Supranational law is a form of international law, based on the limitation of the rights of sovereign nations between one another. It is distinguished from public international law, which involves the United Nations, the Geneva conventions, or the Law of the Sea, because in supranational law, nations explicitly submit their right to make judicial decisions to a set of common institutions.
Supranationalism can be contrasted to intergovernmentalism as a form of decision making, and is worthy of study. Speaking in relation to Europe, Joseph H. H. Weiler, in his seminal work "The Dual Character of Supranationalism" states that there are two main concerns to European supranationalism. 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.
Supranationalism is a method of decision-making in multi-national political communities, wherein power is transferred to an authority broader than governments of member states. Because decisions in some supranational structures are taken by majority votes, it is possible for a member-state in those unions to be forced by the other member-states to implement a decision. Unlike in a federal supra-state, member states retain nominal sovereignty, although some sovereignty is shared with, or ceded to, the supranational body. Full sovereignty can be reclaimed by withdrawing from the supranational arrangements. A supranational authority, by definition, can have some independence from member state governments, although not as much independence as with federal governments. Supranational institutions, like federal governments, imply the possibility of pursuing agendas in ways that the delegating states did not initially envision.
Another method of decision-making in international organizations is intergovernmentalism, in which state governments play a more prominent role.
Supranationalism in the European Union
Historically the concept was introduced and made a concrete reality by Robert Schuman when the French Government accepted his Schuman Plan thus commencing 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 institutions. They agreed on the rule of law and a democratic procedure. The five institutions (besides the High Authority) were a Consultative Committee (a chamber representing 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 fulfill 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, compared with destructive nationalisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that ended in wars. He traces 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, although governments only began to hold direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979. It was specified in the treaty for Europe's first community of coal and steel in 1951.
Supranationalism only exists in the two communities inside the EU, the Economic Community (often called the European Community) and Euratom (the European Atomic Energy Community, a non-proliferation community, which has been blocked in certain features.) The first Community of Coal and Steel was agreed only for fifty years. Its jurisprudence and heritage remains part of the European Community system. The two other pillars of the EU comprising foreign and security policy and justice and home affairs are not subject to the same democratic controls as the Community system.
Much of the academic community does not see the European Union as a supranational entity.
The EU acts more akin to an intergovernmental organization, as it does not regulate many aspects of the member states; the states themselves vote for bills by Qualified Majority Voting and The European Council (EC) controls the legislative agenda. It is more a matter of negotiation between the states than that of blanket policy.
The EC can also be described as being a supranational body, examples being the existence of a European Parliament (for democracy), and the democratic deficit in policy making (The Commission setting the agenda). While it is true that the Court of Justice often dictates to Member States how to apply their law, neither the court nor the community institutions can exceed the powers conferred upon them by the treaty. In that sense, they are limited in their actions and therefore the EC could be said to not be a supranational body.
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