The pandemic reveals a lot about sovereign power and how it is contested

Sovereignty is typically perceived to lie with those who can provide protection. Ruairidh Brown considers how the pandemic has tested and challenged the supra-national, national and sub-national levels in terms of the exercise of sovereign power. What might be the implications of these developments in the future?

The protection-obedience principle

During the War of the Three Kingdoms, Thomas Hobbes sought to educate his fellow citizens as to where their loyalty should lie.

His answer: the secular State.

Why? Because it was the only power that could guarantee citizens' protection from a premature violent death.

Through this answer Hobbes established the protection-obedience principle. It's a principle which has remained at the heart of western thinking on sovereignty ever since. This principle determined that citizens have a duty to obey political authority so long as this authority provides protection in return.

Writing in the 20th century, Carl Schmitt remarked that the ability to provide protection is the foundation of political legitimacy as much as the ability to think is the foundation of individual consciousness:

The protego ergo obligo is the cogito ergo sum of the State

carl schmitt, the concept of the political, 1932

Schmitt further maintained that this ability to protect was especially tested during emergency situations. At such times, citizens would look to the State to save them from an existential threat.

A State should act decisively to protect its people’s ‘way of life’ in a crisis. By so doing, it would demonstrate its sovereign power, and secure the loyalty of the population.

If it failed, citizens would switch their allegiance to an alternative power that could provide them with protection.

Subsequently Schmitt attested: ‘sovereign is he who decides upon the exception’.

Political bodies have scrambled over the last two years to protect people from the existential threat of Covid-19. It is therefore timely to consider what the pandemic has revealed to us about sovereignty in our contemporary era.

European States and the EU

At the outbreak of the pandemic, States took the leading role in providing protection for their citizens.

In Europe especially, despite criticism from the European Union, many member States acted independently in declaring emergency situations.

The Czech Republic, for instance, took the initiative in March 2020. The country declared a state of emergency, claiming it was the State’s responsibility to protect its citizens.

As the pandemic unfolded, the EU did nonetheless demonstrate some ability to coordinate European responses and lead protection of its citizens.

The most significant of such initiatives was the EU Covid passport. This pass sought to re-establish freedom of movement across Europe while, crucially, giving a united European approach to pandemic management.

The spread of the Omicron variant in December 2021 has, however, put strain on this coordinated European approach.

Italy soon broke ranks, imposing mandatory negative tests for all incoming EU travellers in December; a move that has been criticised by the EU and accused of undermining the EU Covid pass.

Finland has since frozen the use of the Covid passport and reintroduced its own border controls.

Stricter entry requirements for ‘virus variant areas’ in Austria have, meanwhile, resulted in a quasi-ban on Danish and Dutch travellers.

In the wake of the Omicron crisis, European unity has faltered. Individual States have again demonstrated the willingness and ability to decide for themselves how best to protect their citizens. By so doing, they have revealed their sovereign power.

Devolved nations

The pandemic has also revealed interesting aspects of the exercise of sovereignty at sub-State level.

Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have all imposed tighter virus control measures than implemented by the British government in Westminster, in moves ‘out of step’ with the UK response.

In December 2020, the Scottish Government even enacted a strict travel ban between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Given Schmitt's claim that ‘sovereign is he who decides upon the exception’, we could argue that, by enacting their own prevention measures, devolved nations have been exercising sovereign power.

The logic of the protection-obedience principle would also suggest that, if these devolved governments can provide better protection than the centralised State, citizen loyalty will also migrate from London to national capitals.

In both Scotland and Wales, support for independence has only grown during the pandemic. In December 2021, support for Scottish independence polled at 55%.

The future of sovereignty

The pandemic has shown the enduring power of States to decide the exceptional measures required to protect their citizens.

This has been acutely clear in Europe, where the EU has struggled to maintain a unified response. Individual member States have continually exercised their sovereign power to decide for themselves how best to protect their citizens.

The pandemic has illuminated the sovereign power of the State vis-à-vis international institutions. But it has also shown the risks to State authority if it fails to exercise such powers effectively.

The pandemic has shown the risks to State authority if it fails to exercise sovereign powers effectively

Here, however, the challenge to State authority has not come at the international level, but rather, the sub-State level.

This is evident in the UK, where devolved national governments have continually taken the initiative in deciding what measures are most appropriate to keep their citizens safe.

A united UK response to the coronacrisis has proved just as elusive, if not more so, than a united EU approach.

The greatest future challenge to State sovereignty thus may not be from international organisations. Rather, it may come from devolved nations and regions, especially when the latter are given a window of opportunity to provide better and more effective protection from emergency threats.

In the future, therefore, sovereign power may be likely to migrate, not upwards towards supernational institutions, but downwards towards regional powers and/or smaller breakaway States.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Ruairidh Brown
Ruairidh Brown
Head of Politics and International Relations, Forward College, Lisbon

Ruairidh currently teaches International Political Theory and International Relations at Forward’s Lisbon Campus.

Before teaching at Forward, Ruairidh taught International Studies in mainland China, where he received the University of Nottingham’s Lord Dearing Award for outstanding contributions to teaching and learning in 2019.

He received his PhD from the University of St Andrews in 2017.

Ruairidh has researched and published on such topics as hermeneutics, political obligation, and the philosophy of friendship.

Political Encounters: A Hermeneutic Inquiry Into the Situation of Political Obligation
Springer, 2019

Covid-19 and International Political Theory by Ruairidh Brown

COVID-19 and International Political Theory: Assessing the Potential for Normative Shift
Springer, 2022

Read more articles by this author

Share Article

Republish Article

We believe in the free flow of information Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Loop

Cutting-edge analysis showcasing the work of the political science discipline at its best.
Read more
Advancing Political Science
© 2024 European Consortium for Political Research. The ECPR is a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) number 1167403 ECPR, Harbour House, 6-8 Hythe Quay, Colchester, CO2 8JF, United Kingdom.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram