Dual democracy: the EU as a democratic union of democratic states

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Jaap Hoeksma
Jaap Hoeksma

Philosopher of law and author of the book 'The European Union: a democratic union of democratic states'

The Conference on the Future of Europe offers an excellent opportunity for citizens and member states to realise that the European Union has acquired a new international form with a distinct system of governance. The EU is neither a state nor a union of states but has evolved from an organisation of democratic states into a pan-European democracy. Having gradually transformed from a collection of sovereign nations, the hallmark of the EU is now its dual democracy. The EU is not merely a union of democratic states, but also functions as a democracy of its own.

The 1973 Declaration on European Identity described the so-called “European Communities” at the time as a union of democratic states. Since a union of democratic states cannot be governed in an undemocratic way, the Union had to obtain its own democratic legitimacy. The first direct elections for the European Parliament were held in 1979. The Treaty of Maastricht, concluded in 1992, not only established the European Union, but also introduced EU citizenship. Subsequently, the concept of democracy was included in the core values of the Union by virtue of the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, while the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU gave the citizens a full legal and political status in the framework of the Union. The 2007 Treaty of Lisbon finalised this development by constructing the EU as a democracy without turning the Union into a state.

A decade after the Lisbon treaty entered into force, the European Court of Justice established that the EU democracy has an autonomous character. While member states are obligated to ensure fair and free elections for the European Parliament, they must also refrain from actions which undermine the democracy of the Union. Seen in this light, pan-European democracy may be described as the system of governance for the EU as a union of democratic states, which also constitutes a democracy of its own.

As it runs contrary to Westphalian theories, which hold that sovereignty must be absolute, the EU is generally regarded as a theoretical anomaly

How the EU evolved from an organisation of sovereign states to a pan-European democracy can be explained through the theory of democratic integration. As it runs contrary to Westphalian theories, which hold that sovereignty must be absolute, the EU is generally regarded as a theoretical anomaly. The theory of democratic integration, however, posits that if two or more democratic states agree to share the exercise of sovereignty in a number of fields in order to attain common goals, the organisation they establish for this purpose should be democratic too.

The difference between the traditional theories on European integration and this new one is that, while the former try to explain the EU within the Westphalian paradigm of international relations, the latter describes the evolution of the EU as a deviation from the Westphalian system.

In this regard, the EU is unique, and it is due to this uniqueness that pan-European democracy is incongruent with other forms of governance. As the Westphalian paradigm is especially dominant in the field of international relations, it has been impossible so far to identify the place of the EU in the United Nations system of global governance. In contrast to other organisations of states, the EU has democratic credentials. Despite its democratic qualities, however, the EU is not a state. Since states and organisations of states are the only available options in the Westphalian system, the EU cannot be qualified as either of the two.

Over the decades, the determination to prevent war resulted in the emergence of a pan-European democracy

The theory of democratic integration offers a solution to this deadlock as it seeks to establish the EU as a new subject of international law, which can be identified as pan-European democracy. While the EU is the first of its kind, it may inspire other regional organisations with democratic aspirations to create their version of a democratic regional organisation too.

The initial deviation from the Westphalian paradigm in the process of European integration took place in the domain of coal and steel and sought to prevent the renewed outbreak of war by sharing sovereignty over the raw materials. Over the decades, the determination to prevent war resulted in the emergence of a pan-European democracy. In order to construct their transnational democracy, participating states had to agree on ambitious steps forward, which culminated in Article 2 of the Lisbon treaty. As guardian of the treaties, the European Commission is responsible for guaranteeing the respect of the values outlined. Through its enforcement, the EU does not interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, but acts by virtue of the European model of transnational governance, which has come to replace the Westphalian system in the functioning of the EU as a dual democracy.

The time has come for federalists and sovereigntists to bury the hatchet and to enable the EU to face the future as an unprecedented dual democracy.

So, from an evolutionary viewpoint, the task of the current Conference on the Future of Europe should be to devise the next stage in this process by creating a closer union among the peoples of Europe and to prepare the Union for the 21st century. The Conference can only accomplish this mission if it succeeds in overcoming the old theoretical divisions of the Union. The time has come for federalists and sovereigntists to bury the hatchet and to enable the EU to face the future as an unprecedented dual democracy.

In conclusion, the two most immediate challenges for the Conference are to prevent the recurrence of the 2019 electoral nightmare and to address the democratic backsliding in member states. These challenges can only be met if the EU gets its priorities right. The EU must underpin its functioning as a pan-European democracy with its own and distinct theory, and  must address its present shortcomings on the basis of a coherent strategy. It will only be possible for the EU to devise new forms of participatory, deliberative, and digital democracy if it has solidified the foundations of its pan-European democracy!

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