Brexit and the cosmopolitan world order

Posted: June 27th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: european union, governance, human rights, philosophy, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

There are those who see the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union as a prelude to turning back to the times when the main sovereign actor in the world is the (nation) state. However, resorting to the intergovernmental model is not the only option to analyse Brexit, the other views (cosmopolitan pluralist, minimal world state and cosmopolitan democracy) should be analysed as well.

Intergovernmentalists probably see Brexit as a natural consequence of a political union that has stretched too far. There can be no (democratic) legitimate government above the nation state level and thus any attempts at political unions such as the EU are futile if not harmful, this thinking goes.

The negotiation of national parliamentary sovereignty and binding supranational rules have been unsuccessful in the EU-UK case and thus it is only normal that the state that has delegated powers to the EU can now take those back and leave. In this traditionalist thinking, the citizens of the UK had all the rights to vote for Brexit, because it is they who are ultimately in charge of the fate of their country and whatever they do (even if it harms themselves or others) is right.

The cosmopolitan pluralists believe that (nation) state is over or in decline and no longer the centre of sovereign power. Therefore power has been shifting to multiple other levels of government, global, regional, subnational, corporate multinational etc. The state is just one of the levels of a pluralist, complex, interdependent, networked world which does not have a centre of power.

From this perspective, Brexit as a decision by referendum of the UK citizens was unfair: in a cosmopolitan plural world order everyone who is affected should get a say and stakeholders consulted. In an interdependent world why are the citizens of one entity allowed to screw things up for everyone else? Scottish independence is a neat example of the subnational levels of governance exerting influence beyond the nation state. Even if the UK left, this does not mean that we should not continue to democratise the supranational levels of governance (i.e. the EU) and continue building a strong European polity.

The proponents of the minimal world state model are of the view that there are certain universal core principles that apply to all states and all people, which cannot be derogated from and the breach of which will limit state sovereignty. Universal human rights at their core are as such limiting state sovereignty: humanitarian interventions can be used to prevent mass grave human rights violations, such as genocide, in a sovereign state. Other violations might bring sanctions and trade restrictions. This minimal world state is institutionalised through the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly (and other UN bodies) and includes international NGOs as powerful actors. The deliberations at the global level in other matters than human rights as well (millennium development goals) exerts soft pressure to states to comply.

Brexit does not really have a consequence in terms of the minimal world state model, because both the EU and the UK remain a part of it and will need to comply with the core requirements. The influence of the EU and the UK in the world state level might be decreased because of the weakening of the position of the EU.

Cosmopolitan democracy model requires democratic decision-making in all levels, including global. This model sees the future creation of a world parliament and limits state sovereignty only to those issues that are internal to that state. In this case states are subordinated to a global democratic entity and transnational solidarity is the norm, because most problems are not confined to the borders of any one state.

Brexit is a setback to cosmopolitan democracy if one counts the EU as a precursor to eventual global democracy. In a fully developed cosmopolitan democracy Brexit would not matter because nation states would not matter either. The UK leaving the EU would be similar to a redrafting of the administrative borders of a county or district, which does not have global impact.

In conclusion: none of the models of international political theory offer a complete solution. The world is slowly turning away from the intergovernmental model, but neither the minimal world state and cosmopolitan pluralism models are fully existing yet. And even though cosmopolitan democracy is as an ideal an interesting one, it seems to be a long way to go before it can be realised. Brexit can be read as a countertrend towards intergovernmentalism, but it (and the reactions to it) also reflect the unsuitability of the current international political frameworks to deliver. The confusion and reactions in different countries (and the fact that we in Estonia also care deeply about Brexit) can be seen as supporting the emergence of cosmopolitan pluralism as the main framework, but as it also is vague and confusing it does not offer much help. Minimal world state does not seem to be affected much (even though prevalence of nativism might mean even less interest in responsiblity to protect doctrine and thus weakening of the applicability of the model).

Read more:

Zürn, Michael. “Survey Article: Four Models of a Global Order with Cosmopolitan Intent: An Empirical Assessment.” Journal of Political Philosophy 24.1 (2016): 88-119.

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