Sovereigntists vs Liberal Internationalists

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Sovereigntists vs Liberal Internationalists

December 7 2023, by Professor Jan Zielonka

The political geography of Europe has changed dramatically in recent years. The division between social democratic Left and Christian Democratic Right is no longer dominant.

The main political cleavage of today pits liberal politicians against anti-liberal ones. The latter are often called “populists” but I prefer to call them “sovereigntists.” This is because anti-liberal politicians campaign chiefly for the restoration of sovereign nation states with hard borders against migrants, external (European) regulations and “alien” cultures. Liberals in contrast favour sharing sovereignty, especially in the European context, free flows of goods, capital, services and labour, universal human rights (including the right to political asylum), and cultural toleration.

Sovereigntists are not only gathering people on the Right of the political spectrum. The Italian Five Stars Movement, Spain’s Podemos or the German die Linke castigate globalisation and Europeanisation for acting as agents of big business and reducing states’ ability to control markets. They also see migrants as a threat to the local (read national) labour force.

Sovereigntists on the Right go further and attack such pillars of liberal ideology as international law, especially its human rights provisions, the multilateralism embodied by the United Nations, and cultural tolerance allegedly allowing the spread of “dangerous” Muslim values.

Unbounding vs rebounding

Sovereign-tism is a response to successive waves of unbounding generated by geopolitical revolutions (the fall of the Soviet Union, collapse of Yugoslavia and the Arab Spring), economic revolution (the Euro and the single market in the European context) and the digital revolution (borderless communication and digital technologies in space). This unbounding redefined the relationship between territory, authority, identity and rights, producing winners and losers. Sovereigntists claim to represent the latter and call for rebounding to redress the situation. Restoring the lost power of nation states is their political mantra. This requires not just concrete walls or barbed wire fences against migrants spreading into different corners of the old continent, but also repatriation of powers from Brussels to national capitals.

Democracy is important in this endeavour because, according to sovereigntists, democracy requires viable states. Sovereigntists claim that in a Europe of open or porous borders citizens will find themselves without any meaningful form of authority able to secure law and order, social protection and cultural cohesion.

Liberals are on the spot because the policies of free trade, European integration and cultural openness represent the pillars of their rule across Europe in recent decades. They try to distance themselves from neo-liberal excesses generating historical inequalities and they are willing to reconsider the notion of a multi-cultural society. They are also happy to reduce migration and halt steps towards a European federal state. However, they believe that integration is serving Europe better than egotistical assertions of national interest leading to decision-making paralysis and conflicts. They also believe that states ought to be bound by laws and sanctioned by independent courts if the rule of law is violated, even by formally sovereign states. Liberals also believe that human rights are universal and as such should also apply to those seeking a better future in the affluent old continent.

In search of a strategy

Political scientists tend to treat sovereignty as an “organized hypocrisy” unable to reverse ever greater connectivity and interdependence. (Has power returned to Westminster after Brexit? Let’s ask Liz Truss.) However, from the legal point of view, nation states are formally sovereign – even those that joined the European Union. Moreover, nationalism is a potent symbolic weapon in politics despite several decades of European integration. This makes it difficult to assess the outcome of the ongoing battle between sovereigntists and liberal internationalists. So far, the former are doing well at the ballot box as recent elections in Holland, Italy and Slovakia manifest.

One thing is certain: the new political geography confronts liberals with difficult dilemmas. Liberal parties ought to decide whether it is better stick to their liberal creed or soften it in order to appease unhappy voters. We have already seen some liberal (centre-left-and-centre-right) parties adopting migration policies advocated by sovereigntists. Consider the policies of Danish premier Mette Frederiksen, ex-Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte or former Italian premier Matteo Renzi. (It should be noted that their tough stance on migration has not resulted in electoral gains). Proposals to eliminate vetoes in the EU have also been scorned by such liberal politicians as Poland’s future PM, (and former President of the European Council), Donald Tusk. Some liberal parties in such states as Italy or Austria decided to form a government with sovereigntists and Holland is likely to follow this controversial path.

Not only member states of the EU are confronted with difficult dilemmas. Liberal politicians in Catalonia and Scotland must also adjust to the new political geography. Is it possible to campaign for independence without falling into the sovereigntist illiberal trap?

Jan Zielonka was a discussant at the Scotland-Europe Initiative’s October workshop on borders, the seventh in the series. He is Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford and at the University of Venice, Cá Foscari. He is the author of 18 books, including Counter Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat; the latest being The Lost Future and How to Reclaim it (Yale 2023).

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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This Initiative will examine Scotland’s and the UK’s relations with Europe and the effects of Brexit on our daily life by exploring public policy issues such as trade and investment, energy policy, and migration.

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