Plenary chamber during session week 09 2014 in Strasbourg

If the Commission Juncker is to deserve a place in history, it may well be because of its efforts to democratize the EU. At the start of its term in 2014, the Commission Juncker included ‘democratic change’ in its ten policy priorities and towards the end of its time in office it has submitted a Roadmap for a more united, stronger and more democratic Union. The roadmap must lead to a meeting of the European Council in 2019 in the Romanian city of Sibiu and citizens are invited to participate in the debate via #EURoad2Sibiu.

Despite its good intentions, however, the Commission may have overlooked the theoretical objection that it is impossible for international organisations to function on a democratic footing. According to the prevailing theory of international relations, known as the Westphalian system, the concepts of democracy and the rule of law can only thrive within the borders of a sovereign state. This approach, which underlies the organisation of the United Nations, also holds that international organisations are governed by the rules of diplomacy rather than democracy. The dominance of this system in world affairs is proven by the fact that the EU is not and cannot become a member of the United Nations.

During the Brexit campaign the opponents of continuation of British membership have skilfully exploited this theoretical loophole. They accused the European Union of being anti-democratic, while they did not want the EU to be democratic in the first place! The weight of their anti-European argument has been increased by the support they are receiving from the American president Trump and the Breitbart-connection. The lesson, which the EU should learn from this development, is that it cannot simply proclaim European democracy and proceed to the next item on the agenda. Instead, the EU has to devise a theory, capable of laying the conceptual foundations for the functioning of the EU as a European democracy.

Traditionally, the federalists argue that European democracy is to come if and when the EU has evolved into a European state. At present, this vision is wishful thinking. In 1992, the Danish voters turned the Maastricht Treaty down out of fear that EU citizenship would replace their national status. They did not want their country to evaporate in a federal state. In 2005, the French and the Dutch electorate rejected the so-called Constitution for Europe for the same reason. Moreover, the EU Court of Justice has made undoubtedly clear in an opinion of 2014 that its very nature precludes the EU from being regarded as a federal state.

As other international organisations are not experiencing similar conceptual problems, the question may be asked in which respect the EU differs from, say, the African Union, the ASEAN, Mercosur, NAFTA or, indeed, the United Nations. The answer is evidently that the European Union is the only organisation of states, which is also composed of citizens. Although president Juncker has described the EU as simultaneously a Union of States and a Union of Citizens in his 2017 State of the Union, this concept is still in want of a political theory underpinning the new reality. So, the Roadmap for a more united, stronger and more democratic Union and the public discussions in the framework of the EURoad2Sibiu offer an exquisite opportunity to develop and debate a philosophical foundation for the EU as a Union of States and Citizens.

The Theory of Democratic Integration, which the present author is developing with the view to fill the gap, accounts for the dual character of the EU as both a Union of states and of citizens.[i] As the functioning of the EU can no longer be satisfactorily explained from the perspective of states, an effort should be made to shed fresh light on the debate from the angle of citizens. Thus, the new theory substitutes the civic perspective of democracy and human rights for the outdated, Westphalian template of states. From the new perspective, it seems obvious that democratic citizens cannot be asked to give up or limit the enjoyment of their civil rights and liberties for the sake of European integration. In their view, it should be the other way around. They argue that, if two or more democratic states agree to share the exercise of sovereignty in a number of fields with the view to attain common goals, the organisation they establish for this purpose should be democratic too.

This paradigm shift enables the EU to overcome the deadlock in the debate about the future of the Union. The question is no longer whether the European Union should either become a federal state or form a confederal union of states, but how the EU can evolve towards a European democracy.

Looking to the EU through the eyes of the citizens reveals that there are already a number of democratic structures in place. According to the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into effect on 1 December 2009, EU citizens have the right to participate in the democratic life of the Union. They notably enjoy the right to vote and to stand as a candidate at the elections for the European Parliament. From a citizens’ viewpoint, the EU may therefore be described in its present form as ‘a Union of states and citizens, in which the citizens are entitled to participate both in the national democracy of their countries and in the common democracy of the Union.’

Obviously, the democratic credentials of the EU are less convincing in a number of other respects. Leaving aside the position of the European Council, it should be underlined that the relation between the European Parliament and the Commission needs democratic review. Moreover, the EP should urgently adapt the rules for the election of its members to the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty. A number of the present shortcomings reveal that the evolution of the EU from an organisation of democratic states to a transnational democracy requires patience and perseverance. The Theory of Democratic Integration may be helpful in this respect as it offers a model for democratic transnational governance, which may provide guidance to the EU in its endeavour to become a European democracy.

[i] Jaap Hoeksma, The Theory of Democratic Integration, Oisterwijk 2018.

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