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Beyond the Post-Sovereign State?: The Past, Present, and Future of Constitutional Pluralism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 September 2019

London School of Economics and Political Science


Constitutional pluralism is a theory for the post-sovereign European state. This only makes sense historically, emerging out of postwar European reconstruction through the repression of popular sovereignty and restraining of democracy, including through the project of European integration. It became unsettled at Maastricht and evolved from a series of irritants into a full-blown crisis in the recent decade, with sovereignty claims returning both from the bottom-up and the top-down, to the extent that we can legitimately ask whether we are now moving ‘beyond the post-sovereign state’? Constitutional pluralist literature fails to capture this in that evades material issues of democracy and political economy.

Copyright © Centre for European Legal Studies, Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge

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I would like to thank Cormac Mac Amhlaigh and Kenneth Armstrong for comments on an earlier draft.


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2 Ibid, p 1.

3 MacCormick, N, Questioning Sovereignty: Law, State and Nation in the European Commonwealth (Oxford University Press, 2002), p 142Google Scholar.

4 See MacCormick, note 1 above, p 18.

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6 The repression of the concept of sovereignty in fact suggests the EU is in that respect a classic federation, a third type besides the loose confederation of sovereign states and the federal state. See eg Beaud, O, Theorie de la Federation (Presses Universitaires de France, 2009)Google Scholar.

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9 For a recent restatement see Walker, N, ‘Constitutional Pluralism Revisited’ (2016) 22 European Law Journal 333CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Amongst constitutional pluralists Walker's account is more cautious about claims to have overcome sovereignty and more insistent on presenting constitutional pluralism as a matter of political as much as legal theory. Walker's term ‘late sovereignty’ rather than ‘post-sovereignty’ illustrates this more nuanced view on the enduring legacy of the concept, see Walker, N, ‘Late Sovereignty in the European Union’ in Walker, N (ed) Sovereignty in Transition (Hart Publishing, 2003)Google Scholar.

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12 See MacCormick, note 10 above.

13 The idea of pluralism under international law is, he concludes, ‘contextually more persuasive and appropriate’ (MacCormick, Questioning Sovereignty, note 3 above, p 121). Although if the discretion of national courts is qualified by their international obligations, there is little specification of precisely what those entail (see eg ibid, p 117).

14 See eg ibid, p 10.

15 MacCormick, note 1 above, p 16. Repeated less assertively in MacCormick, Questioning Sovereignty, note 3 above, p 126. In the final iteration, eschewing any form of radical pluralism, MacCormick suggests that conflicts between domestic and EU law should ultimately be determined, in Kelsenian fashion, by norms of international law.

16 MacCormick, Questioning Sovereignty, note 3 above, ch 9.

17 Ibid, p 93.

18 Ibid, pp 94–95. Since, according to the internal view of UK officials sovereignty remains with the UK constitution, but according to EC officials it lies with the Treaties, MacCormick argues that the theorist seeking a disinterested perspective ‘can entertain both or several views cognitively, suspending any question of volitional commitment to one or another. Instead of committing oneself to a monocular vision dictated by sovereignty theory, one can embrace the possibility of acknowledging differences of perspective, differences of points of view’. MacCormick, note 1 above, p 6.

19 MacCormick, Questioning Sovereignty, note 3 above, p 119.

20 Italics added.

21 MacCormick, Questioning Sovereignty, note 3 above, p 119.

22 HLA Hart, The Concept of Law (Clarendon, 1961).

23 This, essentially, is Martin Loughlin's challenge (note 13 above), to which MacCormick struggles to respond. See MacCormick, N, ‘Questioning Post-Sovereignty’ (2004) 29 European Law Review 852Google Scholar.

24 MacCormick, note 1 above, p 4.

25 MacCormick, Questioning Sovereignty, note 3 above, p 95.

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29 Avbelj, M and Komarek, J identify six versions, in their ‘Introduction’ to Constitutional Pluralism in the European Union and Beyond (Hart Publishing, 2012), pp 47Google Scholar.

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32 See eg A Somek, ‘Monism: A Tale of the Undead’ in Avbelj and Komarek (eds), note 29 above.

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37 For an elaboration of these basic building blocks, see Goldoni and Wilkinson, note 35 above.

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41 With regard to the Italian constitutional court: cf Barsotti, V, Carozza, P, Cartabia, M, and Simoncini, A, Italian Constitutional Justice in the Global Context (Oxford University Press, 2016), pp 214–17Google Scholar.

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43 See Wunsche, H F (ed), Rutter, Derek (trans), Standard Texts on Social Market Economy: Two Centuries of Discussion (Gustav Fischer Verlag, 1982), p ixGoogle Scholar. This reverses the original meaning of the economic constitution, which had meant democratic control of the economy and emancipation of the working class (in the work of Neumann and Sinzheimer). See eg Dukes, R, The Labour Constitution: The Enduring Idea of Labour Law (Oxford University Press, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 See eg Maduro, M, We, the Court: The European Court of Justice and the Economic Constitution (Hart Publishing, 1998)Google Scholar.

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48 See eg Streek, W, ‘Citizens as Customers: Considerations on the New Politics of Consumption’ (2012) New Left Review 27Google Scholar

49 See Müller, note 39 above.

50 Fromm, E, Escape from Freedom (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1941)Google Scholar. Authoritarianism here thus points towards a politically passive population in contrast to a highly charged, active authoritarianism.

51 This is carefully noted and outlined by Gibbs, N, ‘Post-Sovereignty and the European Legal Space’ (2017) 80(5) Modern Law Review 812, p 825CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 Ibid (drawing on Marcel Gauchet).

53 See eg Hix, S and Føllesdal, A, ‘Why There Is a Democratic Deficit in the EU: A Reply to Majone and Moravscik’ (2006) 44(3) Journal of Common Market Studies 533Google Scholar.

54 See eg Bickerton, C, European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States (Oxford University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

55 See eg Crouch, C, Post-Democracy (Polity Press, 2004)Google Scholar.

56 There are at least three others alongside the German context: the sustained democracies, the Mediterranean Enlargements, and the Post-Soviet accessions. It is with the deepening and widening of the Maastricht era that the broader constitutional context starts to matter; in these four ‘varieties of constitutionalism’ sovereignty and hence post-sovereignty resonate differently. Post-sovereignty in the manner described above did not reflect in the same way the sustained democracies of the UK and Scandinavia, nor for the Mediterranean Enlargements. And for obvious historical reasons, fears of democratic and state sovereignty so central to the German post-war experience, and to those countries with direct experience of Fascism, would not resonate in countries transitioning from the Soviet bloc: their constitutional consciousness was characterised by a fear not of internal democratic collapse, but of externally repressed sovereignty under the Soviet regime.

57 See Vauchez, Cohen, and Rassmussen, note 36 above.

58 On the significance of sovereignty claims and sovereignty frames to the concept of sovereignty, see Walker, N, ‘Sovereignty Frames and Sovereignty Claims’ in Rawlings, R, Leyland, P, and Young, A (eds) Sovereignty and the Law: Domestic, European and International Perspectives (Oxford University Press, 2013)Google Scholar.

59 Constitutional pluralism has an ambiguous relationship with the German Constitutional Court in general and its Maastricht-Urteil in particular. (Brunner, note 7 above). The significance of that judgment for generating the momentum for constitutional pluralist scholarship can hardly be doubted. But constitutional pluralism appears a defensive rear-guard reaction to its judgments, a series of attempts to domesticate them, to temper their potentially harmful effects on the European constitutionalist project and the post-sovereign condition.

60 See MacCormick, note 10 above, and MacCormick, Questioning Sovereignty, note 3 above, p 265.

61 MacCormick, note 10 above, p 259.

62 MacCormick, Questioning Sovereignty, note 3 above, p 265.

63 BVerfGE, 123/267 Judgment of 30 June 2009.

64 Schönberger, C, ‘Lisbon in Karslruhe: Maastricht's Epigones at Sea’ (2009) 10 German Law Journal 1201CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65 See Chambers, S, ‘Democracy, Popular Sovereignty, and Constitutional Legitimacy’ (2004) 11 Constellations 153CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

66 See Heartfield, J, ‘A Process without a Subject’ in Bickerton, C, Cunliffe, P, and Gourevitch, A (eds), Politics without Sovereignty (Routledge, 2006)Google Scholar.

67 See Mair, P, Ruling the Void: The Hollowing Out of Western Democracy (Verso, 2013)Google Scholar.

68 See Wilkinson, M, ‘Constitutional Pluralism: Chronicle of a Death Foretold?’ (2017) 23(3–4) European Law Journal 213CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

70 See eg Lapavitsas, C and Flassbeck, H, Against the Troika: Crisis and Austerity in the Eurozone (Verso, 2015)Google Scholar

71 See Wilkinson, M, ‘The Euro is Irreversible! Or is it? On OMT, Austerity and the Threat of “Grexit”’ (2015) 16 German Law Journal 1049CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

72 Habermas, J, ‘Remarks on Dieter Grimm's “Does Europe Need a Constitution”’ (1995) 1 European Law Journal 303CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

73 MacCormick's declared political goal was to pursue a soft version of social democracy. He firmly rejected any ‘purely market-economical view of the good society’ (MacCormick, Questioning Sovereignty, note 3 above, pp 174–75). As a matter of political philosophy, he explicitly attacked voluntaristic liberalism of the social contract variety in favour of contextual individualism associated with the communitarian tradition (eg ibid, pp 162–63).

74 Ibid, p 152. Elusively, and all too briefly, he skirts over ‘whatever storm clouds now hover over the prospects for the single currency’ (ibid, p 155). MacCormick was far from the only one to succumb to what Majone later characterized as the ‘culture of total optimism’. Majone, G, Rethinking the Union of Europe Post-Crisis: Has Integration Gone Too Far? (Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp 5887CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

75 MacCormick, Questioning Sovereignty, note 3 above, ch 11.

76 Ibid, pp 145–49.

77 Ibid, p 149.

78 Loughlin, M, Political Jurisprudence (Oxford University Press, 2017)Google Scholar, ch 7.

79 See especially Scharpf, F, ‘The Asymmetry of European Integration: or Why Europe Can't Have a Social Market Economy’ (2010) 8 Socio-Economic Review 211CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

80 Laval v Svenska Byggnadsarbetareförbundet, C-341/05, EU:C:2007:809; International Transport Workers’ Federation and Finnish Seamen's Union v Viking Line, C-438/05, EU:C:2007:772. See eg Lasser, M, ‘Fundamentally Flawed’ (2014) 15 Theoretical Inquiries into Law 229Google Scholar.

81 See eg Streeck, W, Buying Time: Reflections on the Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (Verso, 2014)Google Scholar.

82 See eg Scharpf, note 79 above. In fact, as Scharpf explains, the logic was already grasped by Hayek in the 1930's in his work on interstate federation.

83 See note 80 above.

84 MacCormick, note 1 above.

85 Beck, note 8 above. See also Bulmer, Simon and Paterson, William E., Germany and the European Union: Europe's Reluctant Hegemon? (Red Globe Press, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

86 On the image of the sleeping sovereign see Tuck, R, The Sleeping Sovereign: The Invention of Modern Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2016)Google Scholar.