This paper argues that the current COVID-19 pandemic reveals and in a sense crystallizes a series of long-standing tensions about sovereignty that have become increasingly salient in the advanced capitalist democracies of the European Union. The spread of the pandemic led first to the activation of a conflict between a ‘sovereigntist reflex’ privileging the expression of national capacities and national self-reliance and a more ‘perforated’ understanding of sovereignty stressing the interdependence of peoples and states, both geographically and institutionally.
As the response to COVID itself became more politicized we see the emergence of a second tension, between a libertarian ‘reflex’ supporting a residual state protecting liberties and facilitating individual choice and a sovereign-statist ‘instinct’, calling for an empowered guardian of the public good capable of ensuring collective security. A third tension relates to the seemingly growing opposition between a conception of sovereignty founded (and contingent) upon the will of the people and one in which the sovereign is, simultaneously, the discerner, defender and ultimate guarantor of the public good. After having mapped out these interwoven tensions and their main fault lines in general terms, the paper proceeds comparatively, tracking and tracing their (differential and specific) presence in governmental responses in two advanced capitalist democracies, France and Britain.
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