Friday 17 April 2009

Nations, States and Sovereignty

[This is part 2 in a series about sovereignty, legitimacy and democracy in the EU (You know, just light reading). The contents page is here.]

When we think of states, we mainly think of nation states, and the question is: how far does identity have to be connected to the exercise of sovereignty (and vice versa), and how does the answer to this potentially impact on the idea of the freedom, or even the sovereignty, of the individual?

Nations and states:

Nationality is a shared identity between a usually large group of people. It is a modern, politically constructed identity; though this is not to take away from its value, as all identities are constructed in one way or another. But how far should the ideas of nationhood and statehood be combined?


There is a bit of the chicken and the egg about nations and states: which comes first? The first nations arose as identities in pre-existing states and helped bind the population to it though a shared identity. Identities already existed at a local level - to local leaders or a sense of shared community - and in all of today's modern nations there would have been (and still are) many smaller local identities of varying strengths. There is a level of natural/popular selection and elite selection in what identities and political preferences when it comes to what identity becomes the "national" one: what is popular transmits well, but the elite sanction and promote an identity or aspects of several identities. So if we say that nations should ideally be sovereign, then which identities are deserving of the status of nation - and sovereignty? How should they be judged?

Do nations develop and then claim statehood - as we seem to see in our modern world? Or do pre-existing forms of state or semi-state pre-date national identities? Different legal/economic/etc treatment of groups of people based on local identity(ies) can raise some identities to the level of nationhood and lead them to stake a claim on statehood - so it can be argued that the exercise of power on a group of people due to the identity (or perceived identity) they have can provoke a political response where the identity takes on a more political tone in the popular imagination and demands a level of sovereignty. (E.g. in Ireland, even during 1801-1922, there was a separate administrative branch than in the rest of the UK - and despite a common parliament, Ireland was legislated for differently to the other parts of the UK - indeed, reforming acts in England and Wales were usually only introduced into Ireland after a time delay, and sometimes only after political pressure from Irish political parties).

National identities are political identities, but the state itself has important consequences for identity - which can sometimes be at odds with the idea of the nation.

Nationalism sees sovereignty as the ultimate goal for the expression of itself as an identity. In nationalism, the nation - as an abstract, politicised, notion of the people - is sovereign through the state, which should coincide with the boundaries of the nation. As a political identity, political ideas separate from most identities can be inserted into it, sometimes with the effect of a cultural deterrence of some political policies - e.g. socialism/welfarism is "anti-American". All identities by their nature exclude some ideas, and this goes for communal identities as well, but if we are to assign one the power that goes with sovereignty, then we should ask what that means for the individual. After all, nationalism implies that it's the group that matters, rather than the individual. It's one thing to say that there needs to be some form of shared identity to make shared decisions; it's another to say that all governing decisions should be made through the medium of one shared identity.


The state imports, by its nature, ideas of individuality (the book, Democracy in Europe is very good on this). If the law applies to all equally, then at some level, everyone must be equal - this idea is expressed in terms of citizenship. Individuals have their own quality apart from their social status or function. Nationality can give a similar form of identity, but it is more geared towards communalism rather than individualism. The communalism and individualism of nationalism and the apparatus of the state can conflict, and is usually kept separate at some level - cultural norms don't have to be given the force of law, so that we can say that, for example, generally people of nation X have a ritual festival in May; but it doesn't have to follow that laws enforce participation in the ceremonies.

And Sovereignty?:

Well, going back to the idea of sovereignty, we need to ask whether we value a certain identity so much that it should be naturally vested with (or be the source of) sovereignty and that our governing decisions should (only) take place though that medium, or if we take the model that individuals are the source of sovereignty, and that power is delegated up only as far as is required to ensure effective decision-making, seeing identity as one factor among many, as important as it is.

Clearly I've a very liberal view on these matters - that the individual should form the basic building block of society and that the individual should be protected. There is a communalist approach, which I have no doubt neglected in explaining as fully (well, I'm writing blog posts, not essays, so a lot is left out), so you can follow that up if you wish. I just thought I should flag that up.

Hopefully next time I'll get around to more directly EU-related issues.

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