Monday

26th Sep 2022

Opinion

The Treaty of Amsterdam — 25 years on

  • The then heads of state and government of the EU member states, with — in the centre — the late Jacques Chirac of France and the late Helmut Kohl of Germany, at the signing of the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam (Photo: Wikimedia)
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Twenty-five years after the conclusion of the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, the European Union is poised to overcome its notorious 'democratic deficit'.

The EU is the first international organisation to evolve to a transnational democracy. The hallmark of the EU is that it applies the constitutional principles of democracy, and the rule of law, to an association of states.

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As a result of the determination to create an "ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe", the EU is emerging as a new subject of international law, which may be described as a union of states and citizens which works as a European democracy.

The 'market approach' of Maastricht

At the time of its foundation in 1992 the new 'European Union' (formerly the EEC, or European Economic Community) was denounced by scholars and politicians alike for its democratic deficit.

Critics argued that the newly-created EU did not meet the criteria for accession to the Union. Their suspicion was far from unfounded.

The overriding aim of the European Council had been to complete the long-awaited internal market and to crown it with a single currency.

Even the institution of the citizenship of the Union was perceived in the framework of the internal market. Article B of the Treaty of Maastricht says in unequivocal terms that the purpose of the introduction of EU citizenship was "to strengthen the protection of the rights and interests of the nationals of its member states."

The heads of state and government merely wanted to protect the rights of those nationals who took advantage of the freedoms of the internal market by taking up employment and/or residence in another member state.

For the overwhelming majority of the home-staying citizens, however, the new status had no consequences whatsoever. They had to 'activate' their rights as EU citizen by crossing the border with another member state.

Dual Democracy

The decision of the European Council to decouple the concepts of citizenship and polity highlighted the democratic deficit of the Union. It created a sharp contrast between the constitutional concept of citizenship as applied by the member states, and the functional approach of the EU.

So, citizens of the member states reacted with indignation to the fact that they were treated as a 'market' by the EU.

Although the EU could hardly have given a poorer start to its relationship with its citizens, the council tried to redress its initial mistake through the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam.

'Amsterdam' introduced the values of the EU and prepared the ground for overcoming the democratic deficit. By bringing EU citizenship in line with the national status of the people of the Union, the Treaty of Amsterdam coined the concept of dual citizenship and paved the way for the functioning of the EU as a dual democracy.

Emancipation of citizens

The next step for the European Council was to invite a convention to draw up a Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. The charter was proclaimed in December 2000 and is regarded as the 'Magna Carta' of the EU citizens.

The concept of EU citizenship took a second unexpected turn due to the rejection of the so-called Constitution for Europe in 2005. Although proponents of the 'constitution' feared that its rejection would imply a serious setback for European democracy, the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon accelerated the development of the EU to a dual democracy.

Its hallmark is that it construes the EU as a democracy without turning the Union into a state. 'Lisbon' embodies the evolution of the EU from a union of democratic states — to a union of democratic states which also constitutes a democracy of its own.

A democratic union of democratic states

Although the determination to create an ever closer union between the peoples of Europe was clear, the path towards that goal proved to be unpredictable.

The entry into force of the hard-fought Lisbon Treaty was followed by a series of existential crises and by democratic backsliding in a number of member states.

The EU Court of Justice should be credited for the convincing way in which it has elaborated the concept of EU democracy as contained in the Treaties.

In its verdicts concerning the conditionality mechanism cases, which had been initiated by the backsliding states of Poland and Hungary, the court emphasised that article 2 TEU "can not be regarded as a mere statement of policy guidelines" to be interpreted in line with the whims of the government of the day.

Instead, the duty to respect these principles constitutes "an obligation as to the result to be achieved on the part of the member states, which stems directly from the commitments they have made vis-à-vis each other and with regards to the European Union."

European democracy is not a system dictated top-down by anonymous Brussels bureaucrats, but forms the results of agreements between and commitments of member states towards each other and the EU.

While the member states pledge to guarantee respect for the common values on the national level, they assign the comparable obligation to the EU at the level of the Union.

By signing the Lisbon Treaty or by acceding to the Union they, moreover, entrust the EU with the task to oversee and supervise the way in which they implement their obligations.

This blueprint ensures continued respect for the EU values both at the national level of the member states and at the transnational level of the Union.

Obviously, designs should not be equated with reality, but the blueprint of the Treaties may guide EU politicians and institutions in finally overcoming the democratic deficit as a European democracy of states and citizens.

Author bio

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

Disclaimer

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

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