“Europe of sovereignty”, an interview with Dr. Thierry Chopin

, by Lorène Weber, Translated by Eléonore Garnier

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

“Europe of sovereignty”, an interview with Dr. Thierry Chopin
Dr. Thierry Chopin, LSE and Robert Schuman Foundation

Our french sister edition recently conducted an interview with Thierry Chopin, Professor at the LSE and Director of Studies at the Robert Schuman Foundation. Here is what he had to say about the current debate on sovereignty in the French election and the possible consequences for the rest of Europe.

“Europe of sovereignty”: Interview with Thierry Chopin

The so-called loss of sovereignty experienced by France and supposedly caused by the EU was the main argument of several candidates running for French presidency, to justify a French exit of the Union, or at least the renegotiation of the European treaties tin order to transform the Union in a community of “sovereign” Nation-States. Marine Le Pen has brought this argument to the second round of the French elections. This approach to sovereignty seems nonetheless much out-dated today as many observers are arguing that an exit from the European Union would provoke, in the contrary, a loss of sovereignty of the Member States.

Le Taurillon - All presidential candidates in France have often used the word “sovereignty”. Nonetheless, none of them have explained this complex idea. How could we define sovereignty today?

Thierry Chopin - Traditionally, sovereignty, which is a concept invented by the French jurist Jean Bodin, refers to the idea of a command authority and decision held by the State and characterized by two major aspects: on one side, the sovereign power is a unified and supreme power, and on the other side, it is indivisible. (1) From this point of view, we can easily understand why “sovereignty” is traditionally in the centre of debates in France, notably with controversies generated by the European integration, which suppose a duality of the public ruling power, a national and European level, and the existence of “shared competencies”. Furthermore, for centuries, power has been associated with state sovereignty and resulted in three leverages of sovereignty: diplomacy, defence and police. Regarding external aspects of sovereignty, diplomacy and war are the competencies of the State par excellence: the heart of sovereignty, the expression of what we call the Westphalian order in International Relations. Just like the military interventions of France in Syria or in Africa demonstrate it, as well as the evolution of Russian and Turkish or even Iranian Foreign policy, the Westphalian matrix has not lost much of its pertinence. Nonetheless, in a globalized world, the power of European states seems to erode and the necessity of a unity in order to influence and safeguard interests is more than ever needed.

Le Taurillon – Could we talk about a “European sovereignty”?

Thierry Chopin - The concept of sovereignty is problematical in European affairs: the Union is not a State and the competencies of the State and other political and administrative levels are subjects of conflict regarding their repartition. Furthermore, if there is one competence that Europeans all agree to give to the State, it is indeed the regalian functions: budget decision, foreign policy, defence, immigration, politics, security, energy independence. Yet, the EU has built itself on the refusal to give to the Union such prerogatives (as soon as 1954 with the French rejection of the European Community of Defence) due to the desire of the States to preserve their sovereignty. Since then, the Union turned to missions of redistributions (agricultural policy, cohesion policy) that generate conflicts of appropriation. But in a globalized world, it seems logical that the EU should exercise sovereign powers. This is in reality one of the conditions of the constitution of an European identity and a political union as an answer to the current challenges that Europeans are facing. It is in this perspective that I defend the project of a “sovereign Europe”. Today and more than ever, international challenges are questioning the collective capacity of Europeans to manage issues triggered by the current evolution in geopolitics and macroeconomics on the global scale. It is the case for the organization of a collective security but also for the regulation of migration flows, combatting climate change, or even the management of new power balances in global economics, may it be in trade or in the digital field. The project of a sovereign Europe also allows to bring back to their relevant places the questions on sovereignty, subsidiarity and, in fine, efficiency of public action. A sovereign Europe is a Europe that reinforces public power, may it be at national or European level. The two levels are not antagonistic but in the contrary, complementary. The EU and European States, have the same raison d’être in our democratic model: to protect the security of citizens, physically but also economically, while guaranteeing the greatest space possible for individual freedoms. The preservation of open borders and the founding principles of the European integration are calling for the constitution of such sovereign Europe, otherwise the risk of retreat into national self-interest will increase and threatens the European project.

Le Taurillon: The loss of sovereignty of France caused by the EU is a central argument of the political programs of europhobes to justify an exit of France from the Union. Marine Le Pen has notably been able to bring this argument to the second round of French elections. What counter-arguments can we oppose to this discourse?

Thierry Chopin – First of all, it is striking to see how much the subjects which are in the heart of the French presidential campaign are all representing both a national and a European dimension: economical uncertainty, terrorism, migration crisis, climate change, growth of populists and extremists, the place of France and Europe in the world etc. Offering an exit of the Union consist in the denial of the European and transnational dimensions of these challenges, and would put France in a position of weakness and therefore, provoke a loss of its sovereignty. These discourses are calling for a retreat into national self-interest, and even nationalistic ones that include an illusion of a return to an idealized Europe of “before”. This scenario could be tempting for number of citizens who are expressing a legitimate call for protection once such scenario give them the feeling of a resorted sovereignty and security in the most “natural” and protective framework: the State. However, the retreat into national(istic) self-interest leads to tremendous risks, both in terms of economics and politics, with a perspective of a fragmented Europe, divided and weakened. This may bring new problems rather than solutions. The “renationalization” cannot bring solutions to phenomenons that go beyond the nations. An exit of the Union will not stop the influx of migrants, will not resolve economical fragilities (and would rather worsen them), will not make politics more ethical and will not end terrorism threats… Finally, a retreat into national self-interest will not solve European disagreements, on the contrary. Frustration about the Union will transform itself in frustration regarding the neighbouring states. Going back to a national(istic) Europe will only re-establish the former political divisions that the European may not have made fully disappear but has been nonetheless able protect ourselves from.

Le Taurillon – The euro is also presented by Marine Le Pen as the most obvious example of loss of sovereignty of France as a the loss of sovereignty in the monetary sector.

Thierry Chopin - In reality it is rather the contrary. We have to highlight the benefits of the euro to French sovereignty regarding other European countries but also in the wider world. (2) Before the introduction of the euro, the National Bank of France had to follow closely the activities of the German Federal Bank. As Mathilde Lemoine has demonstrated it before: “it is wrong to let people think that a return to the euro would bring back France its sovereignty in the monetary sector: leaving the euro will only result in a loss of sovereignty for France”. The amount of French assets held by foreigners is much higher than the number of foreign assets detained by French people. The rest of the world has debt towards France. If investors sold these receivables, the currency would depreciate and the simple perspective of a return to the franc would lead to controlling of capital flows and a limitation of cash withdrawal. In such perspective, those who in France are expressing the will to contract massive loans to finance their insanely enormous campaign promises in case of victory should really consider all consequences and ask themselves the following question: from whom will they borrow that money? From international creditors that they are themselves exposing while introducing controls of capital flows? From the French population that would just give them a blank cheque? Recent studies have shown that French people are not to be fooled and that nearly three quarters of them (72%) are opposed to the return to the franc, which is 10 more points than in 2010. (3) Furthermore, at European level, a return to national currencies and the collapse of the Eurozone would lead to terrible consequences. The most fragile states would be exposed to a strong instability of their currency and to a major financial crisis. A control of capital flows should then take place, which will lead to a sudden budget adjustment or in asking for financial assistance from the international community, the Europeans mechanisms being not available anymore. The benefits of the depreciation of a currency would not be immediately possible but only in times following a major shock, which is economically, financially and socially very harmful. A significant risk of political consequences is also to be considered, as a return to national currencies would lead to general mentality of “everyman for him”. For the less weak states, it is illusionary to think that they wouldn’t be touched if they let their destiny in the hands of the weaker states. The whole bank system would be weakened with the risk of spreading the financial crisis and significant decline of their exports to the countries that have been the most affected.

Le Taurillon – What should be the role of France in this sovereign Europe?

Thierry Chopin – When considering this comeback of sovereignty matters, France can defend a strong strategic position at the European level in the fields where France benefits already from a high credibility and the fields that correspond to the collective preferences of French citizens. This comeback of sovereignty matters that France and its European partners are facing (migration crisis, terrorism, security in the south and the east etc.) should be used to re-enunciate the French narrative for the future of the European project, which can be shared by its partners too. This can also be justified by the foremost importance to work with our partners in those specific fields, taking into consideration the common interests that Europeans share on these matters and therefore the degree of interdependence that links us regarding common security matters. It shall be highlighted that such areas of sovereignty consist in a topic on which the French voice can be legitimately strong and loud, taking into account its military and diplomatic power (within the EU, France will be the only nuclear power and the single country in the UN Security Council after Brexit), as well as the recognition of its expertise (notably in fiscal matters) or even in the European solidarity, referring to the terrorists attacks that France is being the victim of like other European countries. Furthermore, the match between a historical model, the French political identity and its state heritage on the one side and the sovereign nature of these challenges on the other side, could enable France to counter-fight efficiently the general lack of confidence of French people towards the European construction.(4) Broadly speaking, this could also allow us to tackle the mistrust towards politics in general and its capacity to act efficiently at both national and European level.

Le Taurillon: Emmanuel Macron says that “the true sovereignty is to be exercised through an European action”. Are national sovereignty and European sovereignty indivisible today?

Thierry Chopin – Emmanuel Macron brings an ambition that is at the same time new, clear and coherent regarding the future of the EU and the contribution of France to the European project. He has for instance suggested to “build a sovereign Europe” to meet the legitimate expectations of citizens, in particular regarding security matters. The EU should now put efforts in bringing concrete answers and solutions to these expectations in order to show to the citizens the genuine and comprehensive efficiency of the EU to tackle current threats. The Europe of the sovereignty suggested by Emmanuel Macron is a project in which France’s voice can – and should – be legitimately strong. It is clear that France will be able to recover its capacity of initiative and leadership on the European scene, which will also be reinforced as soon as our country will recover its economic credibility. It seems as well that Germany is much ready to make European cooperation cover more of these sovereign functions in order to combat terrorism, tackle migration issues but also in the field of defence, following the risk of weakening of transatlantic relations announced by the American president. Sovereignty challenges are common challenges that can revive the French-German “engine” in the EU. Finally, this project can also be supported by countries that are traditionally less in favour of such integration and finally meet European citizens’ overall expectations. Taking into account the shared exercise of regalian functions that this new project implies – which doesn’t mean necessarily new transfers of sovereignty but a reinforcement of the cooperation between (some) Member States –, democratic expectations should be taken seriously. Indeed, the pursuit of such a European project cannot be put on the table by force, and each new initiative cannot be only the result of the pressure triggered by crises. Such project shall be developed with a clear legitimate plan that cannot be contested. Giving back meaning to European politics needs to first heal without delay the lack of political spine in the European body and daring to debate publicly the content of the orientations given to the European project. This is exactly what Emmanuel Macron is suggesting.

Thierry Chopin is Director of Studies at the Robert Schuman Foundation and professor at the College of Europe in Bruges and Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE, European Institute).


(1) Olivier Beaud, La Puissance de l’État (PUF, 1994)

(2) J.-P. Betbèze, « Pourquoi il ne faut pas sortir de l’euro », Les Echos, 18/04/2017

(3) Ifop Poll for Le Figaro and Fondation Robert Schuman, « Les Français et l’Europe 60 ans après le Traité de Rome », 25/03/2017

(4) 62% of interviewed French think that, facing terrorism threats, the EU can contribute to a better protection of France ; source : Ifop, « Le regard des Français sur l’Europe », October 2016

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