Stand Up For Europe's Interview with Sophie Heine & Richard Laub 

10 November 2022

By Adriana Morán García

Adriana is a former intern and current collaborator at Stand Up For Europe.


Sophie Heine has a doctorate degree in Political Science and is currently a consultant, novelist, and author of several books including: Différentes, libres et égales - Sophie Heine | Couleurlivres, <<For a Sovereign Europe>> (ed. Peter Lang: For a Sovereign Europe: Heine, Sophie: 9781789974584: Books ), and <<Souveraineté européenne. Réalisme et réformisme radical>> (ed. Acamadia: - Souveraineté européenne: Réalisme et réformisme radical - Heine, Sophie - Livres ). She is an expert on European issues such as Euroscepticism and federalism, as well as other topics such as gender issues, inequality, and social justice.

Dr. Heine has long been involved in civil society movements surrounding European federalism. She has participated in – and supported – Stand Up For Europe's activities since its founding in 2014. She ran in the European elections that same year, representing the movement.

Richard Laub is one of the founders of Stand Up For Europe. He has continued to be involved with the organisation, and currently serves on its Board.


Adriana: In your books, Souveraineté européenne and For a Sovereign Europe, you discuss the concept of European sovereignty. What does this mean, and how can we work together in order to promote it?

Sophie: As you know, a lot of policy makers are speaking more and more about this concept of European sovereignty. What I write in my books is slightly different. As an intellectual, I don’t have the same view as policy makers, so I am allowed to go much further/deeper in my thoughts. Very briefly, the type of European sovereignty I define in my books is quite radical, in the sense that it would entail the demise of national sovereignties.

The idea that sovereignty can be shared or divided pervaded the European integration for long time. It is not that I am against the idea in theory, but I think that in practice, it does not work. Jean Bodin in France and Thomas Hobbes in England, many centuries ago, already argued against the division of sovereignty. Their point was that it was not possible in practice and that different sovereign powers within the same entity would end up competing with each other, and that it would create divisions, chaos, and at some point, the unity of sovereignty would be established. That is what happened with the creation of nation’s states, in the UK, France, and later on Germany, Italy, etc.

In the EU, we are facing similar tensions in a different context. We can see that in practice, national sovereignties still compete with each other. The European level holds a lot of competencies but no genuine sovereign power. All these competencies that we have transferred to the European level have not led to a proper European sovereignty. In order to have sovereign power, you need unity of decision-making power, at least in the key areas of policy making: 1. macroeconomic policy, 2. defence 3. security (including the control of borders). This does not go against the decentralising of competencies, as in any proper federal state, such as the United States.


Adriana: What is the link of the concept of European sovereignty with the concept of strategic autonomy?

Sophie: There is a link but it is not the same thing: if the EU was sovereign, it would have strategic autonomy. But, it could have some form of strategic autonomy without sovereignty. However, in that case, that strategic autonomy would not be fully-fledged and would not necessarily concern the 3 main areas of policymaking mentioned above (macroeconomic –including environmental – policy, defence, and security).

The fact that the EU has been talking about strategic autonomy now for a while is a really good thing, because in the current world, if an entity doesn’t have strategic autonomy, it will just disappear. So, it is a question of survival for the EU to build a strategic autonomy. However, the concept of sovereignty is both more demanding and clearer in terms of policies and institutions.

At this stage, the EU is still a hybrid organization, partly intergovernmental and partly supranational. This is a problem from the point of view of sovereignty. This hybrid set up creates a tension that has become unsustainable and Europeans now have to choose between those two levels: in my view, a proper sovereignty needs to be established at the European level and that requires getting rid of intergovernmental dimensions. This is of course a long term project. On the other hand, strategic autonomy does not require to abolish that hybrid set up. 

Let us note that this is also an issue from a democratic point of view. The hybrid institutional framework is not totally democratic. Federalists need to combine a defence of sovereignty with democracy and the rule of law.


Adriana: Your two books aim to positively influence the future of Europe and describe what sovereignty means at the European level. Could you also explain to us in which areas the EU institutions should focus in order to overcome the common challenges we are experiencing?

Sophie: Again, the European institutions should ideally focus on the three key areas mentioned earlier. The question of the environmental transition is vital as well. But I think it  is part of macroeconomic policies, because all the elements that are needed for the environmental/energy transition are all to do with macroeconomic policies such as monetary policy, budget, taxation policy, industrial policy;

So, these macroeconomic policies in a broad sense (including the energy transition), security policy and control of borders/control of migration flows are the key areas where we face the most challenges at the moment as Europeans. The EU cannot survive as an actor in the global world if it does not adapt and create sovereignty, at least in those key areas.

The problem is that national actors have a lot of interest in keeping the existing institutions.  National individual politicians and political parties have an interest in keeping the institutions as they are; But what they have is just an illusion of power: most of the times, what politicians promise to their audience is not possible in practice, because of the strong level of Europeanization. So there is a lot of demagogy, but this illusion of power remains and keeps national actors in place.

One of the key questions here is: how can social and political actors support a change that will reduce their (perceived) power? Supranational actors, such as the Parliament or the Commission, have much more of an interest in creating that sovereign and federal Europe because it would enhance their role. So it is useful to work with those institutions.

I also believe that external movements can play a decisive role: federalist movements, and pan-European civil society movements in a broad sense. Even if they are still very much influenced by national setups, national institutions and national fundings, it is to a much lesser extent than traditional actors.


Adriana: Your books focus on European affairs and European Sovereignty, nevertheless, you also write about other topics. Not a lot of people outside of the “Brussels bubble” are interested in European sovereignty. With that being said, what tools can we use to reach a bigger audience and close the gap between everyday citizens and EU institutions?

Sophie: I have a blueprint, in theory, that I’ve built as an intellectual. But, the question is how to apply it in practice. A lot of intellectuals have worked on that question of social change or how to make progress happen.

Federalists believe that building a federal Europe is progress, because it would improve our lives. How do you make people support that idea? First of all, there is a question of how to use ideas to change society. I am obsessed with ideas, with political and socio-political ideas, because I believe that is what changes society; but not directly. Many progressive actors believe that the mere idea of social justice can create change all by itself, if it is expressed clearly and beautifully. This “axiological idealism” is very present among European federalists: preaching and  advocating the right values will create change. And there is also a “cognitive idealism” within those circles: if one analyses things properly, and if one proposes the right alternatives in a logical sense, change will come about.

My view is more realistic: rather than ideas as such, interests are the main driving force for change. Obviously I write and talk to defend new ideas so I do believe that they play a key role, but only when they match the interest of the target population.

Put differently: we need to explain, in a very convincing and simplified way, how European federalism is going to defend all our interests. We can do so in a logical way, as experts; For instance, when we talk about the cost of non-Europe (if we build our armies together, and we create one European army, we will save a lot of  money). That sounds really easy, simple, logical. That sort of discourse is part of the answer, but the danger would be to fall  in the trap of cognitive idealism: just because we are explaining things with correct arguments, progress will come about. Unfortunately, history does not evolve like that.

Interests cannot be talked about in a purely rational way. The way I perceive interest, is not in a cold, purely rational way. People are not robots; they think with their guts and their emotions as much as with their heads. So, the question is : how do we build a discourse that matches arguments with emotions and that echo individual interests? For that, it is not enough to just talk about policies, we also need to have a long-term utopia, not a utopia that just makes you dream, but one that really talks to our guts and interests.

As a person and as an intellectual, I am convinced that the concept of individual freedom is something that can speak to the head, the guts and the emotions. In my second book on European sovereignty, I tackle the link between this project of European federalism and a free society. I have my own precise definition, which is quite radical, of what a free society is and that I outline in other books. For me, freedom is not just free-from, is also free to do something; free to build our own conception of life (of the 'good' as philosophers put it).

Thus, in my view European federalism has to be connected to a long-term realistic utopia revolving around the notion of individual freedom.

Richard: Regarding the values of crises, if we take the Ukraine crisis, in a strange way, it is an opportunity for Europeans to realize that as a stand-alone country, they would have a hard time responding, but if you kind of respond as an entity, I think it creates momentum. In this sense, we take advantage of crises to push the agenda. Also leadership is important. I will always remember, when they created the euro, it was really the project of two people: François Mitterrand in France and Helmut Kohl in Germany. They came out of the Cold War and decided to push this European agenda. These two leaders took the initiative to create the euro for the whole of the European Union and it happened. So I think those notions are important, as well. To have your top leaders who have a vision and can communicate the vision, and maybe take advantage of crisis to push the agenda forward.

Sophie: Regarding the euro, I would add, that at the time, it was supported by orthodox  economic thought, academia and powerful lobbies. But you’re right, these ideas can stay there, in these expert circles and never be implemented in practice unless you have the right leaders and a crisis opening a window of opportunity. Crises can also make citizens accept change, increase legitimacy for new policies.

Richard: If you look at the Ukraine war now, it got Germany to spend more money on defence. The next step is to do it smartly, not to have Germany spend 100 billion dollars on military and France spend nothing. You have to do it together, because that is how you get efficiency in the process.

Sophie: In this case, to convince citizens should be easy because security should be one of the first duties of a sovereign power; to guarantee the safety and security of its citizens. So, I think potentially that can lead to a lot of support, but the leaders have to agree first.           


Adriana: Do you think that European citizens are generally against or in favour of creating a federal state or at least a more integrated entity? Nowadays, due to the many challenges that Europe is facing, do people care about building a European entity based on a European identity (based on the EU motto: “United in diversity”)?

Sophie: I know that the feeling of being European is usually stronger among young people. I think there is this potential basis to support further integration. But like I said, it is not enough to just integrate further, I think we need a leap, we need to create something different, a sovereign and democratic Europe.

If you look at what happened before the creation of the European Union, it took a lot. It took a lot to create the European communities; it took the economic crisis of the 1930s, the war, the holocaust, the support of the US, which was massive in terms of politics and money, as well. We will be able to combine all these elements, sometimes you have crisis after crisis after crisis until a positive change happens. There was also the Soviet Union and the Cold War that actually pushed the European leaders to pull together and build something that would be in favour of the average citizens.

The question is also: if we do manage to create European sovereignty, who is it going to serve? The minority of the elite, or the majority of the population? It is not just an abstract question, it is extremely important for the type of macroeconomic policies we put in place, how we do this energy transition, how we create this European army (if we do manage to create it), how we manage the borders and migration flows. It can either serve the small elite, or all of us. That is where the debate between left and right comes back. When you’re a European federalist, you can be right-wing, you can be left-wing, so I think there is a higher chance of being supported by citizens if we defend a project of a sovereign, federal Europe that serves all interest. The problem is that “conservatives” always use easy arguments of: fear of strangers, fear of invasion if we are on the brink of war, and also identity. Identity is an argument that is easy to use. I am more of a liberal, a cosmopolitan. I don’t think it is necessary to speak about these sorts of things, I think it can be quite dangerous.

So, that is where we can have divisions among European federalists. Some want to create a European identity, to create a form of Euro-nationalism, and create a European army, that in the end, would serve the elite. Then you have more liberal federalists, who believe in social policy, who don’t worry too much about identity and creating too much artificial fear. And strongly support democracy and the rule of law.

In other words, it is not enough to say “we want a federal Europe”. We will disagree on what European sovereignty means, the content of policies, whether we want a democratic Europe or not. It is ok if federalists are ideologically divided, in my opinion, because we probably have to go through a time of division. I think it is good, I think we should have books constantly released with various ideological projects for Europe. We need to tackle the contentious issues, and then at some point, one discourse will probably end up prevailing amongst federalists. I think there is a necessity to unite among federalists, but that we will first go through intense divisions.


Adriana: Despite many obstacles, young people are committed to ensuring a better future. What role do you think young people have in this path to European sovereignty? 

Richard: Young people should be the major driving force, since they tend to be more mobile, are aware of the latest technologies, they can work from anywhere, the travel all over the place, borders for them have a lot less meaning. So, we have to hope that young people will be the main driving force by trying to make this European sovereignty happen.

Sophie: In all the surveys, young people are usually more pro-European. It is in their interest to be so.  But I think a lot of them are disappointed by the EU. That being said, we need to talk to all categories. It's not like you have a party of young people, another for middle-aged people, another for old people, etc. You can be young and conservative, you can be young and federalist, you can be young and liberal, you can be young and left-wing. Same for different ages for ideology cuts through age categories.

That being said, sociology shows young people tend to be more radical, more progressive, and as they age, to become more conservative. But the problem is how to mobilize and engage young people. Because there are also many studies showing that, a part from some topics like climate change, that bring a lot of young people to the streets, a lot of the time, young people are not involved in traditional organizations. In parties or trade unions,  militants are older. Civil society movements, such as Stand Up For Europe, need to channel the energy of young people with new forms of militancy.

Richard: It is amazing, because if you look at the percentage of voters in Brexit, young people (aged 18-24 years old) barely voted. The few that did vote, voted against Brexit.

Sophie: Exactly, if more young British had voted, we wouldn’t have Brexit now. It is true that there is a stronger sense of pro-Europeanism among younger generations.


Adriana: Since the establishment of SUFE, how have you seen the evolution of the organization and where do you see the direction of it going in the nearby future?

Richard: I am very happy with what is happening now, because if you look at the history, we had a few difficulties a few years back. Alain Deneef has taken over and has re-energized the organisation which was on a bit of a stand-by. Now, with the participation of young people working for our organisation in the last 6-12 months, it has been encouraging to have seen a re-energization of SUFE. We are all looking forward to seeing the good work that is going to come out of it.


Adriana: Lastly, what do you think about the role that civil society has in promoting a European identity? In which direction should civil societies go in order to improve our outcomes?

Richard: The reason we started SUFE is because we believe in the critical role of civil society. We cannot leave it only to the elected officials, because as Sophie said, very often they have objectives or interests which are not necessarily in favour of further integration, so I think civil society needs to organise itself to try to push for this European identity. If you just leave it to the politicians, it is less likely to occur. If politicians see that there is really a strong motivation for movements in society that try to push for that agenda, it should have hopefully a positive influence in their decision making.