The Port of Rotterdam, Public Domain,

Whilst I write, there is much to do about (British) sovereignty, and well in planning, too. For instance, in the 1990, the Dutch national planning director thought  it unthinkable for ‘Brussels’ to have say over the extension of the Port of Rotterdam. Of ‘territorial trap’ fame (for the first mention see: Agnew 1994) Agnew (2020, 44) shows sovereignty to be ambiguous as a concept. Thus, the ‘…world political map with its neatly coloured blocs of sovereign space is taken to define the world as it is’, but this ignores cross-cutting functional ‘regimes’, like EMU and Schengen. The planning director for instance failed to say that the Dutch decision was impacting upon relations with the European hinterland –  and vice versa! So what is the hype about sovereignty about? As Agnew (2020. 46) points out: ’Most of the world’s self-declared states today have international legal sovereignty but cannot readily resist the intervention of external powers or authorities, or exercise much by way of effective domestic sovereignty. In practice, deviations from the rules of absolute state sovereignty are almost the norm.‘ And ‘…we are all increasingly aware of emergent threats and challenges, from climate change to human rights, that cannot simply be addressed at the scale of the state.’ (Agnew 2020, 49) To which Agnew adds: ’Regimes, both democratic and non-democratic, suffer from difficulties in dealing with such issues because of time horizons involving elections or dynastic succession, questions of responsibility (or not) to mass publics who may be massively ill-informed, and the low salience of many so-called global issues … Increasingly, the best approach may be to examine issues in terms of logics of spatial integration and disintegration rather than in terms of fixed territories … One size does not fit all… . The memory of ‘total control’ associated with contemporary sovereignism … is simply a false one…’. 

Depending on what is within the state‘s gift to control, it is therefore useful to think about different ‘sovereignty regimes. Agnew identifies four such, including an ‘integrative’ one like in the EU where (echoing Jacque Delors having described the EU as an ‘unidentified political object’ ‘… many of the founding states … have thrown in their lot with one another to create a larger and, as yet, politically unclassifiable entity that challenges existing state sovereignty in functionally complex and often non-territorial ways.’ (Agnew 2020, 51)

Why ignore all this? Why did the planning director not consider the impact of the Port of Rotterdam on its European hinterland and vice versa its dependence on markets upstream? To this day, the connection in Germany of a dedicated freight line from the port remains poor and will remain so until at least 2026.** The Federal Republic may have been more keen to  promote Hamburg rather than improve position of Rotterdam. The extension of its port was perhaps not, after all a simply sovereign issue!

Agnew (2020, 58) in any case enforces his warning against falling into ‘…the “territorial trap” of thinking about the world entirely in terms of primordial territorial states without attending to the complexities of the regimes of sovereignty that prevail in given historical periods in different parts of the world.‘ But the blame is not only on the ‘sovereignists’ – French for defenders of national sovereignty. ‘Globalists’, too, come in for criticism for deriding ‘…the concerns of the discontented peasants … It is precisely this either/or view of sovereignty with a world once divided up into secure units … that I have challenged… Even as we … think beyond the state, we must also attend to the fact that states … are still with us for good or ill and whether we like it or not.’ (Agnew 2020, 59)



*The quote is from Agnew (2020) page 59.




Agnew, J. (1994) ‘The territorial trap: The geographical assumptions of international relations theory, Review of International Political Economy, 1(1), 53-80.

Agnew, J. (2020) ‘The contingency of sovereignty’, in: Storey, D. (Ed) Edgar Elgar, Cheltenham, 43-60


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