Cameron and the Intricacies of the Westphalian System of International Relations


In his long-awaited speech on Europe British Prime Minister David Cameron criticised the EU for its lack of democracy. PM Cameron is right insofar as the citizens of the EU can’t elect their own European government and miss the power to vote their leaders out of office. However, Cameron’s criticism would only be justified if the EU were to be considered as a sovereign state like the UK, France or Germany.

Guest Blog by Jaap Hoeksma, Philosopher of Law, Director of Euroknow and Creator of the Boardgame Eurocracy

In reality there is hardly any member of the European Council more opposed to the idea of the EU as a state than PM Cameron. He fiercely stands in the tradition of John Major who succeeded in removing the term ‘federal vocation’ from the preamble of the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 and in that of Lady Thatcher delivering her Bruges speech.

The British Prime-Minister prefers to see the EU as a free trade area, i.e. as a group of states, which have abolished all or nearly all trade barriers between them. However, free trade organisations are by definition not democratic. Neither NAFTA nor ASEAN nor CELAC have any element of democracy in their construction. It would appear therefore that PM Cameron has gone lost in the intricacies of the Westphalian system of international relations. The importance of this system, which emerged as a result of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia and has formed the dominant paradigm for political thought ever since, can be hardly overestimated. It lays the foundation for the United Nations Organisation and lies at the heart of the present practice of distributing international justice. According to the Westphalian system, there are only states and unions of states in the field of international relations. Democracy and the rule of law can only come to fruition within the confines of a state, while the relations between states belong to the realm of diplomacy. It is therefore impossible for a union of states to constitute a democracy.

Against this background, the inconsistency in Cameron’s logic is obvious. No reasonable purpose is served by accusing a union of states of a lack of democracy, since the concept of unions of states is by definition incompatible with the notion of democracy and the rule of law. The unforeseen conclusion of Cameron’s logic is that the European Union is the most democratic organisation of states in the whole of history. The EU is the only international organisation, which is also composed of citizens with rights as such, which has a directly elected parliament and an independent Court of Justice.

In the course of a forthcoming meeting of the European Council other Heads of State or Government may explain to PM Cameron why the EU is not a federal state. Rather than being founded by and on a constitution, the Lisbon Treaty provides the EU with a firm basis in international law. Consequently, article 1 TEU stipulates that the EU owes its existence to the Member States. It codifies the principle that the Member States are conferring competences on the Union. Moreover, article 4 TEU puts beyond doubt that the Union has to respect the essential state functions of the Member States as well as their national identities, inherent in their fundamental structures, political and constitutional, inclusive of regional and local self-government. In effect, these provisions serve to protect the EU against efforts to turn the Union into a federal state. Article 50 TEU corroborates this conclusion by granting each Member State the right to unilaterally withdraw from the Union.

Instead of blaming the EU for its undemocratic character, PM Cameron should therefore pride himself and his country for participating in the most democratic international organisation ever. Beyond the Westphalian system of international relations, the EU is a beacon of democracy rather than a failed state.