Is the EU the world's first supranational political union?

  • 6
    The USSR comes to mind. Or the United States of America, which was formed as a supranational political union. Or the Hanseatic league.
    – MCW
    Jun 8, 2016 at 8:36
  • 3
    @BenAston, at it's origin, it was a federated union between different states. And, in many ways, it still is. Jun 8, 2016 at 9:42
  • 3
    @AdrianTodorov is correct. I forgot to mention the HRE, Great Britain (personal union and legislative union), Belgium, the Dutch Republics, Belgium, NATO, the British Empire, the Commonwealth of Nations, multiple examples in the current middle east, multiple examples in the thirty years war, the Delian League, etc. I'm not an Asiatic scholar, so I can't cite any examples. In short there are myriad examples of supranational unions, even before we begin to explore edge cases. Your hypothesis is an interesting one, but I think you'll have to narrow the set further before the EU is unique.
    – MCW
    Jun 8, 2016 at 12:06
  • 3
    @MarkC.Wallace I'm not so sure about Belgium(it has become somewhat decentralized, but post-factum, after it was already a centralized unitary state for decades, and it is a multi-ethnic political union, but i wouldn't say supranational) and the British Empire(Great Britain, yes, certainly). And I'd also add Spain(the initial Spain under Carlos I/Charles V, and the later one, of Philip V). Jun 8, 2016 at 12:39
  • 1
    @MarkC.Wallace: I'd like to add the German Confederation (1815) -- Prussia, Austria, Bavaria, Saxony, Württemberg, ...
    – DevSolar
    Jun 8, 2016 at 13:51

5 Answers 5


Well, the phrase supranational came only into broader usage in the context of the EU. Apparently first written English usage in 1871.

Usually, it connotes a voluntary pooling of power/competence by sovereign nations. This is in contrast to political entities that came into being (at least in part) due to military conquest or where parts were pressured into joining. Also, supra-national requires the members to be nations.

Now of course you can argue about what is a nation and what is not, and what is conquest and what liberation. Depending on your definitions of those terms you get a different answer to your question.

But I think you could make a case that the EU is the first such union, for example:

  • in a western context, not all USSR member states are usually considered having joined voluntarily
  • annexation of Spanish territories and the American Civil War could question whether the USA was really formed by member states joining the union completely voluntarily
  • the Hanseatic city-states might not be considered nations
  • was the German Confederation forced upon the German states by the Congress of Vienna?
  • etc.

The United Nations and League of Nations, are usually referred to as international organisations not supranational unions because their powers are much more limited than the EU's, the United Nations are not named The Union of Nations after all. Its members are represented through their executive branches only, whereas the EU has been granted the competence to enact its own laws and has a parliament which is directly elected by the member nations' citizens (even if its powers are currently limited).

  • 1
    Although the word is new, I'd think it would be difficult to concoct a definition of the term that didn't apply retroactively to entities like the UN and the League of Nations.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 8, 2016 at 15:48
  • @T.E.D. good point, I added a paragraph about the U.N.
    – mb21
    Jun 8, 2016 at 16:14

I guess the definitions of all these terms are highly opinion based. Throughout history there always were loose federations of tribes (which arguably doesn't fit because they were not meant to last and/or were usually ruled by one of the tribes).

The Holy Roman Empire was probably the first thing that meets your criteria.

One thing that history shows us though is that such loose political unions never last, either because they split or because they become more and more centralized.

edit: After reading some comments and answers: My initial understanding was that in order to be "supernational" it needs to be decentralized, which doesn't seem to be the case.

  • 1
    So is there anything unprecedented in the nature of the EU?
    – 52d6c6af
    Jun 8, 2016 at 10:44
  • 3
    I fear not, another thing history shows is that we keep on making the same mistakes :) My opinion is that the EU will take the same path to centralization, but it would not last, because the current structure is not built for that. Jun 8, 2016 at 10:48
  • 4
    In the long run, nothing lasts save Entropy itself. The HRE lasted for about 1,000 years. By governmental standards, that's a damn long time.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 8, 2016 at 15:51
  • 1
    One thing that history shows us though is that such loose political unions never last Any kind of statistics about this? Or is this just an opinion and a way of criticizing the EU (you're basically saying that the EU is a mistake in your comment)?
    – user14610
    Jun 8, 2016 at 16:29
  • 1
    @NajibIdrissi: HRE, USA, Germany, Persia, Galatia, those are the states I can think of that started relatively decentralized and became more and more centralized. I'd like to think that we changed and that the EU will be different and does everything right, but I think the chances are pretty high that we just repeat our old mistakes. This is opinion of course, but I don't think it will last long, though I don't think it is a mistake at the moment. Jun 9, 2016 at 6:36

I think you can go back farther in the history. For example the Roman Republic created something like a supranational political union since it created a system constisting of foedus and socii, in which different cultures and cities got under the reign of Rome by bilateral contracts.

  • I'm not sure if that fits, because Rome was always the ruling power. Comparing it to the HRE, which never had a fixed capital or the EU, which has one, but Belgium is not the sole ruler. Jun 8, 2016 at 11:55
  • I think it fits quite well: Rome did not control a foedus directly, but rather let it have its own administration, coinage, law and religion. The bilateral contract was superior to the law and actions of the foedus - granting Rome pretty much influence on its associates. Nevertheless, the whole framework could be seen as a supranational political union. Jun 8, 2016 at 12:20
  • 1
    Just because there is a central controlling power, it doesn't mean it is not supranational.
    – Greg
    Jun 8, 2016 at 13:16
  • And indeed, there is a central controlling power for the EU... The fact that most institutions are physically located in Belgium is completely irrelevant, for that matter. It would be like thinking that the city of Washington DC itself rules over the USA, which is absurd.
    – user14610
    Jun 8, 2016 at 16:22

Since the notion of nation-states is rather new, I would say that there are many candidates for this title from ancient times.


The very idea that a state has to be "national" is quite recent. So this question has no sense. In the beginning on 19th century the Sultan of the Ottoman empire was told that in Europe there are states where everyone speaks the same language and has the same religion. He laughed.

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