The EU has developed its own distinct model of democracy, but it seems, it hasn’t quite realised this, writes Jaap Hoeksma

A quarter of a century after the 1997 Amsterdam Summit, the first pan-European political party is set to participate in the city’s municipal elections

By Jaap Hoeksma

Jaap Hoeksma is a philosopher of law and author of 'European Democracy' (2019) and 'The EU: a democratic Union of democratic States'. Both publications can be downloaded for free at: https://www.wolfpublishers.eu/futureofeurope

28 Jan 2022

Although political theorists insist that international organisations cannot be democratic, the European Union has – at the beginning of the 21st century established itself as a European democracy.

The upcoming municipal elections in Amsterdam may serve to illustrate that the EU is developing its own model of democracy. Back in June 1997, the Amsterdam Summit introduced the values of the EU into the treaties, including the principles of democracy and the rule of law.

Now, a quarter of a century later, the first pan-European political party is set to participate in the municipal elections in Amsterdam.

The dilemma of European integration

Ever since the start of the process of European integration, the concept of democracy has been severely contested.

The advocates of post-war cooperation all wanted democracy to prevail on the Old Continent. They had been actively engaged in the fight against fascism and Nazism (Altiero Spinelli, Charles de Gaulle, Johan Huizinga & Willy Brandt), but they were divided over the issue of democracy.

Should a democratic Europe imply the creation of a federal European state or would a Europe of democratic nation-states be preferable?

"Today, the question as to whether the EU has a federal vocation and must become a United States of Europe, or should establish itself as a confederal association of states, continues to dominate the agenda of the Conference on the Future of Europe"

Today, the question as to whether the EU has a federal vocation and must become a United States of Europe, or should establish itself as a confederal association of states, continues to dominate the agenda of the Conference on the Future of Europe.

The long road towards European democracy

The British scholar Michael Burgess captured the mood after the rejection of the so-called Constitution for Europe in 2005 by floating the aphorism that the EU works in practice although it cannot function in theory.

This conceptual confusion may have been the main reason why contemporary theorists were unable to grasp the novelty of the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon. The new treaty broke with traditional theoretical principles by constructing the EU as a democracy without turning the Union into a State.

In hindsight, it may be argued that this revolutionary breakthrough of the traditional pattern of international relations has been carefully prepared. The first deviation from the UN-paradigm of global governance consisted of the practice of sharing sovereignty by the EU’s first precursor in 1952.

The European Coal and Steel Community had succeeded in establishing lasting peace between the former rivals, France and Germany, by sharing the exercise of sovereignty over the materials considered indispensable for the conduct of war.

The European Communities described themselves subsequently in 1973 as a ‘Union of democratic States’. As a union of democratic states cannot be governed in an undemocratic authoritarian, let alone dictatorial way, the emerging polity had to acquire democratic legitimacy of its own.

So, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Communities was transformed into a European Parliament and the first direct elections for the new EP were held in 1979.

While the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht founded the EU and introduced citizenship of the Union, the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty steered the course of the Union in the direction of a European democracy.

"While the democratic global community has already welcomed the EU as a democratic international organisation, the EU still has to learn to appreciate its own construction as a democratic union of democratic states"

Once the newly proclaimed citizens had obtained their own Magna Charta through the proclamation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, at the Nice Summit of December 2000, the conditions for the creation of a democracy at EU level had been met.

So, the Lisbon Treaty repaired the damage done by the ill-conceived Constitution for Europe and laid the foundations for the emergence of the EU as a democratic union of democratic states.

European parties and transnational lists

Seen in this light, the Conference on the Future of Europe offers the EU a unique opportunity to come to terms with its own democratic credentials.

US president Joe Biden has already lent a helping hand by inviting the EU as the only international organisation to participate in and contribute to his recent Summit for Democracy.

While the democratic global community has already welcomed the EU as a democratic international organisation, the EU still has to learn to appreciate its own construction as a democratic union of democratic states.

Again, practice precedes theory. Established political parties are working in the European Parliament on the introduction of transnational lists, while Volt Amsterdam is participating in the city’s municipal elections as part of a pan-European party.

It’s therefore high time for the EU to realise that it has developed its own and distinct model of democracy and to assume its corresponding responsibility.

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