Welcoming a New Model of Democracy

Guest blog by Jaap Hoeksma, Philosopher of Law, Director of Euroknow and Creator of the Boardgame Eurocracy.

The EU as a European Democracy

In the fields of political science and philosophy of public law theory tends not to predict but rather to follow reality. The protracted debate about the nature of the European Union (EU) may serve to illustrate this observation. The juridical discussion surrounding the process of European integration has been dominated from the start by the dilemma as to whether it would result in the emergence of a sovereign State of Europe or in the formation of a Europe of sovereign States. Many theorists claimed that no other option was available.

Seen from the perspective of democratic theory, this dilemma did not pose a major problem. If the member states of the EU were to merge into a federal state, the citizens of the new state would be bound through laws voted on by a bicameral parliament. Should the EU form a union of states, the member states would have to ensure democracy at home. The theoretical problem only arose after the conclusion of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, which came to replace the so-called Constitution for Europe after its rejection by the voters in the founding member states of France and The Netherlands.

The novelty of the Lisbon Treaty is that it construes the EU as a democracy without turning the Union into a state. This observation, which has been made earlier in previous blogs on this site, poses a phenomenal theoretical problem indeed. By decoupling the concepts of state and democracy, the EU has moved beyond the boundaries of the prevailing model, known as the Westphalian system of international relations. As a result of this unprecedented construction, the traditional template is no longer capable of explaining the functioning of the EU.

Substituting the governmental approach of diplomats for the civic perspective of democracy and the rule of law sheds fresh light on the way in which the EU works. The Lisbon Treaty stipulates that member states of the EU must uphold stringent criteria of democracy and the rule of law. For citizens the essence of democratic governance is that they are the authors of the laws, which they themselves have to obey. As the citizens of the member states are also citizens of the EU, this principle implies that EU citizens should be able to enjoy their rights both on the level of their country and on that of the Union. Capturing this axiom in philosophical terms, the theory of democratic integration suggests that, if two or more democratic states decide to share the exercise of sovereignty in a number of fields in order to attain common goals, the organisation they establish for this purposes should be democratic too. Seen from the citizens' perspective, the aim of the EU is neither to become a federal state nor to form a free trade zone, but rather to function as a European democracy.

Political theorists and philosophers of law have not been able to predict the way in which the EU would evolve. The theory of democratic integration has only been formulated after the Union had started to function as a transnational democracy. Obviously, the EU is a young democracy, which needs time to develop and mature. One of its present paradoxes is that it has a program for support of emerging democracies abroad, the European Endowment for Democracy, but that there are no incentives for improving the democratic character of the Union itself. This irony, however, should not distract from the fact that the EU is in the process of developing its own transnational model of European democracy. The International Democracy Day, which has been proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2007 and which is celebrated yearly on the 15th of September, may constitute a proper occasion for welcoming the efforts of the EU to develop a new model of governance by aspiring to function as a European democracy.

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