Citizens, Democracy and the Identity of the EU


In the course of the Conference on the Future of Europe the EU has finally overcome the notorious problem concerning the identity of the Union. Generations used to believe that the European Union had either to become a state or an organisation of states. During the Conference it has become clear that the EU is neither of both. Instead, the EU has developed a new form of international organisation with a distinct model of governance. As to its form, the EU can be identified as a union of states and citizens. Its unprecedented model of governance consists of a transnational democracy. So, the EU can be described in clear and simple terms as a union of states and citizens, which works as a European democracy. 

Guest blog by Jaap Hoeksma.

The 1973 Declaration on European Identity

The contrast with the official description of the European Union could hardly be greater. In its publications and on its website the EU presents itself as ‘a unique economic and political union between 27 European countries’.   This representation corresponds with the Declaration on European Identity, which was adopted by the then 9 member states of the European Communities in 1973 and in which the Heads of State and Government described the EC as a ‘Union of democratic States’.  For a proper understanding, it may be recalled that the EC of the time did not have a directly elected parliament, that decision making took place on the basis of unanimity and that the emerging polity neither had a single currency nor common values. 

The 1984 Adonnino Committee

The fact that the Communities of the seventies and the eighties were a union of democratic states indeed, can be illustrated with the activities and the final report of the Adonnino Committee.  This Committee was established in the wake of the 1984 elections for the European Parliament with the task to bridge the gap between the citizens and the Communities. Its recommendations have had a lasting effect on the emerging polity as they led to the introduction of the European flag and the start of the Erasmus exchange program. However, the striking difference with the present Conference on the Future of the EU, which aims to give the citizens a say in the affairs of the Union, is that the Adonnino Committee addressed the citizens as ‘nationals of the Member States brought together in the Communities’. In consequence, it may be concluded that the citizens have become a constituent factor in the construction of the EU and that they must be included in the contemporary definition of the Union. 

The 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam

As the subsequent evolution of the EU demonstrates, the establishment of the citizenship of the Union by virtue of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty was not an end in itself but an indispensable element in the construction of a democracy at EU level. Obviously, no democracy without citizens. Over the decades, the role of the human beings changed from cross-border participants in the internal market to fully-fledged citizens of the emerging European democracy. This process was accompanied if not strengthened by the introduction of the values of the Union in 1997. The historical significance of the Treaty of Amsterdam is that it changed the goal of European integration from an economic effort to devise an internal market to an ‘Aristotelian’ endeavour to construct a transnational democracy and to create a European polity. Whereas the Communities could be described properly as a Union of democratic States, the EU also aspires to function as a constitutional democracy of its own.    

A democratic international organisation

The fact that the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon construes the EU as a democratic union of democratic states, has decisive implications for the position of the Union in international affairs.  As the 1973 Declaration on European Identity also aimed to establish the nature of the Communities in the field of foreign affairs, the continuing evolution of the EU is also consequential for the role of the EU at the global stage. Since the EU is composed of both states and citizens, it does no longer fit in the existing categories of the Charter of the United Nations. The EU is neither a state nor a regional organisation. In consequence, the EU has refrained from asking UN membership. However, as the distinctive hallmark of the EU in comparison to other international organisations consists of its democratic character, the EU may be described from the UN perspective of global governance as a democratic international organisation. 

The European model of Transnational Governance

This essential analysis of the construction of the European Union warrants the conclusion that the EU may be regarded both from the internal perspective of the citizens and from the external viewpoint of international relations as a new kind of public law organisation. As the Charter of the United Nations is informed by the Westphalian system of International Relations, the EU has also developed a new model of governance for its web of internal relations. While the first deviation from the Westphalian system consisted of the pooling of sovereignty, subsequent steps served to underpin the required mutual trust between the participating states with concrete measures such as the accession criteria, the convergence criteria and the conditionality mechanism. Over the years this process has led to the replacement of the Westphalian system with the European model of Transnational Governance in the functioning of the EU. As a result, EU member states can no longer invoke the Westphalian principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state in their dealings within the framework of the EU.  

Ever Closer Union

The desire for ‘ever closer union between the peoples of Europe’ has triggered an evolutionary process, in which the initial head start of the 1973 Declaration on European Identity could turn into a handicap later on. In the course of the evolution the institutions of the Union had to adapt or reinvent themselves too. The electoral system of the EU may serve as an example in point. In a similar vein, the EU must also adapt its self-perception to its changing nature. As the EC/EU has evolved from a union of democratic states to a European democracy, it undermines both the trust of its citizens and its international standing by continuing to present itself as a mere union of states. If the Commission-Von der Leyen is serious in its desire to give European democracy a new push, it should replace its current EU-definition with a description which reflects the unique character of the EU as a new form of international organisation with a distinct model of governance.  This can be done in clear and transparent terms by identifying the EU as ‘a union of states and citizens, which works as a European democracy’. Such a step will not only contribute to the consistency of the EU, but also help to bring the Conference on the Future of Europe to a positive conclusion and to identify the next steps in the process of ever closer union, which the Russian aggression against Ukraine has necessitated. 


[1] European Commission, The European Union - What it is and what it does, Luxembourg 2021

[2] The official definition of the EU is not only approved and reproduced by EU Member States, but also by educational institutions and libraries, including

[3] EC Bulletin 1973-12

[4] EC Bulletin Supplement 7/85

[5] J. Hoeksma, The European Union: a democratic union of democratic states, Oisterwijk 2021