The Concept of Sovereignty in the Westphalian System and European Union


Sovereignty is the power to rule over a domain or land and the power to create law. This power expresses a legalized higher will imposed by the political power. Deciding ‘who holds this power and who should’ is one of the main questions of political science since the formation of governments. With the peace of Westphalia in 1648, sovereignty was given to states directly and supra-state institutions were ignored. Today in the European Union sovereignty of the Member States or the ideas such as the EU has gained full sovereignty over the member states are concerns debated by many scholars and common people. This article examines the changing concept of sovereignty and aims to compare the Westphalian System and the EU’s so-called sovereignty over states.

Keywords: Sovereignty, European Union, Peace of Westphalia, Supra-states.


With the Peace of Westphalia, supra-state authorities are diminished from international affairs. Parties who signed the treaty bypassed the Papacy’s authority and different estates of the Holy Roman Empire recognized as sovereign (Kiraz, 2012: 94). Today this understanding is called the “Westphalian System” and according to the many scholars in this area the treaty was the beginning of international relations. This study examines the Westphalian Model of Sovereignty and the European Union integration process as it is acting like a supra-state and limiting the control of member states. 

It can be argued that with the Copenhagen Criteria, the EU can dictate its values to candidate states and even be able to dictate foreign policies to its member states. In order to have a better insight into these concerns, this paper focuses on the nature of sovereignty and briefly its evolution. Firstly, the Thirty Years’ War is explained to comprehend the historical context of the time Peace of Westphalia is signed and enlighten the reasons behind it. Then, this paper tries to examine the nature of sovereignty by explaining one of the prior and recently used models of sovereignty by explaining Bodin’s model and ideas on sovereignty. After giving the needed information and creating the insight to ensure a better comprehension, the paper focuses on the contradictions between the Westphalian System and the EU integration process, in order to examine the concept of sovereignty in the EU.

1. Thirty Years’ War

In 1618 a string of conflicts involving several countries due to territorial, dynastic, religious, and commercial rivalry emerged and its bloody campaigns and conflicts took place across the majority of Europe. Later this series of campaigns was called the Thirty Years’ War and it ended with the European settlements known as the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 (Bobbitt, 2002: 81).

The war is generally believed to have started in 1618 when the Protestant nobles of both Bohemia and Austria rebelled against the future Holy Roman emperor Ferdinand II’s attempt to impose Roman Catholic absolutism on his domains, despite the fact that the conflicts that led to it broke out a few years earlier (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). After a five-year battle, Ferdinand was victorious. King Christian IV of Denmark saw a chance in 1625 to add vital territory in Germany to make up for the Baltic provinces he had earlier lost to Sweden. After ending a four-year war with Poland, Gustav II Adolf of Sweden invaded Germany and won over many German princes to his anti-Roman Catholic, anti-imperial cause (Bobbitt, 2002: 81).

Three denominations fought for supremacy in this region of Europe: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. The towns and principalities of the Holy Roman Empire suffered greatly during this series of conflicts. Princes and prelates requested assistance from foreign nations, which led to a very complicated and entangled web of relationships. Overall, the conflict was between the Protestant cities and principalities that relied on the main anti-Catholic forces of Sweden and the United Netherlands, which had finally freed themselves from the rule of Spain after an 80-year battle, and the Roman Catholic and Habsburg Holy Roman Empire. The contest between France and the Habsburgs of the empire and Spain, who had been striving to forge an anti-French alliance cordon, was a parallel conflict (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). The conflicts came to an end with the Peace of Westphalia, which was signed as a result of a series of unprecedented peace negotiations. At the end of the war, the United Netherlands was acknowledged as a sovereign nation and the Holy Roman Empire’s constituent nations were given complete sovereignty.

2. Sovereignty with the Westphalian Peace

In his study, along with many other scholars, Kiraz asserts that by its modern meaning the concept of sovereignty emerged in practice with the “Peace of Westphalia”. Treaty excluded the Papacy from the negotiations, and the Holy Roman Empire was considered to be dissolved (Kiraz, 2012: 94). Therefore, supra-state authorities lost their influence in the process. This resulted in a so-called new understanding of sovereignty today called “The Westphalian System”. By refusing supra-state authorities like the Papacy, the Westphalian model founded an international system consisting of sovereign states. 

Although the Thirty Years’ War -simply- began as a religious conflict among the different estates of the Holy Roman Empire. The peace of Westphalia should not be considered an act of establishing equality among different denominations of Christianity or a matter of freely practising one’s beliefs. Of course, with the adaptation of the treaty Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist populations gained the opportunity to practice their faith without any serious intrusion from the emperor. However, the main importance was ignoring the church’s authority and accomplishing to keep them out of an agreement. It was not just the absence of religious influence in national affairs but contravening the pan-European political power of the Papacy. Insomuch as that Pope Innocent X, the leader of the Catholic church at the time of the negotiations, denounced the Peace of Westphalia in a papal bull because it undermined his political superiority (Patton, 2019: 94). This new treaty altered the relationship between the church and state and set a new exemplary model for how states may become autonomous entities free from the political influence of any one church.

Taking the information above into consideration, the Westphalian understanding of sovereignty can be summarized as such: in the Westphalian sovereignty model, each state has exclusive sovereignty over its territory as a principle in international law. This principle underlies the modern international system of sovereign states. According to the model, every state, no matter how large or small they are, has an equal right to sovereignty.

3. Bodin’s Concept of Sovereignty and the Westphalian System

In order to develop a deeper understanding of the concept of sovereignty prior to the Westphalian paradigm, having a better comprehension of the French jurist Jean Bodin’s ideas on sovereignty is very important. In his book “The Six Books of the State (Les Six livres de la République)” defined sovereignty as the supreme power over all people (citizens and subjects) living in the country, not restricted by law (Bodin, n.d.). Bodin argues that the “sovereignty of the state, responsible only, and directly, to God” (Scott, 2015: 26). 

In his study, Kiraz examines Bodin’s model of sovereignty. According to the examination of Kiraz, Bodin’s model of sovereignty can be defined with two important properties. The first one is that sovereignty is absolute. As stated above, the sovereign is responsible only, and directly, to God. That means sovereignty, “the highest governing power”, cannot be limited by another power and cannot be questioned. According to his model other political power centers in the society originate from the sovereign itself, thus they exist within the extent and time allowed by it. Secondly, he emphasizes that sovereignty is perpetual. Bodin separates the sovereign and the ruler. He argues that the power that is limited in time or that can be revoked at any time is not sovereignty, but only authority. Therefore, sovereignty may be in a prince, in a minority, or the whole of society, provided that it is not fragmented and remains a whole (Kiraz, 2012: 94-95). Despite Bodin’s definition of sovereignty and sovereignty’s unquestionable nature, Bodin draws limits to the legitimacy of the sovereignty of the ruler. However, in some parts of restrictions he determined to contradict his model, he imposes four restrictions; Divine and Natural Laws (1), Fundamental Laws (2), Contracts with Subjects and with Foreigners (3), Inviolability of Private Property (4) (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d.).

The sovereign is responsible only, and directly, to God however, this does not guarantee total freedom to the ruler. Responsibility to God makes it mandatory to follow the law of God and consequently the law of Nature. Divine and Natural Laws endure this responsibility of the ruler. Fundamental Laws, “leges imperii”, are the laws which assure the continuity of the reign and prevent the alienation of the domain of the ruler (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d.). In addition to these two limitations “Contracts with Subjects and with Foreigners” plus “Inviolability of Private Property” are limiting the ruler’s sovereignty by obligating him to be acting justly.

Without getting too contradictory with Bodin’s model of sovereignty, the Westphalian System differs by giving sovereignty directly to the state. While in Bodin’s model a supra-state like the Papacy can exist, in the Westphalian model this is eliminated. This gave rulers control of their foreign policies which before were directly bonded to the authority of the Papacy by the sovereign’s responsibility to God. This model eventually paved the way for national sovereignty and the concept of the national state. 

4. Sovereignty and the European Union

In this day and age sovereignty is again a subject of debate. Many citizens of the EU believe that national sovereignty is endangered. One of the key worries of people who believe that is the process of European integration. Ideas such as the EU Member States are no longer sovereign, or the EU has gained full sovereignty over the member states are the main concerns. There are several examples of EU law that are the basis of these arguments, including consumer protection, environmental protection, domestic administrative law procedures, specific sanitary or pharmaceutical rules, or the level of government debt. Especially during the Brexit process a lot of people in Britain believed that the process of EU decision-making has undermined British parliamentary democracy and that leaving the EU is the only way for the British people to regain control of their sovereignty. In fact, the slogans for Brexit were mainly built around this idea; the most popular slogan was “take back control” (Humphreys, 2019). 


In Bodin’s model, “responsibility to the divine” restricted the power of the ruler so that the sovereign could provide more just governance. As a matter of course this divine legitimacy gave the ruler the right to interfere in the internal affairs of another country. With the Westphalian System, this had been prevented by giving each state exclusive sovereignty over its territory. Today the influence of the EU in domestic affairs might be seen as a problem. As a counter-argument, one might argue that the EU laws are utilitarian and there is no matter or a situation should be regarded as a problem in guarding the common interest of the people. However, sovereignty is not a question of ethics but politics. There is little to no difference between basing sovereignty on ethics or god. Both of these concepts are vague enough to be dogmatized. For this reason, they are not open to debate. Of course, ethics can be debated but just like the gods. Giving someone else authority to decide or represent is the main problem in determining the line between freedom and morality. Also, it should be highlighted that saying the EU forcing its morality and principles is truly wrong. The EU is a political union, not an external political force. 

In conclusion, debating sovereignty requires understanding its historical evolution. This understanding is crucial for comprehending the concepts that today are argued. Sovereignty is constructed to solve political problems about governance. Historical knowledge indicates the impermanence of these concepts and how easily they can change, therefore they should not be dogmatized. With different problems, different solutions must arise.

Erkut KAYA

European Studies Internship Programme


Bobbitt, P. (2002). The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History. Penguin Books.

Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Thirty Years’ War | Summary, Causes, Combatants, Map, & Significance. Retrieved August 25, 2022, from

Humphreys, J. (2019, March 19). ‘Take back control’: why the Brexit slogan resonates across Europe. The Irish Times. Retrieved August 25, 2022, from

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  (n.d.). Bodin, Jean. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved August 20, 2022, from

Kiraz, S. (2012). Uluslararası  İlişkilerde Egemenliğin Değişen Yüzü. Niğde Üniversitesi İİBF Dergisi, 5(1), 93-102. 

Patton, S. (2019). The Peace of Westphalia and its Affects on International Relations, Diplomacy and Foreign Policy. The Histories, 10(1), 91-99.

Scott, H. M. (Ed.). (2015). The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern European History, 1350-1750: Cultures and power. Oxford University Press.

Sosyal Medyada Paylaş


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