If anything good comes from Brexit, it may well be that the bold Brexiteers have contributed inadvertently to the solution of one of the longest-standing conceptual problems of the EU, namely the conundrum concerning the nature and the purpose of the European Union. The riddle has been paralysing political thought about the EU and its predecessors for decades. Generations of theorists have argued that the EU should either become a federal state or take the shape of a confederal organisation of states. As it is obvious that today’s Union has neither assumed the form of a state nor that of an organisation of states, the conundrum appears to be perfectly insolvable.

The main reasons why the EU is not a state is that sovereignty remains with the member-states. The EU lacks the authority to raise taxes and has no ‘deep pockets’. Moreover, the Union does not possess the competence to define its own competences. The member states are the ‘masters of the treaties’. At the same time, the EU cannot be regarded as an organisation of states, since the Union is also composed of citizens and has a directly elected parliament as well as an autonomous legal order and a single currency. Finally, the EU is based on values rather than on the pursuit of interests.

The last thread of doubt concerning the question, whether the EU may be viewed as a ‘federation of free states’, has been removed by the Brexiteers and their followers. Their main argument to leave the EU was precisely that the EU constitutes more than an organisation of states. They would have been happy to remain if the purpose of the Union had been to facilitate the free trade among sovereign nations. Consequently, the EU can definitely not be regarded as an organisation of states. A few years earlier, the EU Court of Justice had made it similarly clear in an Opinion of December 2014 that ‘the EU is by its very nature precluded from being considered a state’.[1] Correspondingly, the EU cannot be admitted as a member of the United Nations. It has received special status instead.

Caught between the wrath of the Brexiteers and the judgment of the Court the EU seems destined to linger as the Unidentified Political Object, which Jacques Delors observed in the previous century.[2] The spell of the conundrum can be broken, however, by applying the ancient academic principle that, if a paradigm is no longer capable of explaining reality, it should be replaced. (Read also Revolutionary Breakthrough in EU Research)

It is often harder to realise that a new model of thinking is required in order to solve an inextricable problem than to actually find one. As the EU is composed of both states and citizens, it should be tried to replace the traditional or ‘Westphalian’ paradigm of states with the civic perspective of democracy and human rights. On implementation of this experiment it appears to be self-evident that, if two or more democratic states agree to share the exercise of sovereignty in a number of fields with a view to attain common goals, the organisation they establish for this should be democratic too. There is, after all, no purpose in governing a union of democratic states in an undemocratic manner.[3] (Read also Theory of Democratic Integration as Philosophical Foundation for European Democracy)

Taking a fresh look at the EU from the civic perspective, it is undeniable that the Union has changed beyond recognition since its foundation by virtue of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Whereas EU citizenship was initially regarded as a pie in the sky, it has become the primary status of over 400 million citizens. While the Maastricht Treaty mentioned the word democracy only twice,[4] the EU is now based on democracy and the rule of law. Thirdly, the Rule of Law Framework has been introduced in order to help member states in continuing to respect the democratic principles and the rule of law on which the EU has been built. It confirms and seals the deviation of the EU from the Westphalian system of international relations as it allows for the supervision by the Union of the constitutional and democratic character of the member states. (Read also The Maastrichtian Model of Transnational Relations)

The conclusion that may be drawn at the end of this blog is that the problem, which seemed to be insolvable from the perspective of states, turns out to be simple and self-evident from the angle of the citizens. As a result of the evolution of the EU after its foundation in 1992 the stalemate in the debate about the nature and the end goal or finalité politique of the Union has been overcome at last. To put it differently: the notorious EU conundrum has finally been solved. The EU may now be described in plain and simple terms as a Union of States and Citizens, which aims to work as a European democracy.

[number of readers: 175]

Choix de bibliothécaire

A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection

[1] ECLI:EU:C:2014:2475

[2] Jaap Hoeksma, From Common Market to Common Democracy, Oisterwijk 2016

[3] This idea has been elaborated in: Jaap Hoeksma, The Theory of Democratic Integration, Oisterwijk 2018

[4] Notably in relation to the system of governance of its member states and to that of partners in development cooperation

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