Supranational Subordination Versus Intergovernmental Co-operation

Supranational literally means “above the nation”. There are almost no international institutions that operate on the supranational model. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, there is one.

There are legitimate criticisms that can be levelled at the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), but to mention these intergovernmental organisations in the same breath as the European Union (EU) is deeply misleading. Intergovernmental co-operation is the foundation upon which much of what we call “globalisation” is built. Your ability to post a letter in England to an address in Australia, in the expectation that both the package and its contents will arrive intact, untampered with and within a reasonable time frame, depends upon a series of agreements brokered between national governments as far back as the 19th century. Today, the Universal Postal Union (UPU) is responsible for managing the standards that the member governments agree.

Wikipedia provides the following précis of the organisation’s activities:

Standards are important prerequisites for effective postal operations and for interconnecting the global network. The UPU’s Standards Board develops and maintains a growing number of international standards to improve the exchange of postal-related information between postal operators. It also promotes the compatibility of UPU and international postal initiatives. The organization works closely with postal handling organizations, customers, suppliers and other partners, including various international organizations.

This remarkable feat was accomplished without a single supranational institution to supervise, corral or otherwise override the member governments. The standards that make the international postal delivery service function efficiently, to the extent that we take it completely for granted—and are rightly discontented when the service fails to fulfil the standards for excellence that we routinely expect—all emerged from institutions founded on the intergovernmental model.

By comparison, in practically every area of policy-making and regulatory supervision—previously the sole preserve of nation-state democracies—in which the EU’s supranational institutions are granted responsibility, these assumptions are reversed. We expect the EU to be wasteful, inefficient and incompetent and are surprised when anything with which the EU is associated works with even a modicum of efficiency and/or competency. The wholly inadequate response of the EU institutions to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean and now Eastern Europe, which was partially created by the EU’s reckless asylum policy, is a case in point. The ecological disaster that the Common Fisheries Policy has created in the North Sea. The rape of living marine resources that EU policy facilitates in developing countries, especially in Africa. The wholesale dumping of cheap agricultural goods on developing markets and the Common External Tariff, which prevents African farmers from competing in highly subsidised EU markets.

The list goes on and on and on and on. Meanwhile, the benefits of intergovernmental co-operation and trade in goods, services and ideas continues to benefit us all.

So, what is it that distinguishes the supranational EU from the intergovernmental UPU?… I joke, but it is not as if the UPU is an isolated example. There are hundreds of similarly constituted bodies, most of them unheard of outside of their industry-specific niche. Vehicle regulations are governed by the WP.29. Global food safety standards are governed by the Codex Alimentarius committee. The International Telecommunications Union governs world standards in the telecoms field.

These international institutions, and others, quietly, without any of the political torpor that is part and parcel of the supranational EU, manage the technical standards which allow us to, once again, take it completely for granted that a set of AA batteries manufactured in Japan will fit a smoke alarm manufactured in Germany. These intergovernmental bodies are where Britain, the fifth largest economy on the planet, could and should be playing a major role, rather than accepting, as our politicians say that we must, that we should remain inside the EU because 1/8th of a say in the Council of Ministers is good enough.

4 thoughts on “Supranational Subordination Versus Intergovernmental Co-operation

  1. Excellent analytical piece.

    Just on a point of information: do you not mean 1/28 rather than 1/8 in your final sentence?


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