Clashes of sovereignty

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Every Monday, a member of the international academic association ‘UACES’ will address a current topic linked to their research on euradio.


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Bonjour, Emilija Tudzarovska, you are Lecturer in Contemporary European Politics at Charles University, in Prague, and your research focuses on the democratic legitimacy of the European Union. How do you evaluate it today?

Let me start with going back to the economic crisis that struck the world in 2008. This crisis revealed deeper problems plaguing representative democracies and party politics, but also effected a profound change in EU member states’ political and economic systems.

One of the consequences has been the emergence of a new type of parties, movements and political leaders. These new parties are using appeals to both populism and technocracy, sometimes intertwining the two, as strategies to gain, hold and exercise power on behalf of ‘the people’. Their logic exploits what can be called clashes of sovereignty at the nation-state level.


Can you explain what exactly is understood by “clashes of sovereignty”?

Research has discussed EU democratic legitimacy from several different viewpoints. Some scholars have examined the transfer of key policy competencies in economic governance to the supranational level, especially since the Maastricht Treaty. In principle, national parliaments are supposed to exercise surveillance and accountability, on this share of authority, especially in economic policy, in order to provide legitimacy to democratic decisions, which should represent citizens’ interests.

The question is how well-equipped national parliaments are to do so. Their role has been changing, and the EU integration project has contributed to these transformations.

As a result, political systems and political parties are struggling to institutionalise popular sovereignty. In political science, this situation is best contextualized in a conflicts of sovereignty framework analysis. The framework identifies three main types of sovereignty conflicts: foundational, institutional, and territorial. What we are currently witnessing in Europe is an institutional conflict over where final authority lies.


If I understand correctly, this kind of conflict occurs between parliamentary sovereignty and claims to popular sovereignty?

Yes. In some other cases, it can also be between constitutional and popular sovereignty.

What these conflicts have in common is that they all came to the fore during the EU debt crisis in Southern and Eastern Europe. Events in Greece, Slovenia, Italy and Bulgaria, for example, show the degree to which institutional conflict has weakened the ‘institutionalization’ of political competition, and created a fertile ground for what is called a technopopulist logic – a new concept that describes a new way of doing politics.

The EU economic crisis was not only about clashes of sovereignty between the Troika and EU debt countries. It was also about how popular sovereignty is exercised within the EU, and it was underlaid by a crisis in party politics. All this results in different institutional conflicts of sovereignty.


What are the best strategies for resolving these conflicts?

Some European countries responded to citizens’ calls for more democracy by holding referenda. Many people think referenda enhance direct democracy because citizens can voice their opinions directly on a specific matter.

In Greece and Slovenia, states ignored demands for popular referenda. Instead, they introduced measures supported by supranational technocratic executives. Bulgaria and Italy organised two referenda to reform the institution of parliament. Both failed, but have substantially weakened parliaments in the face of national executives.

In all four countries, the clash between popular and parliamentary sovereignty has paved the way for “technopopulism”, and for the rise of political parties, movements and leaders, which combine appeals to populism and appeals to technocracy, to win elections. Both appeals, combined or not, constitute a challenge to traditional representative democracy.

The management of the Euro crisis brought politicians to pass policies through weak parliaments while at the same time invoking popular sovereignty to weaken parliaments even further.


Do you see a way out of this self-perpetuating crisis?

Not in the immediate. Popular and parliamentary sovereignty remains trapped in a technopopulist loop, which not only reflects the new conflicts of sovereignty but exacerbates them, leading to an ongoing crisis and challenging pluralistic forms of representative democracy. It will be difficult to break the loop that reinforces the tendency of government “for the people” rather than “by the people”.


Many thanks, Emilija Tudzarovska, for sharing with us your scientific approach to the crisis of representative democracy that we all perceive. I recall you are Lecturer in Contemporary European Politics at Charles University, in Prague.


first text version of this contribution has been published on The Loop, the blog of ECPR, the European Consortium for Political Research.