Supranationalism refers to a union in which countries let go of some of their sovereignty to pursue shared goals. The prime example of supranationalism is the European Union.
The union can directly exercise some of the powers and functions that are otherwise reserved for the states. While there are many other forms of international cooperation, supranationalism is distinguished by the greater transfer of sovereignty it entails (Helfer, 1997).
A related concept is intergovernmentalism in which states cooperate without foregoing sovereignty. But, before we discuss that, let us learn about supranationalism in more detail and look at some examples.
Sbragia defines supranationalism as:
“a form of regional integration in which member states surrender some degree of sovereignty to a higher authority, such as a regional organization or a supranational institution, in order to achieve shared goals and promote common interests” (1999)
The concept of supranationalism has its roots in the Treaty of Paris (1951). This treaty, signed by six European powers, established the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The ECSC aimed to bring diplomatic and economic stability to Europe after the Second World War.
The representatives of the six European nations created the European Declaration, which stated their intention to create the “first supranational institution”. By doing so, they claimed to be “laying the true foundation of an organized Europe”.
The ESCC later expanded its scope to include other economic sectors, and over several decades, it led to the European Union.
Key Term: Sovereignty
Before we discuss supranationalism, it is important to understand the concept of sovereignty. Sovereignty involves three key elements (University of Portsmouth, 2013):
- The right to be the ultimate authority within a defined territorial space. This is known as de jure sovereignty.
- The ability to actually control what is happening within the territory. This is called de facto sovereignty.
- The recognition of the government’s right to be the ultimate authority within the territory by other states. In other words, external recognition.
Related: Economic Globalization Pros and Cons
- European Union: The best example of supranationalism is the European Union. It is a political and economic union of 27 member states that was established in 1993. Schuman describes the EU as being midway between confederalism (association of independent states) and federalism (states are fused into a superstate) (1993). The EU is considered the paradigmatic supranational union as it has a single market, a supreme court, joint border control, and popular elections.
The European Union is the only true supranational union in the world. However, there are several other regional organizations that, despite not being supranational, have adopted policies that lead to a similar form of integration. These include:
- African Union: The African Union is a continental union with 55 African nations as its members. Founded in 2002, it replaced the former Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and aims to promote economic and sociopolitical unity across the continent. Some African nationalists also promote transnational identities. The highest decision-making authority is the Assembly of the African Union, which includes the heads of the governments of the member states. There are also other official bodies such as the Pan-African Parliament, Peace & Security Council, etc.
- South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC): SAARC is a regional union of states in South Asia founded in 1985. It includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The organization aims to promote economic development and regional integration among its members. SAARC is an observer at the UN and has ties with entities like the EU.
- Caribbean Community (CARICOM): Established in 1973, CARICOM is a political and economic union of 15 member states in the Americas and the Atlantic Ocean. The official mandate of CARICOM is to support and promote a unified Caribbean community, which is “inclusive, resilient, competitive”. It tries to achieve this by facilitating economic integration and cooperation while ensuring that the benefits are equitably shared.
Other forms of global cooperation include:
- League of Nations: The League of Nations was the first worldwide intergovernmental institution. It was founded in 1920 after the end of the First World War with the mission of maintaining world peace and international cooperation. The League of Nations Council had the power to make decisions while all countries could make recommendations. There was also an International Court of Justice to settle legal disputes. But the league ultimately failed to prevent World War II and collapsed in 1946.
- United Nations: The United Nations is composed of 193 member states, which have voluntarily agreed to abide by the organization’s principles & rules. The UN was established in 1945, after World War II, with the aim of maintaining world peace. It is the supranational organization with the largest number of members, and each nation has a representative in the UN General Assembly. The UN Security Council has the highest authority and has five permanent members: the UK, Russia, the US, France, and China.
- WTO: The World Trade Organization is an intergovernmental organization that facilitates international trade. Through WTO, governments establish, revise, and enforce the rules governing international trade. The organization was established in 1995, replacing the former General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The WTO is the largest international economic organization, having 164 members that represent over 98% of the global trade & GDP. The organization has its headquarters in Switzerland.
- NATO: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, also known as the North Atlantic Alliance, is an intergovernmental military alliance between 30 member states (28 European and 2 North American). The organization was established in 1949, in the aftermath of World War II, and it is essentially a collective security system: its members agree to defend each other against outsider attacks. NATO was originally established during the Cold War to keep the Soviet Union in check. After the latter’s dissolution, NATO continues to operate and has been involved in various military operations.
- World Bank and IMF: The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are intergovernmental financial institutions. The former provides loans and provides to low- and middle-income countries, helping their governments pursue capital projects. The latter is a major financial agency of the UN that fosters global monetary cooperation, secures financial stability, and promotes sustainable economic development. Both institutions were established in 1944.
- G20: G20 is an intergovernmental forum comprising 19 countries and the European Union. The forum addresses major global issues, such as international financial stability, climate change, and sustainable development. It was established in 1999 as a response to several global economic crises, and its members represent 80% of the world’s GDP. Since 2008, the forum has convened at least once a year, where leading and emerging economies work together on global economic policy.
Supranationalism vs Intergovernmentalism
Supranationalism and intergovernmentalism are both forms of international cooperation but they differ in the degree of sovereignty retained by the members.
Intergovernmentalism is a form of international cooperation in which countries do not transfer their sovereignty; instead, decisions are made through a process of negotiation and consensus-building.
Intergovernmentalism, as per Nugent, refers to systems “whereby nation-states, in situations and conditions they can control, cooperate with one another on matters of common interest”. (2003). Here, nations are free to cooperate and are able to set the level of cooperation
States normally have the power to veto, meaning that they can block the proposal of the other members. The United Nations, as we discussed above, is a good example of intergovernmentalism.
As we have been discussing, in a supranational union, multiple states transfer some of their sovereignty to a higher authority, such as a regional or global institution.
This higher authority makes decisions based on what it considers to be best for the entire collective.
The decisions of this higher authority are legally binding to the members—members cannot veto them. States agree to let go of some degree of sovereignty to join the supranational union, and then as members, they enjoy the benefits associated with it.
The European Union is the only true example of a supranational union. Its institutions, such as the European Parliament create and enforce laws that are binding on all member states. In return, the member states enjoy benefits like a single market, increased trade, etc.
Supranationalism is an international union where member states delegate some of their sovereignty to pursue shared goals.
Unlike other forms of international cooperation, supranationalism involves a certain loss of sovereignty. The decisions of the supranational organization take precedence over the individual interests of the member states.
In contrast, intergovernmentalism does not involve any loss of sovereignty. The European Union is the only truly supranational union, although there are several regional unions (such as the African Union) that aim to achieve a similar level of integration.
Helfer, Laurence; Slaughter, Anne-Marie (1 January 1997). “Toward a Theory of Effective Supranational Adjudication”. Yale Law Journal. The Yale Law Journal Company.
Nugent, N. (2003). Government and Politics of the European Union. Palgrave Macmillan.
Sbragia, A. M. (1999). “The European Union and member-state sovereignty: A comparative perspective”. Journal of European Public Policy. Taylor & Francis.
The University of Portsmouth. (2013). “Sovereignty, Intergovernmentalism, and Supranationalism”. https://hum.port.ac.uk/europeanstudieshub/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/module-4-extract-2-Sovereignty-intergovernmentalism-and-supranationalism.pdf
Schuman, Robert. (1953). Preface to La Communaute du Charbon et de l’Acier.