Abbé Sieyès The immanent and transcendent nation

Olga Bashkina


Formally ratified in February 1831, the Belgian Constitution established parliamentary monarchy with bicameral representation. The drafters of the Constitution sought to connect its legitimacy not to traditional or religious foundations but to society itself, which was expressed in the formulation of article 33 (originally article 25): “All powers emanate from the Nation. They are exercised in the manner established by the Constitution”. The Constitution’s until recently uncontested interpretation postulates that the meaning of sovereignty engrained in the Constitution by definition excludes all forms of direct democracy in favour of a representative government. This interpretation operates with a strict separation of the principles of direct democracy and representation that is expressed in two contrasting conceptions of sovereignty - popular and national sovereignty, respectively.

It seems that the predominantly accepted national sovereignty paradigm prevents democratic innovation and development in Belgium. It has been suggested that it is necessary to part with this dated conception of national sovereignty (Geenens and Sottiaux, 2015). One way to approach the issue of sovereignty in Belgium is to do it via conceptual analysis and the history of concepts. Which ideas influenced the meaning that is attributed to sovereignty in Belgium today? Several influences are usually named, but the two most common reference points for the origins of the national sovereignty paradigm are Abbé Sieyès, a political theorist from the time of the French Revolution, and French constitutional scholar Raymond Carré de Malberg.

Should the national sovereignty paradigm be abandoned in Belgium? To answer this question, I suggest looking at how one of the major influences of this conception - Abbé Sieyès - treated the issue of sovereignty. How did he understand the idea of national self-government through representation? Did he use the concept of sovereignty? Which conceptual problems did he encounter in theorising the idea of the free nation? Addressing these questions can shed new light on how to understand the idea of national sovereignty in Belgium. In what follows, I argue that Sieyès developed not one but two theoretical paradigms

through which to understand the free nation. Although he did not favour the concept of sovereignty as such, he developed influential insights that were later connected with the modern understanding of sovereignty. My interpretation suggests that Sieyès offered two major ideas that are both imprinted in the concept of sovereignty today. Yet, in the evolution of Sieyès’ thought, these two ideas are conflicting and do not find a productive synthesis. Extrapolating the observations from the analysis of Sieyès’ theory onto the Belgian context, at the end of this chapter, I conclude that in order to promote democratic development in Belgium, one does not need to reject the concept of national sovereignty. Instead, a more productive approach is the combination of popular and national sovereignty in one system.

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