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The future of sovereignty: between erosion, transformation and disappearance

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Who wouldn’t want to be sovereign in one’s domain? A question of power, obviously: the power to know at least what one needs to master the rules of the art in the exercise of an occupation, for example. But also the power to access the technical means and material resources that form the basis for the exercise of an occupation. Finally, power in the properly political sense of the term: as “action on other actions”, as Foucault says, action on the action of others, of the others in the case where power is at its apogee.

That said, one can in effect ask oneself if they are not crazy, these Europeans. Or cowards? What’s going on in their heads that makes them successively renounce a whole series of sovereign rights of their nation-states to allocate these same rights to other institutions called “communitarian”, whose political status and democratic dignity are, however, anything but clear? Why do they voluntarily renounce powers so dear to others? It began in the domain of trade with custom duties, passed to properly legal sovereignty and exploded in some sense with the adoption of a common currency at the end of the last century. That one is not here speaking of trivialities is easily measured against the reaction of the delegates participating in the negotiations on the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA): we will never go as far as the Europeans, they declared yet again during their meeting in May 2005.

Why then are Europeans putting their sovereignty in peril, in the vain hope of which, while in other regions of the world, such as, for instance, in Québec, one incessantly seeks the sovereignty considered to be the essential condition of political self-affirmation and the protection of cultural heritage? What is the relation between these phenomena? Are these “contradictory” evolutions? Or do they testify on the contrary to the relative value of the concept of sovereignty, relative to historical situations and particular political constellations demanding different strategies? And if this is so, what results for this crucial concept in Western thought?

Such is the kind of question that was at the origin of an international and trans-disciplinary conference which took place at the end of this summer in Montréal, under the title "Sites and Powers of Sovereignty: Canadian and European approaches to a key concept in political thought". American, Canadian and European researchers from sociology, political science, history, literary studies, philosophy and legal science were united to discuss the different facets of the problem of sovereignty. The current issue of EUROSTUDIA. Transatlantic Journal for European Studies presents a half-dozen articles issued from contributions to this conference, of which the complete proceedings will appear in 2007 in the “German and European Thought” collection of the Canadian Center for German and European Studies. The texts brought together in this issue, however, already suffice to make evident the scope of the problematic.

Olaf Asbach, in “Sovereignty between Effectiveness and Legitimacy: Dimensions and Actual Relevance of Sovereignty in Bodin, Hobbes and Rousseau”, returns to the sources of the modern conception of sovereignty before putting into question against the background of this historical reminder the current tendency to already declare the end of sovereignty; Catherine Colliot-Thélène, in “After sovereignty: what is left of subjective rights?” inquires into possibilities for preserving one of the central tenets of modern democracy, to wit subjective rights, in face of the “erosion of state sovereignty”; Elizabeth Covington discusses, in “Sovereigns in the Marketplace: Consumer Groups and Citizenship (without Nations?) in the European Union”, the consequences of the transformation of consumerism entailed by European integration, while asking if what consumers gain on the one hand in terms of influence through the creation of international agencies they may lose on the other in the sense of a decrease in the possibility of attributing responsibility to their local governments; Alain Denault, in “Le concept réfracté de la souverainté et les États offshore”, puts a finger on a scandalous bruise to sovereignty, i.e., permitting the creation of “exceptional” zones exempt from regular and democratically controlled taxation; Benoît Dubreuil treats, in his contribution “L’origine de l’État et la nature de la cooperation”, of a meta-problem in sovereignty in the form of the classic question of how to explain the emergence of state organization and social life; and, finally, in my own study on “Gouvernementalité et souveraineté: quelques réflexions sur l’intégration européenne à partir de Michel Foucault”, I elaborate why the latter believes it necessary to go beyond the concept of sovereignty by introducing the notion of “governementality” as a concept that allows a better analysis of phenomena such as, for example, European integration.

Dietmar Köveker

translation Tyson Gofton