25th Mar 2023


Time for EU to grow up as a democracy

  • EU not bound to imitate US model, but growing own form of regional democracy (Photo:
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The initiative of American president Joe Biden to convene a virtual 'Summit of Democracies' for early December coincides with the 'Conference on the Future of Europe'.

The US summit offers the European Union an excellent opportunity to mark its position on the global stage. The Union may accentuate that it is emulating rather than imitating the United States of America in the field of good governance.

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The determination to lay the foundations for an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe has not resulted in the creation of a federal state, but in the emergence of the EU as a democratic regional organisation - that is a Union of democratic states, which also constitutes a democracy of its own.

The dual character of the EU's democracy is underpinned by the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, which demands the Union to respect similar standards of democracy and the rule of law as it requires its member states to meet.

On the eve of the Summit of Democracies, the EU itself can be characterised as a democratic regional organisation with a dual democracy.

The United States of Europe

In his famous Zurich-speech of 1946, British prime minister Winston Churchill gave expression to the aspirations of an entire generation by calling for the creation of a United States of Europe.

The dream that the old continent should resurrect from the ruins of war as a federal state by analogy to the US continued to inspire politicians for decades to come.

Half a century later, the German minister of foreign affairs Joschka Fischer revived the debate about the end goal of European integration with his speech 'From Confederacy to Federation'.

And after the rejection of the 'Constitution for Europe' in 2005, Belgian former prime minister Guy Verhofstadt demonstrated his unwavering support for the federal ideal in a pamphlet, defiantly titled 'The United States of Europe'.


Unfortunately, their preoccupation with the ideal of a United States of Europe prevented the federalists from acknowledging the realities on the ground.

In a mutually reinforcing dialogue with their opponents, the intergovernmentalists, they were unable to account for the specificities of European integration.

Both antagonists overlooked the fact that member states, participating in the process of European integration, were constitutional democracies.

Although the European Council had emphasised their special character by describing the Communities in 1973 as a 'Union of democratic States', the federalists and intergovernmentalists preferred to continue their theoretical debate about the end goal of the EU as if developments on the ground were irrelevant.

As a result, neither of the two prevailing ideologies were able to defend the emerging European democracy against the allegations of populists and Brexiteers.

European democracy

In her Europe lecture of 1997 the former president of Ireland Mary Robinson underlined the importance of the principle that whatever the outcome of the drive towards European integration might be, it should be the result of an organic process.

A quarter of a century onward, history has proven her right. European democracy has emerged in an organic way, as the EC/EU evolved over decades from an organisation of states to 'a democratic Union of democratic states'.

As anticipated by the standard formula of EU treaties that "this treaty marks a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe", present European democracy is the result of a gradual process.

The first step, which the European Council took after the identification of the Communities as 'a Union of democratic states', was to also give their Union democratic legitimacy of its own.

They transformed the parliamentary assembly into a European Parliament and organised the first direct universal elections for their democratic institution in 1979.

A democratic Union of democratic States

The construction of a representative democracy at the level of the Union took considerable time, but the decisive steps can be highlighted as follows.

The introduction of EU citizenship in 1992 laid the basis for a direct relation between the EU and its citizens. Moreover, it complied with the primary precondition that democracies cannot work without citizens.

Once citizenship had been introduced, the EU included the concept of democracy in its core values by virtue of the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam. The proclamation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU gave the new citizens a full-fledged status.

The charter has been hailed as the Magna Carta of European citizens.

It obtained force of law through its inclusion in the 2007 Lisbon Treaty. The hallmark of 'Lisbon' lies in its construction of the EU as a dual democracy. It allows for the description of the EU as a 'Union of democratic states, which also constitutes a democracy of its own'.

Taking the relevant case law of the European Court of Justice into account, it may be concluded that the EU has reached its constitutional destination as a 'democratic Union of democratic States'.

Some 70 years after the start of the process of European integration, the EU can no longer pretend to be an adolescent in search of an own identity.

The European Union has developed its own form of international organisation with a distinct system of governance.

The challenge for the Conference on the Future of Europe is to address the shortcomings of this model of dual democracy. It must urgently improve the democracy at the level of the Union and prevent backsliding in member states.

The Summit of Democracies may be viewed by the EU as a global platform for spreading the message that it is developing its own model of democracy and that it is emulating rather than imitating the USA.

Author bio

Jaap Hoeksma is a philosopher of law, and the author of The European Union: a democratic Union of democratic States.


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

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