Defining European Democracy


At the start of the new millennium the federalist philosopher Michael Burgess launched the aphorism that the EU cannot function in theory and yet works in practice [1]. This ambiguity was recently underlined by the President-designate of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen, who stated in her political guidelines: ‘’Our Union’s democratic system is unique, bringing together directly elected parliamentarians at local, regional, national and European level with elected Heads of State or Government.”

Guest blog by Jaap Hoeksma

This statement can hardly be perceived without a certain measure of irony since Mrs Von der Leyen herself was nominated as EC-President in contravention of ‘the Union’s democratic system’. She had not participated in the 2019 elections for the European Parliament, neither as candidate nor as Spitzenkandidat, but was handpicked for the job by the European Council during meetings behind closed doors. Moreover, the EP-elections were held during a period in which one member state was in the process of leaving the Union for reasons of its alleged undemocratic character. Simultaneously, other member states accused the Commission and other EU-institutions of interfering in their domestic judicial and democratic affairs. The ensuing uncertainty was increased by the rise of populists parties all over the Union. Under siege from various sides the EU proved to be unable to refute the arguments of leading lawyers and political scientists the ‘democracy is not in the legal DNA of the EU’ and that the EU still is in want of an own and distinct political theory.

What is European democracy?

Under these circumstances the proclaimed intention to give European democracy a new impetus is merely a pie in the sky. From an academic point of view it amounts to an adacadabra or a magic formula to appease critical citizens. In order to yield tangible results, any effort to improve today’s faltering European democracy should start with a concretisation of the concept. If scores of academics and politicians argue that European democracy is a contradiction in terms, the first endeavour should be to clarify the meaning of the idea. The need for this exercise is the more pressing since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty did not establish the EU as a democracy. Subsequently, it should be tried to provide the European Union with an own and distinct political philosophy, capable of explaining the transition of the EU from a more or less regular union of states to a European democracy.

Conference about the Future of Europe    

The intention of the Commission Von der Leyen to give European democracy a new impetus is likely to benefit from the deliberations of the Conference about the Future of Europe, which is to start in 2020. A major precondition for the Conference to succeed is that its members resist the temptation to indulge in endless debates about the question what the EU ought to be. Instead, they should try to describe what the Union actually is.

The 2007 Lisbon Treaty provides a solid basis for this endeavour since it construes the EU as a democracy without turning the Union into a state. Taking into account that the member states must comply with stringent criteria of democracy and the rule of law, while the governance of the Union is based on the democratic principles of Title II TEU, the EU may be described at present as a Union of democratic states, which also (aspires to) constitute(s) a democracy  of its own. It follows that European democracy can be defined on the eve of the Conference about the Future of Europe as the system of governance for the EU as a Union of democratic states which also forms a democracy of its own

The theory of democratic integration

Establishing the nature of a new phenomenon is a conditio sine qua non for diagnosing its shortcomings. The conceptual clash between the European Parliament and the EU Council, which took place after the 2019 elections, can be attributed to the circumstance that the rules concerning the elections of members of the European Parliament, adopted in 1976, are irreconcilable with the articles about the democratic principles of the EU, which the 2007 Lisbon Treaty contains. The theory of democratic integration, which the present author elaborated in his book ‘European Democracy’ [2], perceives this conflict as a symbol of the transition of the EU from a ‘union of democratic states’ to a European democracy. The primary principle of transnational democracy, which the new theory unfolds, suggests that, if two or more democratic states agree 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 Conference about the Future of Europe is twofold: It should demonstrate why the EU works not only in practice but also in theory. Moreover, it should come up with concrete proposals to improve the functioning of the EU as a European democracy.

[1] M. Burgess, Comparative Federalism, Theory and Practice, London 2006

[2] J. Hoeksma, European Democracy, Tilburg 2019; available from the Library.