From Unidentified Political Object to European Democracy

Thirty years after the foundation of the European Union by virtue of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty the nature of the Union has been established at last. At the time of its creation as successor of the European Communities the EU used to be described by the then President of the European Commission Jacques Delors as an ‘Unidentified Political Object’. At the start of the Conference on the Future of Europe three decades onwards the author of the present blog suggests that the EU has evolved to a European democracy, which may be identified from the global perspective as a ‘democratic regional organisation’.[i]


The line of argument is as transparent as convincing. According to conventional wisdom, the EU should either be a state or an organisation of states. Other options are not available. However, the EU is not a state because it does not aspire to be a sovereign state. The EU Court of Justice established in its Opinion of December 2014 that ‘the EU is, under international law, by its very nature precluded from being regarded as a state’. In consequence, the EU has never applied for membership of the Organisation of the United Nations. This conclusion does not imply that the EU should therefore form an organisation of states. It is not, because the Union is also composed of citizens, has an autonomous legal order, a directly elected parliament, a single currency as well as an autonomous democracy. So, the conclusion is unavoidable that the EU is neither a state nor an organisation of states.

Towards European Democracy

The fact that the European institutions and the academic community are unable to identify the nature of the EU does not mean that the Union should not exist. There is no point in denying reality in the name of theory! It is neither feasible to organise an ambitious and time demanding conference on the future of the EU, if there is no theoretical foundation for the functioning of the Union. To put it simply: the European Union cannot solve its existential problems by ignoring them.

This observation is the more compelling in view of the inclination of subsequent European Commissions to describe the EU in terms of a European democracy. In his Political Guidelines for the Next European Commission, published in July 2014, its newly elected President Juncker accentuated his view on the EU as a Union of democratic change. Pursuing the same line of thought, his successor Von der Leyen vowed in her Agenda for Europe of July 2019 to give a new push to European democracy. This priority has found expression in the European Democracy Action Plan of 3 December 2020, which aims to ‘empower citizens and to build more resilient democracies across the EU’.

The theory of democratic integration

As EU citizen, the present author intends to contribute to the success of the Conference by suggesting to substitute the civic perspective of democracy and the rule of law in the study of the EU for the traditional paradigm of diplomats and states. According to the Westphalian system of international relations, as the latter is known, the concepts of democracy and international organisations are incompatible.  Democracy can only thrive within the boundaries of a sovereign state, whereas the relations between states are the domain of diplomacy. Hence, international organisations are by definition unable to function on a democratic footing. So, if the EU wants to be a democratic union of states and citizens, it must replace the traditional paradigm with a new perspective. The theory of democratic integration intends to do just that by studying the EU from the citizens’ point of view. The new theory holds that, if two or more democratic states agree to share the exercise of sovereignty in a number of fields with the view to obtain common goals, their organisation must be democratic too.

New Horizons

Swapping paradigms opens new horizons for the EU. The EU is no longer destined to repeat the past but may determine its own future as a post-Westphalian polity. It can recount the story of Europe as a deviation from the traditional paradigm, in which the conduct of war was seen as a ‘natural’ phenomenon. By sharing the exercise of sovereignty, the participating states not only succeeded in replacing war with the rule of law, but also increased the prosperity and well-being of their citizens. The theory of democratic integration explains why the Communities, which were identified by the European Council in 1973 as a ‘Union of democratic States’, were poised to acquire democratic legitimacy of their own. It describes the stages along which the evolution to a democratic Union took place, thereby characterising the present EU as a ‘democratic Union of democratic States’. Moreover, it gives the EU a new horizon at the global level by identifying the Union as the first-ever ‘democratic regional organisation’. The Conference offers a long-awaited opportunity for the EU to realise its potential and to prepare itself for the 21th century. The theory of democratic integration is here to serve the EU as a philosophical foundation for its functioning as a European democracy!



[i] Jaap Hoeksma, The European Union: A democratic Union of democratic States. Free download at


Photo credit:

© European Union, 2021
Photographer: Nathalie Malivoir