European identity at home and abroad


Picture of Jaap Hoeksma
Jaap Hoeksma

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

In her first State of the Union, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen vowed to trigger fundamental reforms through her ‘Next Generation EU’ package. Her appeal would have been more coherent and convincing had she also addressed the identity crisis, which has been impairing the EU since its early years. At 70, however, the EU has reached its constitutional destination as a democratic Union of democratic States. At the global level, the EU may, rightfully, present itself as the first-ever democratic regional organisation.

Next Generation EU should not only be about securing a Green Deal or the digital decade, but it should also serve to renew the concept of ‘European identity’. The story is there for the taking! After World War II, a small number of six Western European countries started pooling their sovereignty in order to guarantee peace.

Strengthened by the success of their experiment, they broadened their cooperation to the entire economy. By transferring sovereignty to the European Economic Community, they created an ‘autonomous legal order’. Two decades after the start of their common endeavour the – by then – nine participating states presented themselves to the outside world as a ‘Union of democratic States’.

While the member states agreed that they were determined to lay the foundations for an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe, they held different views on the form of their organisation. One doctrine held that the end goal was the creation of a federal European state, while another school of thought called for the formation of a ‘Europe of nation states’.

The conceptual innovation of ‘Lisbon’ is that it construes the EU as a democracy without turning the Union into a state

In theoretical terms, the Europeans of the time did not know whether they were to become a state or an international organisation. The dilemma was accentuated by the presumption that it was impossible for international organisations to function in a democratic way.[i] As a result, the European Union, founded by twelve member states in 1992, became notorious for its democratic deficit.

Blinded by their ideological disputes, the antagonists were unable to observe what was actually happening on the ground. Back in 1976, they had already decided to elect the European Parliament through direct suffrage. The citizens of the participating states were to elect not only the members of their national parliaments, but also those of their common parliament!

The next step in the democratisation of the Union consisted in the introduction of EU citizenship in 1992. The citizens of the member states were also to be citizens of the Union. At the Amsterdam Summit in 1997, the European Council decided to include ‘democracy’ in the core values of the EU too.

EU citizenship was then upgraded to a full status through the proclamation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU in 2000. The Charter obtained legal status by virtue of the Lisbon Treaty. The conceptual innovation of ‘Lisbon’ is that it construes the EU as a democracy without turning the Union into a state. This construction enabled the European Court of Justice in 2019 to refer to the EU as having an “autonomous democracy”. It can, therefore, be argued that the EU has overcome its democratic deficit and transformed itself into a proper European democracy.

The EU will have to show how it can contribute as a democratic regional organisation to the objectives of the United Nations

The EU has realised a political construction, which was thought to be impossible. With a number of notable exceptions, the academic community still continues to propagate the view that the EU either cannot be democratic or cannot exist. This lack of imagination is the more regrettable since the EU has entered a ‘terra incognita’, the exploration of which requires multidisciplinary cooperation.

Internally, the EU will have to enable and encourage its citizens to participate in the democratic life of the Union. On the global stage, the EU will have to show how it can contribute as a democratic regional organisation to the objectives of the United Nations. This dual task can only be accomplished if the EU comes to terms with its own identity.

In their joint statement on the occasion of International Democracy Day 2020, High Representative Borrell and Vice-President Suica underlined the need to “strengthen democracy inside our Union”. It will be most beneficial for the EU as a whole, if the present Commission takes the next step by identifying and communicating the EU as a democratic Union of democratic States.

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