Concretizing Transnational Democracy


In his Models of Democracy, initially published in 2006, David Held submitted that in the 21st century democratic institutions must be developed at regional and global levels as a necessary complement to those at the level of the nation-state.(1)  A few years earlier Tony McGrew distinguished in his seminal essay on Transnational Democracy between four different accounts of transnational democracy rooted in the distinctive traditions of democratic thought, namely liberal-internationalism, radical democratic pluralism, cosmopolitanism and deliberative democracy. (2) Whereas Held and McGrew discussed transnational democracy primarily as abstract concepts, Habermas suggested in 2014 that the European Union has to become a transnational democracy.(3)

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

In order to explicate his philosophical approach, Habermas proposes a thought experiment. He suggests to imagine a democratically developed EU as if its constitution has been brought into existence by a double sovereign. This double sovereign consists of the entire citizenry of Europe on the one hand and of the different peoples of the participating nation-states on the other hand. As a result of the constitutive dialogue between the European citizens and the European peoples, a heterarchical relationship between the EU and its member states would emerge in which the Union should not be able to command its member states in the way a federal state is entitled to. In Habermas' words, the constituting authority, in founding a supranational polity, sacrifices part of its sovereignty in order to conserve the revolutionary constitutional achievements of the past.

At this juncture, tensions with reality arise. The very idea of a constituting authority for the EU has been dismissed by the French and Dutch electorates through their rejection of the so-called Constitution for Europe in 2005. While Habermas' initiative to turn the idea of transnational democracy from an abstract concept into a concrete phenomenon should be welcomed, his argument would be strengthened by substituting his experiment with the double sovereign for the theory of democratic integration.

The theory of democratic integration, which has been developed by the present author in a series of blogs on this website, holds that, if two or more democratic states decide to share the exercise of sovereignty in a number of fields in order to attain common goals, the organisation they establish for this purpose, should be democratic too. The challenge for the EU in this respect is to develop the first-ever model of transnational democracy.

The 2007 Lisbon Treaty provides evidence for this theory inasmuch as article 10 TEU prescribes that the functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy. Initially, the European Communities were created as an organisation of democratic states, which had no concrete democratic aspirations of its own. The ensuing democratic deficit emphasized the need for the European house to accommodate the citizens. Article 2 TEU contains the result of this protracted effort by stipulating that respect for the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law are common to both the member states and the Union.

It may be concluded therefore that the Lisbon Treaty paves the way for further concretizing the concept of transnational democracy. As a transnational democracy must consist of citizens and member states, it should be possible to define the new concept from both perspectives. From a statal point of view, a transnational democracy may be described as a model of governance for a polity of states and citizens, in which the constituent states and the polity as such are ruled in a democratic way. From a civic angle, a transnational democracy constitutes a model of governance for a polity of states and citizens, in which the citizens are entitled to participate both in the national democracies of their countries and in the common democracy of the polity.

Although its present system of governance does not (yet) fulfil the stringent criteria of a transnational democracy, the EU is a work in progress, which may have the potential of meeting the normative requirements of its guiding theory.


1 David Held, Models of Democracy, Cambridge 2006

2 Tony McGrew, Transnational Democracy: Theories and Prospects /

3 Jürgen Habermas, Democracy in Europe, Why the Development of the European Union into a Transnational Democracy is Necessary and How it is Possible, ARENA Working Paper 13, December 2014