Interview with Sophie Heine, political scientist and part of the initial movement ‘Stand Up for Europe’.
About the interviewee
Sophie Heine is a Doctor in Political Science, consultant, and author of other books and articles related to the European Union, Euroscepticism, federalism, gender inequality, progressive thoughts, and fiction works. She has been involved in Stand Up for Europe’s activity since its conception in 2014 by running for the European elections on behalf of this movement. She was then the secretary-general of Stand Up for Europe (SUFE). For the last few years, she has contributed to discussions and shared her different articles and book publications with SUFE. A first book has been written with the support of SUFE (For a sovereign Europe, Peter Lang, 2019, Oxford). Recently, she has released the book Souveraineté européenne. Réalisme et réformisme radical, also with the support of SUFE.
Q: You have been a supporter of Stand Up of Europe since its conception. What have you learned about European solidarity with us?
One of the things that attracted me to this movement at the time was the fact that it was new, fresh, based in Brussels, open to the debate of ideas, and not ideologically narrow. I believe that federalism does need a lot of refurbishment and the emergence of new organisations is always a good thing.
I have been involved in SUFE almost from its very inception. I helped launch the movement by accepting to run for the 2014 European elections as the main candidate on the electoral list. It was a huge commitment as an intellectual. I did the campaign along with other candidates in order to help give more publicity and support to this movement. I then worked as the secretary-general with another militant. Part of our work was actually to try and help create solidarity among as many federalist and pro-European organisations as possible. We did an enormous amount of work to map potential sister organisations, contact them and then invite them to meetings in Brussels. The work was carried out further a little bit after I left the secretariat. Unfortunately, the movement then fell into an internal crisis that hampered its actions for a while. I have since then remained a member of the support committee and contributed to the intellectual life of the movement by writing “For a sovereign Europe”, published in 20191, and now this new book, very recently published2. These two books were made possible, among other things, thanks to the support of Stand Up for Europe.
I do believe that working with other movements is indispensable in order to become more influential at the transnational level. It is a sad reality that civil society and, of course, politics, are still very much organised within national settings. So, ideally, an organisation having both a transnational and national structure is more likely to impact the future shape of the EU.
Q: Is the ideological perspective of your book in line with the movement Stand up for Europe?
It seems to me that this movement is, at the moment, very good at organising high-quality debates and events, but needs to push a little bit more the internal debate of ideas. However, this should not be done in isolation. Again, that work should be carried out with like-minded actors. The task of creating European federalism is immense and one movement will never be influential enough to carry it out alone.
My two books on the topic of sovereignty aim at contributing to this debate of ideas among federalists and pro-Europeans. Of course, there is a lot of diversity in that respect. There are indeed many divergences on what it would mean to build a federal Europe and my approach is only one among other ones. What I would love to see would be a friendly confrontation between these various views that would, at some point, lead to a coherent project.
One of the main divergences among federalists concerns the notion of sovereignty, which is at the centre of these two books: what does sovereignty mean at the European level? Can we have a sovereign Europe whilst keeping national sovereignties? If that is not possible, does that mean that we have to build a unitary sovereign power? And, if so, then what are the dangers in such an enterprise? What is the link between a potential European sovereignty and democracy, human rights, and the rule of law?
And, finally, how do we connect this European sovereignty to collective identity? Those books offer my approach to these questions. In the latest one, Souveraineté européenne. Réalisme et réformisme radical, I also tackle more in detail the question of strategy and historical change and the objective of individual freedom that this European sovereignty should help us achieve.
Q: Which ideas or events lead you to advocate for a realistic and radical reformist approach to European sovereignty?
The set of propositions I lay out in those two books is based on an analysis of the current situation and of the way history and social change. The partial Europeanization of several key policies has radically undermined the effectiveness of national sovereignty without replacing it with a supranational form of sovereign power. Indeed, the way European law has only imperfectly Europeanised macro-economic, security, and immigration policies have led to a terrible loss of sovereignty for national governments. The partial Europeanization of decision-making has also made national democracies ineffective; and again, this loss has not been compensated by the creation of a proper European democracy.
This partial Europeanization is a consequence of the hybrid decision-making process that takes place at the EU level: the latter lies between the intergovernmental and supranational modes. With such a high level of Europeanization, it no longer seems possible to go on along those lines. Mainstream European federalism justifies this hybrid system. My approach, much more radical, considers that this hybrid setting is no longer sustainable and that we need to do a leap towards a proper European sovereignty. In the long run, this means abandoning all intergovernmental features. But of course, this has to be done in a reformist manner. In other words, we need a radical goal combined with a more moderate strategy involving a variety of actors.
Your question on realism refers to the perception of social change: as a realist opposed to any form of idealism, I belong to those who see history as the result of conflicts of interests, rather than as the consequence of ideas, norms, and values. The latter is indispensable but only insofar as they contribute to this battle of interests. What this means for the project I propose is that we need much more than books, ideas, values, and ideals in order to achieve it.
We need real mobilisations, at the level of civil society as well as at the political level. Idealism imbues a lot of the pro-European and federalist circles and impacts on their strategy: they mainly act as “think tankers”, by producing analysis and alternatives. By doing so, they often evolve in an elitist bubble, largely unable to transform the current EU. What we need instead is projects that actually mobilise and engage the majority of the population. For that purpose, any form of European project has to be linked with more concrete goals related to justice.
Therefore, I am not only against determinism and believe in our collective freedom to change history; I am also a realist who thinks innovative ideas have to contribute to winning the battle of interests on European issues.
Q: What kind of reader did you write the book for? And who do you expect will read it?
The book is addressed to citizens who are interested in European topics. I think it will naturally appeal to pro-Europeans and federalists, but that some anti-Europeans might find it an interesting read. Because it is based on quite a thorough analysis of the EU, I am not sure people who have never read about European issues will be interested in reading it. But what I am hoping is that militants active within European organisations could pick up some ideas from that book (and from the previous one) and translate it into a more simple language that the average citizens would relate to.
Q: You explain that European sovereignty needs a paradigm shift and not so much a particular identity. What are the implications of each and why do you think so?
It is not so much that European sovereignty needs a paradigm shift; rather, that we need to create one. At the moment there is no European sovereign power. Sovereignty indeed supposes an effective power to impact society and the economy. In my view (and this is contentious in the literature), sovereignty cannot be shared. The pro-European mainstream has justified the so-called “division” and “sharing” of sovereignty almost since the creation of the European communities. This was supposed to be progress allowing to “tame” national sovereignties. Such state of mind was understandable after WW2 and the horrendous excesses national sovereignties had led to then. However, this perspective became more and more untenable when the EU started drafting laws impacting more and more aspects of citizens’ lives. This happened with the extension of competences that the treaties granted the EU from the 1980’s onwards. The hybrid decision-making progress it led to started limiting national sovereignties dramatically without, yet, allowing for the creation of a proper European sovereignty.
So I am advocating a paradigm shift within pro-European circles, the institutions, civil society and academia: sovereignty needs to be rehabilitated but at the European level. If we do not do so, the actors claiming sovereignty back at the national level, usually with a very nationalist prism, will keep gaining more ground.
Certainly, progressive intellectuals are right to be scared of the potential dangers of sovereignty. But this does not mean that its destruction altogether is a good thing. From a progressive point of view, particularly, sovereign power is necessary to implement policies fulfilling the populations’ interests.
And sovereignty only works if it is unitary. This does not mean that all competences have to be held by the central government. Federalism is of course all about sharing competences between various levels of power – central and federated. But the actual sovereign power can only exist at one level. This is the case in traditional federal states such as the US. Decentralisation, even in an extreme form as it is the case in federalism, should not lead to renouncing unitary sovereignty.
But in order to avoid the illiberal dangers usually associated with sovereignty, certain limits are indispensable: a stringent rule of law, a democratic model of government and application of individual rights, and also, a non-communitarian approach. The cosmopolitan perspective I promote means that political legitimacy does not need to and should not be based on a particular form of identity. In other words, we do not need to associate a project of European sovereignty with a euronationalist discourse. Not only is this not necessary but it would also be potentially harmful to individual freedoms.
Q: What is European solidarity for you and in which competences of the EU do you see well-functioning European sovereignty?
The project I defend supposes a sovereign government responsible in front of a democratic parliament, with a full application of human rights and the rule of law. These institutions should be sovereign over a few key policies (traditionally regalienne) so, at least, security (this includes military, police, and intelligence), immigration policy, borders management, and macroeconomic policies. The content of these policies, however, should be the outcome of a fully democratic process so that these policies correspond to the individual interests of the population. I explore the question of policies in ‘For a sovereign Europe‘.
In ‘Souveraineté européenne; réalisme et réformisme radical‘, I also address the link between an effective sovereign power and individual freedom. The long-term goal I defend, in terms of justice, revolves around the idea of liberty. Indeed, what could be stronger than the goal of a society of free individuals in order to mobilise a majority of the population? I think this is a much more powerful project than those based on equality or democracy, as it is often the case in progressive movements. In my perspective, equality and democracy should only be a long-term goal of freedom for everyone. And only a sovereign power can remove the obstacles to freedom and put in place the conditions for its realisation. I explain in the book what freedom means for me and this is the continuation of other books, for instance, ‘Pour un individualisme de gauche‘, Lattes, 2013.3
Q: How close are we to such a transformation process? Has it started?
What is very clear is that the disintegration process of the EU has started: Brexit was indeed a major blow to the EU, in terms of legitimacy particularly. And other movements exist in other countries.
Pro-Europeans have started talking about European sovereignty and this is a positive evolution. However, most of the time, it is still grasped in the old-fashioned Europeanist way, meaning that European integration has to be “deepened”. In this view, the competences of the European institutions should be extended but the question of radically changing the whole institutional set-up is much more rarely raised. According to the general pro-European discourse, we should still keep the hybrid nature of the EU. As I said, I believe this is not sustainable in the long run: we will have to choose between intergovernmentalism and supranationalism and therefore, somehow, rescue a unitary approach to sovereignty.
Q: What do you identify as the contemporary hindrances in the path to achieving European sovereignty?
There are many. The current shape of the EU is both part of the problem and part of the solution. Part of the solution because some of its set-ups are already inherently supranational: the Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Court of Justice, for instance, are supranational institutions; the way EU primary law works also contains a constitutional element which would be a relevant basis for a European sovereignty. Nonetheless, it is also part of the problem because it is still hybrid and contains very strong intergovernmental features: the Council of ministers and the European council very much work along the lines of intergovernmentalism. More generally speaking, the powers of states are decisive in the way the EU moves forward or not.
Secondly, and this is related to this first point, national politics can be an obstacle as well: democracies are still said to function within national settings; and although this is partly an illusion because of the reduced power enjoyed by national governments, this is what many citizens still believe and what governmental actors pretend. National politicians need to protect the state powers in order to keep their influence at the national level. Their jobs depend on it.
European politicians, on the other hand, particularly the ones who have democratic legitimacy such as within the EP, do not really have the means to influence national politics and public debates. They evolve very much in a bubble. This division between national and European actors is visible outside politics as well: in trade unions and in a lot of associations.
Pro-European civil society has therefore an enormous role to play in triggering pan-European and transnational debates about how to radically transform the EU. As I said before, the organisations most likely to succeed in that model will have to be organised both nationally and trans-national and use all the means at their disposal to create mobilisations at that level.
Q: Why do you recommend reading this book? And what is your key message to our European fellow citizens?
I recommend this book to everyone interested in European topics and, particularly to those who are critical of the current EU but have hope in changing it. I also recommend this book to people who want to understand how to achieve real freedom. I tackle that question at length in this book: at the end of the day, most people want to be free to choose and implement their projects and own vision of the “good life”. Yet, without an effective sovereign power able to create the conditions for this freedom, this will only remain a distant dream.
Interview by Alba Requejo, Stand Up for Europe’s Secretary-General
Cited books by Sophie Heine:
(1) ‘For a Sovereign Europe’ available at this link.
(2) ‘European Sovereignty: realism and radical reformism’ is available at this link.
(3) ‘Oser penser à gauche’ available at this link.