A new concept is spreading. An idea that is shaping the political landscape of the Global North, and it will continue to do so in the future. Let’s prepare to deal with it, let’s understand it.
Semantic and political origins
We are witnessing the emergence of an interesting neologism within the Francophone world, namely the term: “souverainisme” – derived from the adjective “souverain” (sovereign) plus the suffix “isme”. The English equivalent would be “sovereignism” but it has yet to be accredited by the Oxford English Dictionary, presumably because the use of the term is still rare among Anglophones. A google search for the English use of the term only returns 140 results, which is very little.
In political parlance, the forbearer of sovereignism is “sovereigntism”, which originated amongst left-leaning nationalists in French-speaking Quebec who advocated governmental independence from the Canadian federal state in the 1980s. The movement was peaceful and its aims were cultural freedom and respect for francophone culture. French Canadian sovereigntists also had a socio-economic agenda, rooted in a European-style social welfare model as opposed to an American-style free-market and individualist model. Quebecoise sovereigntists were antifederalist and essentially socialist, as explained in a book edited by Clarke and Wise, Aspects of the Constitutional Debate. The push for Quebec’s right to self-government was aimed at giving Quebec the possibility to develop more redistributive policies and more openness in social matters. The Catalan and Basque movements in Spain or the Scottish nationalist movement in the United Kingdom share similarities with their Quebecoise counterpart. They would like to attain independence from Madrid or London which they see as bastions of conservativism and neoliberalism (i.e. non-state intervention in the economy). They are also republicans who reject Castilian and English monarchism.
The term sovereignism is a variation of sovereigntism, and many consider it as belonging to the political right or to so-called populist movements. Sovereignism implies a return to, or a greater focus of attention on the nation-state, with borders that can be open or closed to the impetuous forces of globalisation. European liberal intellectuals and journalists dismiss sovereignism as the result of ignorance, and consider the concept as nothing more than semantic trickery. The reason behind this dismissive attitude is that sovereignism goes against the idea of the world as a "global village": free movement of goods, capital and people.
A concept for right and left
A few years ago, Marine Le Pen, a far right French politician, proclaimed herself a "souverainiste". European leaders who share Le Pen’s identitarian and even xenophobic political ideology appropriated this term: Salvini in Italy, Kurz in Austria, Orbán in Hungary. They all lead governments that are both Euro-sceptic and anti-immigration. Brexit and the election of Trump can also be seen as a reaction to supra-national projects such as the European Union (EU) for the UK, and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for the USA. Baudet’s Forum for Democracy, in the Netherlands, although not in government, is only the last addition to the many voices asking to return the attention to national borders as the last bastion against rapid globalisation.
As students and academics, our task is to understand socio-political phenomena and to avoid judging what is worthy of research based on our own views or ideals. Sovereignism is spreading as a result of neoliberal globalisation which, as explained by Piketty in his seminal book Capital in the Twentieth Century, has produced the highest ever level of economic inequality between people within all nations. The free market and state non-intervention in the economy – which are precisely what the EU promotes – have created a new, individualistic social order. Societies seem driven mainly by competition and human relationship became more exclusionary. Furthermore, free market has meant the abandoning of the state as a service provider for people; indeed the state itself has become another element of the market complex, subject to economic rules and not in control of them
Sovereignism presents something of a political conundrum. The idea of the nation state as a bastion against global financial flows runs in the blood of many leftist politicians who see finance as the enemy of workers. Therefore, there also exists a "left-leaning sovereignism", reflected in the politics professed by Tony Benn and to a certain extent Corbin’s Labour in the UK, the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, and the 5 Stars Movement in Italy (although the 5 Stars reject be branded as leftist they do promote traditionally leftist welfare policies). These parties are quite critical of the EU, immigration, the free market, and so on. This is especially true for the rank and files of these parties. It is thus apparent that the issue of sovereignty pushes the debate beyond the twentieth century distinction between left and right.
Nationalism and fear
In international politics, sovereignism means nationalism of a new kind. Nationalism of the past was "outward looking": it was used as an ideology to justify colonial expansionism, to attack, to invade, to annex other people around the world. Conversely, advocates of sovereignism do not even remotely conceive of the possibility of their nation absorbing other nations or territories. Today, sovereignism implies an "inward looking" or introverted nationalism. This is a fundamental difference between the nationalism of today and that of the past. The defensive nature of nationalism today is what makes it popular amongst many people who have seen their living standards and working conditions deteriorate. The issue of immigration constitutes a major example of this. Nationalists today are those who do not want to have anything to do with the world or the minimum possible (for the sake of the nation’s interests) and they want governments with similar introverted attitudes.
Is sovereignism then just irrational behaviour? This is unlikely; it is the result of fear, which affects people in a myriad of ways and which does not easily lend itself to intellectual scrutiny – but the attempt must be made. The key question is what produces fear in society? Is it maybe free market competition? Individualist freedom to enrich without limits or bounds at the expense of others? Over-commodification of human life? Disappearance of economic universal rights?
Instead of blaming populism (which has become a profane word, whereas originally this was not the case), intellectuals should concentrate on what creates fear and the need of sovereignism in European societies. Since sovereignism rejects the EU and its policies as problematic, is it possible to reform the EU? Could the EU promote "more public debt and less private debt" as advocated by some scholars, so that less people will be left behind, alone and in fear? After all, why does the EU have to be an agent of neoliberalism, economic inequality and turbo-capitalism? Was not Europe the birth place of the welfare state and income redistribution theories?