French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the ceremony for Armistice Day, 100 years after the end of World War 1, at the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris, France, November 11 2018. Picture: REUTERS/LUDOVIC MARIN
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the ceremony for Armistice Day, 100 years after the end of World War 1, at the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris, France, November 11 2018. Picture: REUTERS/LUDOVIC MARIN

Amid the turmoil of political debate in the UK around the acceptability of the terms of a Brexit deal, one common statement made by Brexiteers is “we want our sovereignty back!”.

In her first speech to the Conservative Party conference as prime minister in 2016, Theresa May promised that the UK would be a “fully independent, sovereign country” again. Similar claims about sovereignty are trumpeted by nationalists elsewhere. Yet the political jargon shows little understanding of what sovereignty means in the 21st century.

French jurist Jean Bodin’s definition of sovereignty in the 16th century as “absolute, unlimited and enduring power” left many with the impression that it was an absolutist concept, but the order in the globalising world economy of the 21st century looks very different.

A few decades after Bodin, Dutch international law author Hugo de Groot stressed that sovereign states have to respect the principles and norms of international law. Such rules are written into international treaties and agreements, to which sovereign states agree. Yet they originate from the behaviour of various actors on the world’s political stage. It is vital not to confuse authority and power.

The history of European integration, built from the wreckage of two world wars, illustrates how growing economic interdependence and transnational challenges encourage sovereign authorities to govern collaboratively.

What the  EU illustrates today, in the most advanced experiment in regional economic integration and pooling of sovereignty, is that sovereignty even in its formalistic sense has become a relative concept.

Without getting dragged into debate about the location of authority and the quality of democracy involved — for example popular sovereignty, Volkssouveränität or parliamentary sovereignty — state sovereignty today can best be defined as “the constitutional independence and concomitant governing rights of a state”. 

This reflects the reality of sovereignty as a relative concept, one that implies a collection of governing rights, some of which can be delegated to subnational authorities and some shared or delegated upwards to others in supranational arrangements.

When Bodin and De Groot defined state sovereignty, they were concerned about times of chaos and warfare in Europe. These were also times of key technological and economic developments, such as the emergence of agricapitalism in Europe. In our digital world today, in which the systemic consequences of the fourth industrial revolution are only starting to emerge, it is high time to revisit the meaning of sovereignty.

The history of European integration, built from the wreckage of two world wars, illustrates how growing economic interdependence and transnational challenges encourage sovereign authorities to govern collaboratively. This is something positive. The dominance of one state is replaced by multilateral order. It is an order that enables an increase in trade, enforcement of rules via trade, stable financial systems and stronger economic growth. Rather than having a zero-sum contest over the relative size of slices, the size of the overall cake increases.

Transnational processes and challenges leave responsible governments with no alternative. The very existence of EU institutions such as the parliament, commission and council represents recognition that more can and has to be accomplished through collaborative governance. In the Anthropocene epoch, when transnational developments such as climate change will test collaborative governance like never before, the pooling of sovereign governing rights is essential.

As French President Emmanuel Macron stated earlier in November during commemorations of the centenary of the end of  World War 1, we should not confuse nationalism with patriotism. The co-operative spirit of patriotism helps to secure moral values. The self-centred isolationism of nationalism destroys it.

The European experience holds important lessons for other regions. Take Africa, a continent greater in size than the EU, China and US combined, and one where 41% of the population is younger than 15 years old. Studies such as the Global Shapers Annual Survey by the World Economic Forum signal that millennials and Generation Z think of themselves as “global citizens” and have greater awareness of global issues. The same applies to the youth of Africa.

Yet social media abuse illustrates that greater connectivity does not automatically build trust and willingness to collaborate with others across communities and national borders. Authorities and transnational businesses in Africa need to take care while strengthening regional economic integration, developing institutions that effectively boost innovation, capturing opportunities and safeguarding against known risks such as resource scarcity.

It was reported in Business Day last week that following Brait and Famous Brands, the Rebosis Property Fund had become another SA company derailed by the UK’s prolonged withdrawal from the EU. As outmoded conceptions of sovereignty take their toll, SA corporations would be well advised to strengthen ties with business partners in other countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands and Spain as entry points to the EU market.

As South Africans we tend to obsess about our domestic problems. We should discover innovative ways in which to solve these in collaboration with neighbours in the rest of Southern Africa. Improved public and private governance in the country need to be complemented by improvement in collaborative governance across our subregion.

It is the making of what Australian international relations scholar Hedley Bull famously described as the development of “international society”.    

• Van der Lugt, senior research fellow with Stellenbosch University Business School, did his PhD on State Sovereignty and European Integration and works in responsible investment from Geneva, Switzerland.