When talking about sovereignty, a distinction can be made between formal and effective sovereignty. Whereas formal or de jure sovereignty has to do with a state’s supreme legal authority over its own decision-making, effective or de facto sovereignty concerns a state’s practical capacity to control its own affairs. Also sovereignty can be subdivided into three dimensions, which are state, constitutional and popular sovereignty. State sovereignty refers to a state’s legal capacity to take decisions within its territorial jurisdiction without being subject to external constraints. The constitutional dimension of sovereignty, in turn, addresses the location of sovereign authority within the state. The popular dimension of sovereignty indicates that the authority of the state derives from the consent of the citizenry.

Firstly, Member States’ national sovereignty has been fragmented by the extension of qualified majority voting (QMV) and decrease of the exercise of national veto in the Council of Ministers. QMV only requires a majority of votes – from November 2014, 55 per cent of the member states and 65 per cent of the EU population– which means that Member States are obliged increasingly to adopt laws to which they may oppose. This means governments have to work harder to form coalitions, find allies and negotiate compromises.

Secondly, Member State national sovereignty has been eroded as supranational European institutions have been granted considerable powers in policy areas formerly reserved for Member States. Supranational institutions are composed of Community, rather than national representatives, which means that they do not represent the interests of the Member States but of the EU or its citizens a whole. The powers of the European Commission in particular can be viewed as a major limitation to national sovereignty. It holds a policy leadership role and exercises substantial influence over policy outcomes, notably with regard to the EU Single Market. The extension of the EU’s regulatory role in the single market among other policy areas has expanded the Commission’s powers while eroding the Member States’ sovereignty as they have delegated sovereignty to the EU level. Another example of the increased power of supranational European institutions is the extended role of the European Parliament. The EP’s power has been strengthened through the ordinary legislative procedure, which gives an equal weight to the EP and the Council of Ministers on regulation of the single market and a wide range of related areas, such as transport, immigration, energy, consumer protection, agriculture and the environment.

The transfer of authority from national governments to the EU has also fragmented popular sovereignty. Whereas national governments are accountable to parliaments and voters, EU institutions are insulated from direct control by voters. The delegation of powers to the EU has thus caused an increasing democratic deficit, eroding the link between the citizens and the decision-making authority. National democratic institutions remain the focal point for legitimacy and popular sovereignty in the eyes of many people, and the increased role for the EP has therefore not been sufficient to give the EU considerably greater legitimacy.

Thirdly, parliamentary sovereignty has been eroded by the primacy of EU law. The supremacy of Community law implies that in cases of conflict, EU law takes precedence over national law and must be applied. However, in key policy areas Member States have retained a dominant role and are not obliged to act against their will on crucial sovereignty matters. National governments have also remained key actors in areas of ‘high politics’ that are the most vital for national interests and sovereignty. In such essential policy areas as Common Foreign and Security Policy Member States work through intergovernmental bodies rather than delegate powers to supranational institutions.

Practically every nation,has already been forced by the pressures of the modern world to abandon large areas of sovereignty and to realize that all nations are now interdependent. No country today, can pursue purely independent policies in defence, foreign affairs, or the economic sphere. EU states have responded to the loss of independent policy-making capacity resulting from globalization by pooling a part of their national sovereignties in the EU. Sovereignty is best understood as a resource to be utilized rather than a static concept to be guarded. To be sovereign and to be dependent are not contradictory conditions.

Areas subject to QMV

  1. Initiatives of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs
  2. Administrative co-operation
  3. Asylum
  4. Border controls
  5. Citizens’ initiative regulations
  6. Civil protection
  7. Committee of the Regions
  8. Common defence policy (any move towards achieving a common defence policy is by unanimity. QMV can be used only to establish ‘structured cooperation’ in defence, whereby a group of like-minded Member States choose to cooperate in a defence-related matter. If a Member State does not want to participate, it does not have to).
  9. Crime prevention incentives
  10. Criminal judicial co-operation
  11. Criminal law
  12. Culture (QMV is used for incentive measures only)
  13. Diplomatic & Consular protection
  14. Economic & Social Committee
  15. Emergency international aid
  16. Energy
  17. EU budget
  18. European Central Bank
  19. European Court of Justice (QMV is used only to amend the Court Statute)
  20. Europol
  21. Eurozone external representation
  22. Foreign Affairs High Representative election
  23. Freedom of movement for workers (there is an ‘emergency brake’, which means that if a Member State objects to a proposal on grounds of important national concerns, the decision is taken by unanimity).
  24. Freedom to establish a business
  25. Freedom, security, justice, co-operation & evaluation
  26. Funding the Common Foreign & Security Policy (only urgent start-up funds for emergency situations are subject to QMV.)
  27. General economic interest services
  28. Humanitarian aid
  29. Immigration
  30. Intellectual property
  31. Organisation of the Council of the EU
  32. Police co-operation
  33. President of the European Council election
  34. Response to natural disasters & terrorism
  35. Self-employment access rights
  36. Social Security (there is an ‘emergency brake’, which means that if a Member State objects to a proposal on grounds of important national concerns, the decision is taken by unanimity).
  37. Structural & Cohesion Funds
  38. Withdrawal of a Member State

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