The EU should practise what it preaches and embrace its character as a constitutional democracy, writes Jaap Hoeksma

The paradox of the EU’s present predicament around its identity is that the world regards it as a democratic organisation of states and citizens, whereas the EU itself continues to be confused about its nature

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:

14 Dec 2021

The Summit for Democracy, held online last week, offered an excellent opportunity for the European Union EU to accentuate its unique position as the only democratic regional organisation on the globe.

In fact, no other organisation of states was invited by US President Joe Biden to participate in and contribute to the democracy summit but the EU.

Unfortunately, however, neither European Council President Charles Michel nor European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used the occasion to present the EU at this exquisite forum for what it is: a democratic regional organisation.

Merkel’s last question

The paradox of the present predicament around the identity of the EU is that the world regards it as a democratic organisation of states and citizens, whereas the Union itself continues to be confused about its nature.

In hindsight, it may be more than symbolic that the outgoing German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, should have used her last European Council meeting to raise the perennial question of ‘what we are’ again: an organisation of states or an ever-closer union?

Regrettably enough, the EUROPA server adds to the conceptual confusion by describing the EU as an ‘unique economic and political union of 27 European countries’. While it can be easily argued that the countries participating in ASEAN, the African Union and Mercosur also have economic and political ties, they were not invited to Biden’s Democracy Summit.

Global aspirations

At the same time, both von der Leyen and Michel underlined in their contribution that in the field of democracy promotion, the EU is the greatest donor. Indeed, the Union’s Global European Human Rights and Democracy Programme, which was launched on the eve of the Summit, makes €1.5bn available for the promotion and protection of human rights and the rule of law during the period 2021-2027.

Furthermore, internally the EU is currently deeply involved in an ambitious debate on its future by exploring ways and means to increase citizens’ participation in its governance. In this context, it cannot be a coincidence that von der Leyen used the words of her sixth policy priority also in her speech to the Summit by emphasising her intention ‘to give a new push to democracy’.

The Legal Identity of the EU

The fact that the EU has evolved into a European democracy, can be underpinned by a legal analysis of the Treaties, on which the EU is founded. The hallmark of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty is that it construes the EU as a democracy without turning the Union into a State.

As each Member State must comply with the stringent demands of democracy and the rule of law, the EU may be described on the basis of the Lisbon Treaty as a ‘Union of democratic States, which also constitutes a democracy of its own’. This construction also explains why the EU has been given the legal and political authority to summon backsliding Member States to restore the required respect for the values of the Union.

At home and abroad

The fact that one EU Member State has not been invited to participate in the Summit, may serve to demonstrate that the EU institutions and Member States are still in the process of learning to handle such regrettable situations.

They should convince those lapsed Member States that the EU is not just an organisation of states with non-interference in internal affairs as its motto. Instead, the Member States have deliberately construed the EU as a Union of values and are now bound to live up to their intentions and aspirations.

While the EU Court of Justice is very explicit in its verdicts on backsliding states, both the Commission and the Council should also embrace the character of the EU as a constitutional democracy. The EU should not only preach democracy abroad but also practice democracy at home.