A democratic European Union

Against all odds, the Conference on the Future of Europe has shown that it is quite possible for the EU to function as a European democracy of states and citizens, writes Jaap Hoeksma. In the process the European Union has overcome its long-standing stalemate in the debate about the end goal of the Union.

The EU has neither become a federal state nor a confederal association of states. The hallmark of the EU lies in its construction as a union of democratic states which also constitutes a democracy of its own. This development refutes the argument of those politicians who wanted the UK to leave the EU because of its alleged undemocratic character.

Dual Democracy

The problem of the end goal of the EU has been excellently addressed in the Report on European Democracy, which a High Level Group under the chairmanship of Herman van Rompuy has published as a contribution of the Committee of the Regions to the Conference on the Future of Europe.

The report clarifies the new and innovative concept of ‘dual democracy’ by demonstrating that there is not only democracy in Europe but also democracy of Europe. The treaties put beyond doubt that EU member states must comply with stringent demands of democracy and the rule of law. Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty contains the criteria for admission of new member states and the EU Court of Justice accentuated in its recent verdict on the conditionality mechanism that they must continue to live up to the standards after accession. In this way the Lisbon Treaty guarantees democracy in Europe.

In addition, the Lisbon Treaty introduces detailed provisions on the democratic principles of the EU proper. In its verdicts of 19 December 2019 the ECJ established that the EU has acquired an autonomous democracy, which must be respected by the member states. So, there is also democracy of Europe!

The Van Rompuy report concludes that the concept of European democracy entails a system of national democracies at the level of the member states and transnational democracy at the level of the Union.

Academic dogmatism

Once formulated, the findings of the Van Rompuy Report appear to be crystal clear! The reason why this analysis has not been presented earlier is that the present construction of the EU was thought to be impossible.

Traditional theorists argue that the concepts of democracy and the rule of law can only thrive within the borders of a sovereign state. While their academic approach may be in line with the paradigm underlying the UN-system of global governance, they overlook the distinctive qualities of the EU as a democratic union of democratic states. Hence, they continue to proclaim with unrestrained academic dogmatism that the EU cannot exist in its present form and that it should either become a federal state in analogy of the USA or settle for a confederal association of states.

In limbo

As the EU relies upon its academic community for guidance and inspiration, the Union is still in limbo about its own identity. This regrettable state of affairs was epitomised in October 2021 by the outgoing Chancellor Merkel, who openly raised the question after her last Council meeting ‘what we are: an association of states or an ever closer union’?

A similar uncertainty is displayed by the European Commission. On the one hand, the Von der Leyen Commission wants ‘to give a new impetus to European democracy’ and to defend the European democracies (in the plural!) against disinformation and foreign interference, but at the same time it continues to present the EU as ‘a unique economic and political union between 27 European countries’. Obviously, the EU cannot present itself as a union of states and pretend to be a dual democracy.

The EU’s democratic identity

By their very participation in the Conference on the Future of Europe the citizens have proven the academic pundits and wavering politicians wrong! They have demonstrated in practice and for all the world to see that it is entirely feasible for the EU to function as a European democracy without forming a sovereign state. So, the EU should reply to this citizens’ present by committing itself unreservedly to its identity as a dual democracy.

Moreover, the final report of the Conference on the Future of Europe highlights that the EU can enrich its system of transnational representative democracy with instituted elements of participatory and deliberative democracy. The first step, which the EU can take to express its gratitude to the citizens, is by replacing its current presentation with the self-assertive sentence:

The EU is a union of states and citizens, which works as a European democracy.

This formulation may be perceived by British democrats as an assurance that the alleged democratic deficit of the EU has been addressed. Instead of undermining the constitutional democracies of the member states the EU proves to strengthen and innovate them.

First published by the Federal Trust. Jaap Hoeksma, Philosopher of Law, is the author of “The European Union: A democratic Union of democratic States”