What Does Supranational Mean?

A supranational organization is a multinational union or association in which member countries cede authority and sovereignty on at least some internal matters to the group, whose decisions are binding on its members. In short, member states share in decision making on matters that will affect each country's citizens.

The EU, United Nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO) are all supranational groups, to one degree or another. In the EU, each member votes on policies that will affect each other member nation.

Such supranational organizations are seen by many as a better way to govern the affairs of nations, with an eye to preventing conflict and promoting cooperation, particularly on economic and military matters. Some critics, particularly those with nationalist tendencies, resent following internationally agreed rules and charge that adhering to the decisions of supranational organizations amounts to surrendering the sovereignty of member states and their people.

Key Takeaways

  • A supranational organization offers a way to set international rules governing the affairs of nations, with an eye to preventing conflicts.
  • Countries that are members of supranational organizations such as the EU and World Trade Organization agree to cede sovereignty on some issues to the group.
  • Supranational organizations often give member states greater collective influence in global affairs.
  • The citizens of countries belonging to supranational organizations sometimes complain of "interference" in local affairs.

Shifting Toward a Supranational Approach

The creation of supranational groups marked an evolution of — or a break from, depending on your point of view — the Westphalian system in which nation-states were sovereign and answered to no one—whether in domestic affairs or international affairs, except in the case of violence or treaties.

Supranational thinking gained in prominence in the wake of the two world wars in the first half of the 20th century. To avoid more tragic, costly wars, nations were increasingly willing to cede sovereignty on some issues—usually related to trade and business—to a vote of the members of a supranational organization.

The EU, the closest thing to a truly supranational union the world has ever seen, was created in the 1950s to prevent neighboring countries from going to war. Its first iteration was the European Coal and Steel Community.

The European Union

The best example of a supranational entity—and the closest thing to a true supranational union the world has ever seen—is the EU. In the Europe Declaration of 1951, the founders of the first iteration of the EU—the European Coal and Steel Community—claimed to be creating the "first supranational institution" and thus "laying the true foundation of an organized Europe."

Following World War II, Albert Einstein even advocated for a supranational organization that would control military forces. Einstein suggested the organization include the U.S., Soviet Union, and Great Britain but such an organization was never formed.

The EU has evolved dramatically in the seven decades since the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community but its growth hasn't come without pain. A populist backlash over economic insecurity and globalization led people of Great Britain to take the unprecedented step of voting to leave the EU in 2016.