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The Truth About Sovereignty

CAMBRIDGE – In the French parliament’s recent debate on Europe’s new fiscal treaty, the country’s Socialist government vehemently denied that ratification of the treaty would undermine French sovereignty. It places “not one constraint on the level of public spending,” Jean-Marc Ayrault, the prime minister, asserted. “Budget sovereignty remains in the parliament of the French Republic.”

As Ayrault was trying to reassure his skeptical colleagues, including many members of his own party, European Commissioner for Competition Joaquin Almunia was delivering a similar message to his fellow social democrats in Brussels. To succeed, he argued, Europe must prove wrong those who believe there is a conflict between globalization and sovereignty.

Nobody likes to give up national sovereignty, least of all, it seems, politicians on the left. Yet, by denying the obvious fact that the eurozone’s viability depends on substantial restraints on sovereignty, Europe’s leaders are misleading their voters, delaying the Europeanization of democratic politics, and raising the political and economic costs of the ultimate reckoning.

The eurozone aspires to full economic integration, which entails the elimination of transaction costs that impede cross-border commerce and finance. Obviously, it requires that governments renounce direct restrictions on trade and capital flows. But it also requires that they harmonize their domestic rules and regulations – such as product-safety standards and bank regulations – with those of other member states in order to ensure they do not act as indirect trade barriers. And governments must forswear changes in these policies, lest the uncertainty itself act as a transaction cost.

This was all implicit in the European Union’s single-market initiative. The eurozone went one step further, aiming through monetary unification to eradicate fully the transaction costs associated with national currencies and exchange-rate risk.

Simply put, the European integration project has hinged on restrictions on national sovereignty. If its future is now in doubt, it is because sovereignty stands in the way once again. In a true economic union, underpinned by union-wide political institutions, the financial problems of Greece, Spain, and the others would not have blown up to their current proportions, threatening the existence of the union itself.

Consider the United States. No one even keeps track of, say, Florida’s current-account deficit with the rest of the country, although we can safely guess that it is huge (since the state is home to many retirees living off benefits that come from elsewhere).

When Florida’s state government goes bankrupt, Florida’s banks continue to operate normally, because they are under federal rather than state jurisdiction. When Florida’s banks go belly-up, state finances are insulated, because the banks are ultimately the responsibility of federal institutions.

When Florida’s workers become unemployed, they get unemployment checks from Washington, DC. And when Florida’s voters are disenchanted about the economy, they do not riot outside the state capital; they put pressure on their representatives in Congress to push for changes in federal policies. Nobody would argue that US states have an abundance of sovereignty.

The relationship between sovereignty and democracy is also misunderstood. Not all restrictions on the exercise of sovereign power are undemocratic. Political scientists talk about “democratic delegation” – the idea that a sovereign might want to tie its hands (through international commitments or delegation to autonomous agencies) in order to achieve better outcomes. The delegation of monetary policy to an independent central bank is the archetypal example: in the service of price stability, daily management of monetary policy is insulated from politics.

Even if selective limitations on sovereignty may enhance democratic performance, there is no guarantee that all limitations implied by market integration would do so. In domestic politics, delegation is carefully calibrated and restricted to a few areas where the issues tend to be highly technical and partisan differences are not large.

A truly democracy-enhancing globalization would respect these boundaries. It would impose only those limits that are consistent with democratic delegation, possibly along with a limited number of procedural norms (such as transparency, accountability, representativeness, use of scientific evidence, etc.) that enhance democratic deliberation at home.

As the American example illustrates, it is possible to give up on sovereignty – as Florida, Texas, California, and the other US states have done – without giving up on democracy. But combining market integration with democracy requires the creation of supranational political institutions that are representative and accountable.

The conflict between democracy and globalization becomes acute when globalization restricts the domestic articulation of policy preferences without a compensating expansion of democratic space at the regional/global level. Europe is already on the wrong side of this boundary, as the political unrest in Spain and Greece indicates.

That is where my political trilemma begins to bite: We cannot have globalization, democracy, and national sovereignty simultaneously. We must choose two among the three.

If European leaders want to maintain democracy, they must make a choice between political union and economic disintegration. They must either explicitly renounce economic sovereignty or actively put it to use for the benefit of their citizens. The first would entail coming clean with their own electorates and building democratic space above the level of the nation-state. The second would mean giving up on monetary union in order to be able to deploy national monetary and fiscal policies in the service of longer-term recovery.

The longer this choice is postponed, the greater the economic and political cost that ultimately will have to be paid.