The term is sometimes used to describe the European Union (EU) as a new type of political entity. It is the only entity that provides for international popular elections, going beyond the level of political integration normally afforded by international treaties.
The term "supranational" is sometimes used in a loose, undefined sense in other contexts such as a substitute for international, transnational or global.
Origin as a legal concept
After the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Albert Einstein spoke and wrote frequently in the late 1940s in favor of a "supranational" organization to control all military forces except for local police forces, including nuclear weapons. He thought this might begin with the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, and grow to encompass most other nations, presenting this as the only way to avoid nuclear war. He broached the idea in the November 1945 and November 1947 articles in The Atlantic Monthly that described how the constitution of such an organization might be written. In an April 1948 address at Carnegie Hall, he reiterated: "There is only one path to peace and security: the path of supranational organization." Thanks to his celebrity, Einstein's ideas on the subject generated much discussion and controversy, but the proposal did not generate much support in the West and the Soviet Union viewed it with hostility.
With its founding Statute of 1949 and its Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which came into force in 1953, the Council of Europe created a system based on human rights and the rule of law. Robert Schuman, French Foreign minister, initiated the debate on supranational democracy in his speeches at the United Nations, at the signing of the Council's Statutes and at a series of other speeches across Europe and North America.
The term "supranational" occurs in an international treaty for the first time (twice) in the Treaty of Paris, 18 April 1951. This new legal term defined the Community method in creating the European Coal and Steel Community and the beginning of the democratic re-organisation of Europe. It defines the relationship between the High Authority or European Commission and the other four institutions. In the treaty, it relates to a new democratic and legal concept.
The Founding Fathers of the European Community and the present European Union said that supranationalism was the cornerstone of the governmental system. This is enshrined in the Europe Declaration made on 18 April 1951, the same day as the European Founding Fathers signed the Treaty of Paris.
"By the signature of this Treaty, the participating Parties give proof of their determination to create the first supranational institution and that thus they are laying the true foundation of an organised Europe. This Europe remains open to all nations. We profoundly hope that other nations will join us in our common endeavour."
This declaration of principles that included their judgement for the necessary future developments was signed by Konrad Adenauer (West Germany), Paul van Zeeland and Joseph Meurice (Belgium), Robert Schuman (France), Count Sforza (Italy), Joseph Bech (Luxembourg), and Dirk Stikker and Jan van den Brink (The Netherlands). It was made to recall future generations to their historic duty of uniting Europe based on liberty and democracy under the rule of law. Thus, they viewed the creation of a wider and deeper Europe as intimately bound to the healthy development of the supranational or Community system.
This Europe was open to all nations who were free to decide, a reference/or an invitation and encouragement of liberty to the Iron Curtain countries. The term supranational does not occur in succeeding treaties, such as the Treaties of Rome, the Maastricht Treaty, the Treaty of Nice or the Constitutional Treaty or the very similar Treaty of Lisbon.
Distinguishing features of a supranational union
A supranational union is a supranational polity which lies somewhere between a confederation that is an association of States and a federation that is a state. The European Economic Community was described by its founder Robert Schuman as midway between confederalism which recognises the complete independence of States in an association and federalism which seeks to fuse them in a super-state. The EU has supranational competences, but it possesses these competences only to the extent that they are conferred on it by its member states (Kompetenz-Kompetenz). Within the scope of these competences, the union exercises its powers in a sovereign manner, having its own legislative, executive, and judicial authorities. The supranational Community also has a chamber for organised civil society including economic and social associations and regional bodies.
Unlike states in a federal super-state, member states retain ultimate sovereignty, although some sovereignty is shared with, or ceded to, the supranational body. The supranational action may be time-limited. This was the case with the European Coal and Steel Community, which was agreed for 50 years with the possibility of renewal. Supranational accords may be permanent, such as an agreement to outlaw war between the partners. Full sovereignty can be reclaimed by withdrawing from the supranational arrangements but the member state may also lose existing advantages offered by unrestricted access to participating states, such as economies of scale.
A supranational union, because it is an agreement between sovereign states, is based on international treaties. The European treaties in general are different from classical treaties as they are constitutionalizing treaties, that is, they provide the basis for a European level of governance and rule of law. These treaties are similar to the British constitution, in that they are not necessarily a single document. They are based on treaties between its member governments but normally have to undergo closer scrutiny than other treaties because they are more far-ranging, affecting many areas of citizens' lives and livelihoods.
Decision-making is partly intergovernmental and partly supranational within the Community areas. The latter provides a higher degree of institutional scrutiny both via the Parliament and through the Consultative Committees. Intergovernmentalism provides for less democratic oversight, especially where the institution such as the Council of Ministers or the European Council takes place behind closed doors, rather than in a parliamentary chamber.
A supranational authority may have some independence from member state governments in specific areas, although not as much independence as with a federal government. Supranational institutions, like federal governments, imply the possibility of pursuing agendas in ways that the delegating states did not initially envision. Democratic supranational Communities, however, are defined by treaty and by law.
The union has legal supremacy over its member states only to the extent that its member state governments have conferred competences on the union. It is up to the individual governments to assure that they have full democratic backing in each of the member states. The citizens of the member states, though retaining their nationality and national citizenship, additionally become citizens of the union, as is the case with the European Union
The European Union, the only clear example of a supranational union, has a parliament with legislative oversight, elected by its citizens. To this extent, a supranational union like the European Union has characteristics that are not entirely dissimilar to the characteristics of a federal state like the United States of America. However, the differences in scale become apparent if one compares the United States federal budget with the budget of the European Union (which amounts only to about one percent of combined GDP) or the size of the federal civil service of the United States with the Civil Service of the European Union.
Because decisions in some EU structures are taken by majority votes, it is possible for a member state to be obliged by the other members to implement a decision. The states retain the competence for adding this additional supranational competence.
Supranationalism in the European Union
Historically the concept was introduced and made a concrete reality by Robert Schuman when the French Government agreed to the principle in the Schuman Declaration and accepted the Schuman Plan confined to specific sectors of vital interest of peace and war. Thus commenced the European Community system beginning with the European Coal and Steel Community. The six founder States (France, Italy, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg) agreed on the goal: making "war not only unthinkable but materially impossible". They agreed about the means: putting the vital interests, namely coal and steel production, under a common High Authority, subject to common democratic and legal institutions. They agreed on the European rule of law and a new democratic procedure.
The five institutions (besides the High Authority) were a Consultative Committee (a chamber representing civil society interests of enterprises, workers and consumers), a parliament, and a Council of government ministers. A Court of Justice would decide disputes coming from governments, public or private enterprises, consumer groups, any other group interests or even an individual. A complaint could be lodged in a local tribunal or national courts, where appropriate. Member states have yet to fulfil and develop the articles in the Paris and Rome treaties for full democracy in the European Parliament and other institutions such as the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions.
Schuman described supranational unions as a new stage in human development. It contrasted with destructive nationalisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that began in a glorious patriotism and ended in wars. He traced the beginning concept of supranationality back to the nineteenth century, such as the Postal Union, and the term supranational is used around the time of the First World War. Democracy, which he defined as "in the service of the people and acting in agreement with it", was a fundamental part of a supranational community. However, governments only began to hold direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979, and then not according to the treaties. A single electoral statute was specified in the treaty for Europe's first community of coal and steel in 1951. Civil society (largely non-political) was to have its own elected chamber in the Consultative Committees specific to each Community as democratically agreed, but the process was frozen (as were Europe's parliamentary elections) by Charles de Gaulle and other politicians who opposed the Community method.
Today supranationalism only exists in the two European Communities inside the EU: the Economic Community (often called the European Community although it does not legally cover all State activities) and Euratom (the European Atomic Energy Community, a non-proliferation community, in which certain potentialities have been frozen or blocked). Supranational Communities provide powerful but generally unexploited and innovatory means for democratic foreign policy, by mobilising civil society to the democratically agreed goals of the Community.
The first Community of Coal and Steel was agreed only for fifty years. Opposition, mainly by enterprises which had to pay a small European tax of less than 1% and government ministers in the Council, led to its democratic mandate not being renewed. Its jurisprudence and heritage remains part of the European Community system.
De Gaulle attempted to turn the European Commission into a political secretariat under his control in the Fouchet Plan but this move was thwarted by such democrats in the Benelux countries as Paul-Henri Spaak, Joseph Luns and Joseph Bech as well as a large wave of other pro-Europeans in all the Community countries.
The supranational Community method came under attack, not only from de Gaulle but also from other nationalists and Communists. In the post-de Gaulle period, rather than holding pan-European elections under a single statute as specified in all the treaties, governments held and continue to hold separate national elections for the European Parliament. These often favour the major parties and discriminate against smaller, regional parties. Rather than granting elections to organised civil society in the consultative committees, governments created a three-pillar system under the Amsterdam Treaty and Maastricht Treaty, mixing intergovernmental and supranational systems. Two pillars governing External policy and Justice and Home affairs are not subject to the same democratic controls as the Community system.
In the Lisbon Treaty and the earlier nearly identical Constitutional Treaty, the democratic independence of the five key institutions is further blurred. This moves the project from full democratic supranationalism in the direction of not just intergovernmentalism but the politicisation of the institutions, and control by two or three major party political organisations. The Commission defines key legal aspects of the supranational system because its members must be independent of commercial, labour, consumer, political or lobby interests (Article 9 of the Paris Treaty). The Commission was to be composed of a small number of experienced personalities, whose impartiality was beyond question. As such, the early presidents of the Commission and the High Authority were strong defenders of European democracy against national, autocratic practice or the rule of the strong over the weak.
The idea in the Constitutional and Lisbon Treaties is to run the European Commission as a political office. Governments would prefer to have a national member in the Commission, although this is against the principle of supranational democracy. (The original concept was that the Commission should act as a single impartial college of independent, experienced personalities having public confidence. One of the Communities was defined in the treaty with a Commission with fewer members than the number of its member states.) Thus, the members of the Commission are becoming predominantly party-political, and composed of sometimes rejected, disgraced or unwanted national politicians.
The first president of the High Authority was Jean Monnet, who never joined a political party, as was the case with most of the other members of the Commissions. They came from diverse liberal professions, having made recognised European contributions.
Governments also wish to retain the secrecy of their deliberations in the Council of Ministers or the European Council, which discusses matters of the most vital interest to European citizens. While some institutions such as the European Parliament have their debates open to the public, others such as the Council of Ministers and numerous committees are not. Schuman wrote in his book, Pour l'Europe (For Europe), that in a democratic supranational Community "the Councils, committees and other organs should be placed under the control of public opinion that was effectual without paralysing their activity nor useful initiatives".
Joseph H. H. Weiler, in his seminal work The Dual Character of Supranationalism, states that there are two main facets to European supranationalism, although these seem to be true of many supranational systems. These are:
- Normative supranationalism: The Relationships and hierarchy which exist between Community policies and legal measures on one hand and the competing policies and legal measures of the member states on the other (the executive dimension)
- Decisional supranationalism: The institutional framework and decision making by which such measures are initiated, debated, formulated, promulgated and, finally, executed (the legislative-judicial dimension)
In many ways, the split sees the separation of powers confined to merely two branches.
Comparing the European Union and the United States
In the Lisbon Treaty, the distribution of competences in various policy areas between member states and the European Union is redistributed in three categories. In 19th century U.S., it had exclusive competences only. Competences not explicitly listed belong to lower levels of governance.
Democratic deficit in the EU and other supranational unions
In a supranational union, the problem of how to reconcile the principle of equality among nation states, which applies to international (intergovernmental) organisations, and the principle of equality among citizens, which applies within nation states is resolved by taking a sectoral approach. This allows an innovatory, democratic broadening the number of actors to be included. These are present not only in the classical Parliament which has slightly different functions but also in the Consultative Committees such as the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions which the treaties give powers equivalent to parliaments in their own areas but which are at present still developing their potential. In the European Union, the Lisbon Treaty mixes two principles (classical parliamentary government with a politically elected government) and a supranational community with a totally independent European Commission. Governments are also trying to treat the Lisbon Treaty as a simple classical treaty, or even an amendment to one, which does not require citizens' support or democratic approval. The proposed Lisbon Treaty and the earlier Constitutional draft still retain in the European Union elements of a supranational union, as distinct from a federal state on the lines of the United States of America. But this is at the expense of the democratic potentialities of a full supranational union as conceived in the first Community.
Other international organisations with some degree of integration
The only union generally recognised as having achieved the status of a supranational union is the European Union.
There are a number of other regional organisations that, while not supranational unions, have adopted or intend to adopt policies that may lead to a similar sort of integration in some respects.
- African Union (AU)
- Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
- Benelux, a political union of Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Though part of the EU, EU treaties contain an exception that EU law is subservient to Benelux integration.
- Caribbean Community (CARICOM)
- Central American Integration System (SICA)
- Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations
- Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (Gulf Cooperation council) (GCC)
- Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU)
- Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU)
- South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)
- Union of South American Nations (USAN)
- Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)
- Union State
- Turkic Council (TurkKon)
- Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO)
- Organization of Ibero-American States (OEI)
- Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC)
Other organisations that have also discussed greater integration include:
- Arab League into an "Arab Union"
- Pacific Islands Forum into the "Pacific Union"
- Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia into the "Eurasian Union"
- Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) into the "Latin American Union"
- Continental union
- Democratic globalization
- Economic union
- History of the European Coal and Steel Community (1945–57)
- International human rights law
- International parliament
- List of economic communities
- List of free trade agreements
- List of supranational environmental agencies
- Multi-level governance
- Robert Schuman
- Schuman Declaration
- Supranational aspects of international organizations
- Transnational citizenship
- United Nations Parliamentary Assembly
- World government