Greece, Hungary, and the Test of Sovereignty

The chaotic scenes from Athens today are heartbreaking. As Parliament approves austerity to qualify for a bailout, rioters battle police and set fire to buildings. It’s protesters’ firebombs and rocks vs. police tear gas and flash grenades. Bloomberg TV’s Nicole Itano, reporting on the lawmakers’ political prospects after their unpopular yes votes on austerity: “They are wounded, perhaps fatally.”

I predict 2012 will be the year in which questions of national sovereignty rise to the forefront of global debate. It’s already happening. The graffiti here—somebody defaced the Bank of Greece sign, renaming it the “Bank of Berlin”—captures Greeks’ feeling that foreigners are controlling their fate.

There’s a similar sense in Hungary’s ruling Fidesz Party, which has been harshly criticized from abroad on grounds that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has become authoritarian and anti-democratic. György Schöpflin, a member of the European Parliament for Fidesz and a former professor of politics at University College London, wrote a Feb. 6 article for the openDemocracy website in which he took exception to the foreign pressure. “No one likes it when their domestic affairs undergo sustained intervention from abroad; this explains the placards held up during the 21 January demonstration, ‘We are not a colony,’” Schöpflin wrote.

Sovereignty is both fundamental and elusive. Nothing is more important than who has a monopoly on the use of power—namely, who is sovereign. When is it appropriate for one country, or group of countries, to intervene in another country’s affairs, as the European Union is doing now in Greece and Hungary? If you think Greece and Hungary should be left alone, how do you feel about Libya’s late Muammar Qaddafi? Or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who is ruthlessly attacking his own people?

To get your mind around the principles at stake, I recommend an article called “The Return of Sovereignty” in the latest issue of The New Republic by Michael Ignatieff, a former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party. The first couple of paragraphs are available online; the rest is behind TNR‘s firewall. Ignatieff says sovereignty is deeper and more powerful than mere government, which comes and goes. “We allow ourselves to disagree, sometimes radically, about government because we respect the sovereign authority that keeps us together. People who revile the president of the United States still rise when he enters the room.”

The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party seemed ready to challenge not only the government but sovereignty itself last summer when members expressed a willingness to let the U.S. default on its debt. That struck many people as several steps beyond the pale. But where is the pale, exactly? The issue arises again and again, from Greece to Hungary to Syria to Russia to the U.S. When does a government exceed its legitimate authority? When does dissent (with respect for sovereignty) turn into revolution (a challenge to sovereignty)? It’s a dangerous topic, and it’s not going away.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.