13th May 2021


The new dimension of 'ever-closer union'

  • The inter-institutional war between the European Parliament and the European Council about the Conference on the Future of Europe is steadily turning the very idea of a conference into a risk for the future of Europe (Photo: sgoldswo)

The inter-institutional war between the European Parliament and the European Council about the Conference on the Future of Europe is steadily turning the very idea of a conference into a risk for the future of Europe.

As result of the stalemate between the body representing the EU citizens and the college, consisting of the leaders of the member-states of the Union, the danger increases by the day that the democratic nightmare of 2019, which gave rise to the suggestion of the conference, may be repeated in 2024.

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If so, the citizens and EU democracy will be the main victims of this most regrettable conflict.

No appetite for navel-gazing

At first glance, the positions in the stalemate seem to be clear.

The EP has laid down its ambitions in a resolution of 15 January 2020 and has suggested Guy Verhofstadt as candidate for the presidency of the conference.

The commission has given follow-up with a position paper, in which it distinguishes between the reform of the electoral system on the one hand and the broader issue of the relation between the EU and its citizens on the other hand.

The council, however, is dithering and seems to be floating the name of another candidate for the presidency as - in the words of Dutch prime minister Rutte - "it has no appetite for endless navel-gazing."

A battle of outdated ideas

On closer inspection these introductory skirmishes form the prelude to a battle of outdated ideas.

During his entire political career Verhofstadt has professed his belief in a United States of Europe.

He gave the impetus to the earlier convention about the Future of Europe (2002/03), which resulted in the rejected Constitution for Europe.

He finds his main ideological adversary in his fellow liberal Rutte, who detests the term "ever-closer union" as a stepping stone for a federal state.

He was the first continental leader to support UK prime minister David Cameron's call for fundamental reform of the EU. Even after Brexit he continued his campaign against "ever-closer union".

Unfortunately, the two rivals and their followers became so entrenched in their political ideologies that they ignored the developments on the ground.

The federalists refused to acknowledge that the EU - as the Court of Justice explicated - "is by its very nature precluded from being regarded as a state", while the inter-governmentalists were unable to come to terms with the citizenship of the Union and with the very concept of EU democracy.

Obsessed by their ideological differences, the antagonists fail to see that the EU is evolving in a different direction.

The EU has neither become a federal state nor a confederal union of states, but is establishing itself as a 'democratic Union of democratic states'.

From the global perspective the EU may be identified as the first-ever 'democratic regional organisation'.

A democratic union of democratic states

The evolution of the EU into a new kind of international organisation may be summarised as follows.

The origin lies in the 1952 decision to share sovereignty in order to prevent the renewed outbreak of war. In 1973 the European Council described the Communities as a "Union of democratic states".

The next step was to give the emerging Union democratic legitimacy too.

Direct elections for the European Parliament (1979) were followed by the introduction of EU citizenship in 1992 and the inclusion of the concept of democracy in the core values of the EU (1997).

The hallmark of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty is that it construes the EU as a democracy without turning the Union into a state.

So, the concepts of federal state or confederal union of states have already become obsolete over a decade ago.

The 2020 decisions to introduce a Corona Recovery Fund and to link EU subsidies to the rule of law strengthen the own and distinct character of the EU as a democratic Union of democratic states.

Do not forsake the citizens

The greatest mistake the EU institutions can possibly make at this juncture, is to turn the Conference on the Future of Europe into yet another round in the outdated feud between the federalists and the inter-governmentalists.

Instead, the EU should acknowledge that the desire to create an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe has resulted in the emergence of a new kind of organisation.

The task ahead is to make the EU work as a European democracy. Parts of the effort are to update the identity of the EU and to develop an own political theory for the Union.

Above all, however, the EU should not forsake its citizens. They must be ensured that the required changes in the electoral system have been implemented before the elections of 2024.

A repetition of the 2019 democratic nightmare must be avoided at all costs.

Author bio

Jaap Hoeksmais a philosopher of law, and the author of the Theory of Democratic Integration.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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