Home inFocus The Governance Issue (Fall 2023) Freedom, Sovereignty, and Individual Rights

Freedom, Sovereignty, and Individual Rights

Matthew Tyrmand Fall 2023
European Union flags outside of the EU Headquarters Berlaymont building in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo: Kyle Wagaman)

“Sovereignty” is what makes “freedom” and “individual rights” possible. Without recognized, respected, and fully upheld sovereignty, the entire premise of post-Enlightenment Western political practice, that is, modern representative democracy, is nullified.

This Western political tradition, which since 1648 has exalted nation state sovereignty as a tenet of legitimate government, produced more than three centuries of an unrivaled expansion in every social good, first in the West and then, ultimately, in the broader world. Science, technology, market development, hygiene, diet, health, wellness and longevity, reduced poverty, education access – in short, all standards by which quality of life for a human being is measured – measure better today and in every half-century or so sequential increment, than its antecedent one. It is not a perfectly straight line graphically, but the trend has been powerful.

Treaty of Westphalia

In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia was reached with treaties ending the calamitous 30-Years’ War. It reordered the political operations of Europe away from war as first resort toward one of attempted diplomacy. The treaties were signed by 109 parties over five months. The territorial agreements by the nation states and imperial states of the Holy Roman Empire took five years to hammer out.

The lasting legacy of this accord, which settled many of Europe’s existent issues of the time, was the inviolability of borders and non-interference in the domestic affairs of these now-recognized sovereign states.

This is the basis of the modern flourishing international order.

The classical liberals of the Enlightenment – Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, et. al. – saw delivering and securing liberty as the primary political ideal to be pursued by the governed. The social contract, legitimacy, individual rights, and representative democracy all had roots in the stabilizing of the European continental theater that the Westphalian Order delivered.

Of course, there were still wars, territorial disputes, piracy, imperialism, and all sorts of chicanery. But diplomatic engagement, bilaterally or multilaterally, changed the evolution of Western international relations, most notably with the 1815 Congress of Vienna.

World Wars I and II, with the developed world’s industrial-level technological capabilities, delivered death on a mechanized scale never before seen, primarily wielded and weaponized by one sovereign state actor – Germany – motivated by imperial nationalist ambitions. The deeply battered Europe that survived, albeit with new fault lines, such as the post-Yalta Eastern and Central European order, had many leaders who desired to remake the Continental political dynamic.

Nationalist vs Socialist

In this post-war period, where the philosophers were philosophizing over what went wrong, they seized upon the nationalist component of German Nazi philosophy as the catalyst for the attempt at world domination. They ignored the socialist part of the Nazi platform as they were prone to subscribe to this economic philosophy themselves.

It is not coincidental that the thought leadership was weighted toward French philosophical schools of political and social thinkers, firmly ensconced on the left in the academy and the state’s political complex. These schools were close to Robespierre and the Jacobins’ “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” – which Edmond Burke had correctly predicted would later be reduced to the absurd during the statist tyranny of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.

In the 20th century, they were much quicker to condemn and blame nationalism than socialism.

They posited a “United States of Europe” built around human rights and democracy, rather than economics and trade, to combat the extreme nationalism that had just shattered the continent. Sovereign governments could choose to work together of their own volition, with no supranational authority.

However, by 1952, harmonization of political decision-making was not aligning quickly enough for some. So, the “fathers of the European Union” initiated the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) with six original signatories. The ECSC was built expressly to devolve power from the sovereign state, initially on a voluntary basis, to supranational authority, and was meant to regulate coal and steel – the two necessary inputs to wage industrial level war. These also happened to be the two key industrial economic sectors of the time.

The EU and the Euro

And then, the European Union (EU) was born, with sovereignty ceded, not catalyzed by being on the receiving end of a tank or a gun, but ushered in democratically by free people with the goal of warless utopia, voting to devolve their statehood to a federation. The economics of a monetary union and a common currency would reduce transaction costs and tie peoples more closely together. After all, those who trade more, make war less.

This multi-generational age of integration did not abate for 60 years. In this more than half a century though, some curious byproducts of post-sovereign utopia manifested themselves.

The economics of the common currency could only work when there was continual growth in the real economy or nominal growth by adding more consumers and adopters of the currency, like a Ponzi scheme. Bernard Connolly, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s economist chosen to analyze how it would look to give up British sovereign currency for the common one, sounded the alarm. That this could eventually lead to ruin once growth hit a wall. He was suspended and slandered in EU headquarters at Brussels but did keep the United Kingdom from trading in its pounds for euros.

As we later saw, shocks and recessions and even destabilizing political episodes could, would, and did prove disastrous because there was no remedy for European policy makers to execute as guaranteed by the EU constitution that wouldn’t be at odds with the national constitutions of member states.

Fiscal policy and budgetary constructions are definitionally domestic issues, and the monetary policy of the European Central Bank (ECB) would impact different nations differently. It is no surprise that action tended toward that which was beneficial for the biggest states – particularly Germany, with the biggest economy in Europe. Germany’s was an economy that had been successfully rebuilt in the post-war era by factors including the American-funded Marshall Plan, the prohibition on rebuilding its military (a big money-saver), and a culture whose industriousness has been heralded for centuries.

Modern Days

A particular byproduct of integration, monetary policy as a backdoor to fiscal policy control, led directly to the reduced national sovereignty of a member nation – Greece, during the Greek Debt Crisis of 2009. Greece was well over its skis with a highly leveraged sovereign balance sheet, financed by cheap money, as priced by the ECB, lent by highly leveraged German banks looking for profits with little regard for the systemic risk they were exacerbating with loose lending standards.

After the American recession of 2008 went global, the malinvestment into the debtor states of southern Europe by the lender states of industrial northern Europe, with their large banking and investment systems, came to the forefront of global finance. There was potential for major banking collapses, which, like the Wall Street subprime mess in America, might have led to a global banking contagion and crippling global depression. Or not. But the political and financial establishment of Europe was not about to find out organically. Even if there could have been a reorganization of European financial institutions amidst southern European debt write downs, many large politically connected banks, mostly German, would have failed.

Greece, then, fully lost its sovereignty and became a debt vassal to the private component of the banking system of the supranational governance authority. Prime Minister George Papandreou was replaced by a former vice president of the ECB, Lucas Papademos, in a snap election where the pro-EU political and media voices weighed in dramatically about a falling sky should the Greeks not validate the steward Brussels had selected for them.

This is just one example, and up to that point it was the grandest in scale, of a single nation state’s sovereignty so diminished by EU pressures or diktats. Greece might have come out of this economic crisis with different outcomes had it been allowed to return to its pre-Euro currency, the drachma. Or even exit the EU. But these options never had an honest chance. The departure of Greece from the federation could have had ripple effects with which the establishment was not going to experiment. It wanted more integration, not less, but it is clear that in this case, this diminished sovereignty led to a reduction in freedom for the Greek people.

What happened with Greece happened similarly in Italy a year later- when an EU-aligned technocrat, Mario Monti, became prime minister with a threadbare mandate and installed a fully unelected technocrat government to implement austerity.

There were referenda in which the plans for deeper alignment and/or integration with the EU were rejected, as by the Dutch in 2005 and Irish in 2008; so, the results of rejection were duly rejected. Ballots were held again at times guaranteed to produce lower turnout and the “positive” outcome of “more Europe.”

Also in Italy, the EU put its hand on the scale to encourage the scuttling of a populist, nationalist, conservative political party leader, Matteo Salvini. Salvini was a thorn in the side of the Euro-centric Brussels establishment over issues including borders, unfettered migration, and the sovereign decision-making capacity of his country.


The UK, having been one of the great, and earliest proponents of codified rule of law, geographically apart from the continent, led the charge demanding return of its sovereignty. The Brexit movement had germinated for years and by 2016, the Brits decided they’d had enough and called the referendum.

There were so many issues on which the Brits felt they were getting the short end of the stick: balance of payments and basic economic cost vs. benefit; fishing rights to their ancestral waters; regulations on the electrical output of their tea kettles and toasters, and even discussion of outright bans; migration quotas and mandates; and a litany of protectionist policies foisted on them by “the continentals.” The Brits wanted out. Or at a minimum, they wanted to see if their countrymen also wanted out. When they voted, the people spoke in favor of exiting the federation.

Eurocrats slow-walked attempted points of agreement for exit, ignored entreaties from democratically elected representatives, levied a punitive separation fine, and threats of spiteful treatment with regard to trade with British industry. 

Believing the Bureaucrats

If one believes in the state and governmental bodies with a fervor that is bordering on religious, the EU can do no wrong. Establishment leftist and technocratic states believe they are the answer to what ails society, even after sovereignty is visibly shredded and broken.

But I believe there is a silent majority in every educated and developed society that instinctively knows when its freedom is being taken away. It is easy to see it and feel it when it happens by force—such as the Sovietization of Central Europe after Yalta. It is a lot tougher to feel it when you are a frog in a pot and the water starts to boil. But 60-plus years of rising water temperatures have opened a lot of eyes.

In Central Europe, nations that exited the Iron Curtain remember what decades of lost sovereignty was like. It was a direct experience still current in their collective memories. This is true especially of Central Europe’s economic anchor, Poland, and its oppositional (to the EU) political anchor, Hungary. They see EU diktats—most notably immigrant quotas and the insertion of oft-hostile Third World unassimilable economic migrants steeped in an Islamism that doesn’t mesh with their Catholicism—tantamount to fiat law. There have EU sanctions and censures to strip them of voting rights for doing what their people elected them to do—i.e.,  reform corrupt post-communist systems such as the judiciary in Poland. And foreign activist money and public battles over NGOs pushing hard-left ideals undermine conservative societies in the political debate. 

These are basically politically pro-Israel countries – primarily Hungary and Poland – standing with Israel in international institutions, including the UN, and against BDS (the anti-Israel boycott, divest and sanctions movement), an antithetical stance to that of the culturally relativist EU establishment. Ironically, THEY are the ones often labeled antisemitic. The weaponization of identity politics does not endear conservative and politically right-of-center societies to the EU.

The breakdown of freedom that has been the derivative effect of the breakdown of sovereignty has led to many of the same mental calisthenics Burke warned of this in his French revolution analysis. To achieve ultimate “Egalite” and “Fraternite,” “Liberte” must be hindered, and subdued, and even suborned. In this, the rights of the individual are made subservient to the state, or superstate. When one cannot express the honest truth for fear of legal retribution, whether it be hate-speech laws, or free press muzzles such as what happens with failed migrant and refugee assimilation and over the top Third-World ghettoization, the trust in the federation plummets.

Science, Discovery, Rationalism

European values for centuries were oriented around science, discovery and rational thought. They are the reasons Europe flourished as a competitive group of nation states. It was not mentally obtuse double standards that led to societal success. When a patriotic march was held on Poland’s annual mid-November independence day, Poles waved the Polish flag. The European political establishment called them “fascist nationalist” and “an affront to human rights.” But not a word was uttered in 2018 when French President Emmanuel Macron turned the hoses on unarmed “yellow vest” protestors, the working-class masses who took to the streets to express economic dissatisfaction with a government ignoring their wellbeing as citizens.

Recovering Westphalia

All of these are the effects. The cause has been the disintegration of the Westphalian sovereign order in favor of supranational governance. But as with alcoholism and the 12-step program, admitting you have a problem is the first step. Where does that leave us? Not in a bad place. The integration pendulum has swung too far. And now there is a rise in the populist, nationalist anti-globalist, conservative, right-wing, Westphalian(!), patriotic cohort across Europe.

Central Europe led the way, not surprisingly given its experience with broken sovereignty and fiat rule foisted by far off mandarins, such as was their experience under the Soviet communist regime. Victor Orban of Hungary is vocal about sovereignty, borders, and culture – with the Hungarian people firmly behind him.

Poland, under the Law and Justice Party, is not Eurosceptic per se as it does believe in integration more than many these days, but strong on retaining sovereignty and protecting the country from leftist technocratic overreach. From Germany to the Netherlands to France to Sweden, changes are coming. Yes, there are ebbs and flows, but the trends are in favor of a slowing and even a cessation of devolution of sovereignty to the supranational governance beast.

There are green shoots of growth that should engender optimism.

A few proffered quotes from a speech by a global leader speaking at the pinnacle of globalist conclaves should catalyze further hope for a world in which competitive sovereignties put their best foot forward and bring forth their comparative advantages in honest mutually beneficial collaboration, bilaterally or multilaterally, of their own volition, and with no coercion.

Our time is one of great contests, high stakes, and clear choices. The essential divide that runs around the world, and throughout history, is once again thrown into stark relief. It is the divide between those whose thirst for control deludes them into thinking that they are destined to rule over others and those people and nations who want only to rule themselves.

The free world must embrace its national foundations… If you want freedom, take pride in your country. If you want democracy, hold on to your sovereignty. And if you want peace, love your nation. Wise leaders always put the good of their own people and their own country first. The future does not belong to globalists, the future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors, and honor the differences that make each country special and unique.

Patriots see a nation and its destiny in ways no one else can. Liberty is only preserved, sovereignty is only secured, democracy is only sustained, greatness is only realized, by the will and devotion of patriots.

The speaker? Donald Trump.

The venue? The floor of the UN General Assembly.

An uplifting moment for the Westphalian order.

Matthew Tyrmand is a Polish Jewish American conservative political analyst and journalist who has extensively covered right-of-center nationalist sovereignty movements across Europe and Latin America. He splits time between the USA and Poland.