Conference on the Future of Europe: Respect the Citizens

Author Jaap Hoeksma explains why the European institutions must pay more attention to citizens if the upcoming conference is to be a success.
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By Jaap Hoeksma

Jaap Hoeksma is a philosopher of law and author of 'European Democracy' (Tilburg 2019). His new book is to appear as a contribution to the Conference within soon; title: The EU: A democratic Union of democratic States.

23 Apr 2021

Respect the Citizens!

If the EU was to create an award for political inconsistency, the first prize would undoubtedly go to the European Union! Even supporters of European integration can’t often help but shaking their heads in sheer disbelief. The Conference on the Future of Europe provides yet another example beyond imagination. While the aim of the much anticipated conference is to place the citizens central stage and to discuss European democracy, the EU continues to present itself on the website of the EU as just another outdated organisation of states. The description on the EuropaServer does neither mention the citizens nor the concept of democracy but portrays the EU in obsolete terms as ‘an economic and political union of 27 countries’. So, if the EU itself does not take the conference seriously, why should the citizens bother?

 

Ever closer union

Before too harsh a judgment is passed, regard may be had to mitigating circumstances. Obviously, the EU is still evolving and each treaty marks a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe. It could be argued therefore that the Conference offers an excellent opportunity to take stock. In doing so, the participants and stakeholders may realise that the Communities of the 20th century used to be characterised as a Union of democratic states. Ever since the European Council qualified the Communities as such in 1973, the emerging polity has started to evolve to a European democracy. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty introduced the citizenship of the Union, the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam included democracy in the core values of the Union and the 2007 Lisbon Treaty construes the EU as a democracy without turning the Union into a state.  

 

From nationals of the Member States…..

The difference between the former Communities and the present Union is not merely of a nominal nature. The significance of the transition from a Union of democratic States to a European democracy can be highlighted by the position of the citizens in the construction of the consecutive polities. It should be realised in this context that the Communities did not have citizens. They consisted of 6 to 12 Member States brought together in the Communities. The citizens of those Member States enjoyed a number of rights, which allowed them to participate in the internal market. So, when the first direct elections for the European Parliament were held in 1976, the voters who went to the polls, cast their ballots as nationals of the Member States. In a similar vein, if they wanted to invoke the protection of European law, they first had to ‘activate their status’ by crossing a border between two member states. In short, the nationals of the Member States brought together in the Communities merely enjoyed indirect rights.

 

…to EU Citizens!

Initially, the transition from Communities to Union did not have much of an impact on the newly created citizens. In consequence, the new status was dismissed by scholars as a pie in the sky. In hindsight, they judged too early. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, which was proclaimed in 2000, contained an entire bill of rights and was to become the Magna Charta of the EU citizens.

            Once the Charter had obtained force of law, the EU Court of Justice drew the consequences of the transition from nationals of the member states to EU citizens. The Court abolished the requirement that citizens had to cross a border to qualify for protection by European law and replaced it with the principle that the law of the Union precludes national measures, which have the effect of depriving EU citizens from the genuine enjoyment of the substance of the rights conferred by their status of citizens of the Union. Over time, it turned out that EU citizens could even invoke the protection of the law of the Union from within the prison cell, in which they remained due to a conviction for infringements of national laws.

 

A democratic Union of democratic States

Seen in this perspective, the challenge for the Conference is to complete the transformation of the EU from a Union of democratic States to a European democracy. The primary task will be to adapt the electoral system to the unequivocal provision of the Lisbon Treaty that the European Parliament is composed of representatives of the Union’s citizens, no longer of those of the nationals of the Member States. In the field of EU citizenship education, the Union should take the lead instead of leaving the matter to the member states and so on. The first step the EU institutions have to make, is to treat the citizens in line with the Lisbon Treaty. The present self description on the EuropaServer should be replaced before the start of the Conference with a formula that respects the citizens and embodies the EU drive towards European democracy, for example: ‘The EU is a Union of 27 states and 450 million citizens, which works as a European democracy’.

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