Issues concerning the Association Agreement (1). Sovereignty


In the discussions for the referendum campaign on Ukraine various advocates of the Yes referred to the country’s ‘sovereignty’. The right, in other words, to choose for the West.


A state is sovereign in the sense that it determines its position in international affairs autonomously.

That is a principle that was codified in the Westphalian Treaties of 1648 (the peace treaties of Münster and Osnabrück that terminated the 80 Years’ and 30 Years’ Wars, respectively).

In the preceding century, Bodin and Botero, and in a way Grotius, too, had theoretically elaborated this principle.

This is the definition of sovereignty that is being foregrounded by NATO and the EU in their aspiration to draw Ukraine into the Western bloc. In the big debate in Delft on April 4 the liberal MP, Han ten Broeke, lectured me that I as a political scientist should know ‘what sovereignty means’.

If the Westphalian treaties would have been the last word, I should have agreed with him. But the peace concluded in Münster and Osnabrück was between our republic, the French and Swedish monarchies, the German emperor, a number of cities and politically independent bishoprics, and so on.

In the period that followed, the concept of sovereignty was therefore thought through once again. Because the ‘droit divin’, the divine right of absolute monarchs such as Louis XIV of France (‘the state am I’), did not apply for instance to the Dutch republic.

The answer came from England, which in 1648 was still engulfed by a civil war that would only be concluded in 1688 by a compromise based on the ideas of John Locke. Locke argued that sovereignty resides with those who have property and that the state exists to protect that property. This idea was crowned with the appointment of William of Orange as king, but then as a sort of stadholder (as he had been in the Dutch Republic), because he had to agree that his descendants would have no claim to the throne.

In the century that ensued, the age of ‘Enlightenment’, many thinkers travelled to England to see with their own eyes how a prince was ‘in the service’ of a parliament of property owners. Voltaire, Montesquieu, and others drew the conclusion from this that sovereignty resides in the propertied classes, and Rousseau went even further—sovereignty resides in the people.

This idea triumphed in the American secession of 1776 and in the French Revolution thirteen years later. Still today it is the foundation of the modern concept of sovereignty—even if in practice it still oscillates between a sovereignty of the propertied classes and true democracy. Sovereignty in international affairs is derived from it; we tend not to recognise the diplomatic sovereignty of a state that denies popular sovereignty.

That is why in Ukraine, sovereignty is not about the 1648 definition—for that would imply that if you can grab power in the capital, you can take all decisions just as you like. In Ukraine, too, sovereignty must reside in the people. If half of the people are robbed of their representation by a coup d’état and worse, a war is being waged against them, there is no sovereignty, because without democracy it is an empty shell.

And of course it is not only Ukraine that sovereignty in this sense is being undermined, here it is not different.

In that respect, too, the No in the Ukraine referendum is significant.

Kees van der Pijl

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