differently developed and, from the perspective of their production and economic cycles, unsynchronised economies; on the other, the strength of the single currency encouraged the moral hazard phenomenon, allowing even the least responsible governments to finance their respective policies not by taxing their citizens, but by borrowing, on the market, the large sums of money they needed, exploiting the low interest rates on loans guaranteed by the existence of a continental monetary union. Instead of resolving the crises, every attempt to tackle these phenomena through a union that is not completely sovereign vis-à-vis its members in the fiscal and economic policy fields can only exacerbate the contradictions and imbalances between the member states, threatening their survival. From this perspective, it is clear that the choice between uniting (in the sense of truly overcoming the national or sub-national dimension of sovereignty) and perishing is destined to remain the real discriminating factor in political struggle in Europe, and the terrain of confrontation between those who want to preserve the status quo and those who instead want to strive for progress.


[1] Francesco Rossolillo, Che cos’è la sovranità, Il Federalista, 17, n. 4 (1975), p. 194: “The ideal of sovereignty, in reference to the state, can be fully realised only in the framework of a global federation (the institution that achieves the overcoming of mankind’s division into sovereign states), wherein, moreover, the division of humanity into classes has been definitively superseded. (…) Once the component of violence in relations between citizens and between state and citizens has been eliminated, the state is reduced to a legal system that amounts to a contract freely permitted by the people, understood as an association of equal men. Thus, the ideal of the sovereign state corresponds to the ideal of the sovereign people.” (Quotation translated from the Italian).

[2] Forrest McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union – Imperium in Imperio 1776-1876, Kansas City, University Press of Kansas, 2000, pp. 1- 2: “In his celebrated Commentaries on the Laws of England Sir William Blackstone defined law as ‘a rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme power in a state, commanding what is right and prohibiting what is wrong’. That prescribing ‘supreme power’ was the sovereign. […] Then the powers inherent in sovereignty were unlimited, and sovereignty was by definition indivisible: dividing it would involve the self-contradictory doctrine of imperium in imperio. The sovereign could, to be sure, create subsidiary units of power. Early on, these took the form of baronies awarded for military service; later the subsidiary units were commonly established through corporate charters, whether to cities, trading companies, or colonies. But, though such units were to varying extents self-governing, they (like all powers and rights belonging to the subjects) emanated from the sovereign and remained subordinate to the sovereign. In England prior to 1688, the Crown had been sovereign, though it made law through the estates of the realm. […] and it enforced the law through the Court of the King’s Bench and lesser courts. Since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, after centuries of struggles between the estates and the Crown, and since the Act of Settlement of 1701, by which Parliament determined the royal succession, sovereignty resided in Crown-in Parliament. In practice, this ‘triumph of English liberty’ meant parliament supremacy: Parliament could command anything that was not naturally impossible.”

[3] Ludwig Dehio, The Precarious Balance – Four Centuries of the European Power Struggle, New York, Alfred A Knopp, 1962.

[4] Sergio Fabbrini, Senza riforma Ue prigioniera della paralisi decisionale, Il Sole 24 Ore 22 October 2017:The EU has no government despite being made up of many governments. After more than 60 years of integration, it is not yet established who has the authority to make decisions”. (Quotation translated from the Italian).

[5] Carlo Bastasin, È l’antagonismo centro-periferia a nutrire i populismi, il Sole 24 Ore, 13 October 2017.

[6] Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, The True – and False – Costs of Inequality, Social Europe, 18 October 2017:“The first research papers showing that health was worse and violence more common in societies with large income differences were published in the 1970s. Since then a large body of evidence has accumulated on the damaging effects of inequality. Countries with bigger income differences between rich and poor tend to suffer from a heavier burden of a wide range of health and social problems”.

[7] The quantity of data now transferred online every ten minutes (5 exabytes, which equals 5 billion terabytes, 1 terabyte = 1024 gigabytes, and is the equivalent of about 625 thousand images, enough data to occupy the memory of 412 DVDs) corresponds the amount produced in just over a century, from the start of the era of electrical recording of sounds and images at the end of the 19th century through to 2003. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of all that this represents in terms of the increase in productivity and of the economy and culture. In this regard see an editorial published in The Federalist, 58 (2016): Europe and the Great Transformations of the Digital Era. As far as images are concerned, suffice it to say that the equivalent of 72 hours of footage is now downloaded from YouTube every minute.

[8] The law on personal data protection in force in Italy is an example of how difficult it is to protect privacy through a law listing all the cases of potential abuse in the use of computerised personal data:

[9] Paul de Grauwe, Why Facebook Should be Taxed and How To Do It, Social Europe, 30 October 2017,

[10] See Danilo Taino, I numeri sul declino della democrazia, Il Corriere della Sera, 18 October 2017: “Democracy is declining throughout the world. In the wake of the years that followed the collapse of the Soviet empire, during which it won over a number of new countries, it is now retreating. According to the Freedom House’s rating of the health of global democracy, 2016 saw a decline in political rights and civil liberties in 67 nations, as against an improvement in 36. But how much do citizens still believe in representative democracy, the form to which the West is accustomed and on the basis of which it has developed? And can they see any alternatives? These questions were asked by the Pew Research Center, which conducted a survey in 38 countries covering all the continents”. (Quotation translated from the Italian).

[11] “[...] the French defense ministry published its new Revue stratégique, a document outlining the basis for France's future military policy, particularly concerning its upcoming military planning law (Loi de programmation militaire 2019-2025). On the one hand, the document declares that the – national – ‘safeguard of a complete and balanced armed forces model is indispensable’ to guarantee ‘France’s national independence, strategic autonomy and freedom of action.’ On the other hand, however, it attaches great importance to a ‘stronger Europe’ that can effectively defy ‘common challenges.’ According to the document, ‘France seeks to strengthen the European defense,’ and this also demands ‘a strategic culture shared by the Europeans.’ This would mean that ‘at the beginning of the coming decade, the Europeans’ must have a common defense doctrine and must be able to ‘jointly intervene credible manner.’ This demands launching a ‘European intervention initiative’ (Initiative européenne d’intervention), according to Paris’ Ministère des Armées.”

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