"Sovereignty" is the independence of a state, in that it is a separate entity from other states and therefore has appropriate status in the international community.
There are both normative and empirical difficulties in establishing a single definition of sovereignty. The above definition illustrates sovereignty in terms of relations between states – “state sovereignty” – which, although valid, does not encompass the breadth of the concept. This definition can therefore be contested as it assumes the equivalence of sovereignty and independence. During the Island of Palmas case, Arbitrator Max Huber declared that sovereignty is “… the right to exercise therein, to the exclusion of any other state, the functions of a state.” This illustrates the constitutional sovereignty of a state: the absolute supremacy of the state “to make or unmake any law whatsoever; and further that no body is recognised by law… as having a right to override that legislation.” To extend this idea of ‘internal’ sovereignty, it can be said that the state has exclusive rights over its subjectss. This modern idea of sovereignty stems from the older concept of a sovereign ruler who held absolute power over his state: an idea advanced by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, where sovereignty is a “monopoly of coercive power… entirely unconstrained.” Again, this is more concerned with rule inside the state rather than outside. From this it can be seen that sovereignty is not necessarily purely with regards to international relations and independence; there are many alternative definitions that propose sovereignty as an issue of supremacy of the state in governance and national identity within its own borders.
As a concept that is used by a range of people both in and out of politics to illustrate a range of points, a definition of sovereignty is useful. It was said (anonymously) of a great advocate of ‘sovereignty’, Margaret Thatcher, that “She stood out on grounds of sovereignty, a concept she had read about somewhere but could never tell you where…”! This illustrates how a categorisation of the idea is valuable, in order to understand exactly what it is that is apparently so essential to the state, and the normative question of why it is so vital. The idea can then be applied to real life situations, to analyse precisely how sovereign a country is, particularly in international relations – for example understanding the extent to which European integration affects British sovereignty, i.e. Britain’s ability to make independent decisions both in and outside her geographical borders. Both definitions of sovereignty can be applied in examining such situations: the idea of sovereignty and independence being synonymous means that the amount to which the state in question can act freely in the international community as a consequence of European integration – for example, operating free/fair trade as it sees fit – can be analysed. To take the idea of sovereignty as an internal issue can again be analysed with regards to the extent to which European legislation would affect the state’s capacity to make and enforce its own laws. In both incidences, the concept is of use in analysis of the work of the government.
De Jouvenal, B. Sovereignty Cambridge University Press (1957) Cambridge
Duursma, J. Fragmentation and the International Relations of Micro States p.121 Cambridge University Press (1996) Cambridge
Hantrey, R. Economic Aspects of Sovereignty Longman (1930) London