Democratic global governance beyond Westphalia

The EU has evolved from a union of democratic States into a European democracy. Jaap Hoeksma argues this sheds fresh light on the Kantian quest for perpetual peace. It demonstrates that the Westphalian system of international relations should give way to a model of democratic global governance

The EU’s distinctive model of democracy

Seventy years after the beginnings of European integration, the EU has become neither a state nor an association of states. Instead, it has evolved into a form of democracy all its own, while still constituting a union of democratic states.

The hallmark of the EU is that it applies the constitutional principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law to an international organisation.

In its current form, we might describe the EU as a democratic union of democratic states. However, it is useful to look at it from the perspective of international law and global governance. Doing so, we might identify the EU as a democratic international organisation (DIO).

International recognition of the EU’s democratic form

Well over 120 democratic states have acknowledged the evolution of the European Union into a democratic polity. In December 2021 and March 2023, President Biden invited the EU to participate alongside 26 of its 27 member states in Summit for Democracy meetings. The EU was the only regional organisation of states invited. A third edition of the Summit, which aims to highlight the vitality of the democratic model, is scheduled for 2024. Not invited were regional organisations of states including Mercosur, ASEAN and the African Union. However, the EU played an active and sometimes leading role in the events.

The EU’s enthusiasm for taking part in such a summit might lead us to conclude that the Union regards itself as a DIO. Moreover, we might also conclude that a substantial part of the international community perceives it as such.

Breaking with the Westphalian system

In the course of its development, the EU has abandoned the traditional Westphalian system of international relations. It has worked resolutely to lay the foundations for an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe. Its efforts have resulted in the emergence of a new kind of international organisation. The EU is an organisation we can no longer identify in terms of the traditional template. In the Westphalian paradigm, the concept of a DIO amounts to a contradiction in terms. This is because unions of states are, by definition, a-democratic. They fall in the domain of diplomacy and are governed by a secretariat-general accountable only to its member states.

The decision of the nine member states in 1973 to identify their communities as a ‘union of democratic states’ signified the start of the democratisation of the emerging polity per se

The six founding EU states pledged to pool sovereignty in exchange for the guarantee of lasting peace. With the benefit of hindsight, this might already look like an attempt to break with the Westphalian system. We could see the creation of the internal market as a second step away from the traditional template. From this perspective, the 1973 decision of the nine member states to identify their communities as a ‘union of democratic states’ signified the start of the democratisation of the emerging polity per se. From a democratic viewpoint, it would be contradictory to govern a union of democratic states in an authoritarian (let alone dictatorial) manner.

Democratic evolution

The first decision the European Council took after the identification of the communities as a union of democratic states was to give their union democratic legitimacy, too. It changed the parliamentary assembly into a directly elected European Parliament and held the first elections in 1979. The MEPs were chosen by the citizens of the member states brought together in the communities.

The next step in the creation of a democratic regional polity was the lifting of the veto in a number of fields through the 1987 Single Act.

The 1992 Maastricht Treaty introduced EU citizenship. This signified a huge leap forward inasmuch as it offered the opportunity to found a European democracy directly on the citizens of the emerging polity.

The 1997 Amsterdam Treaty underpinned this progress, introducing the values of the Union. The Charter of Fundamental Rights, proclaimed at the Summit of Nice in 2000, gave the EU citizens their Magna Carta.

The 2007 Lisbon Treaty came to replace the rejected Constitution for Europe. This construes the EU as a democracy without turning the Union into a state. In doing so, Lisbon formalises the emergence of the EU as a DIO.

Far-reaching consequences

The jurisprudence of the EU Court of Justice concerning citizenship, democracy and the conditionality mechanism demonstrates how far-reaching are the consequences of the EU’s transformation into a democratic union of democratic states.

While the distinct character of the EU is being recognised by (major parts of) the international community, Brussels and other capital cities are still pondering over the identity of their polity. Interdisciplinary academic research may shed fresh light on the nature of the EU in its present form, and chart the legal consequences of its evolution into a DIO.

Sharing sovereignty to meet global challenges

Towards the end of the 18th century, Kant suggested a speculative binary option for perpetual peace. The practical experience of the EU offers an alternative. The German philosopher posited that states wishing to avoid the recurrence of war could either merge into one overarching new state or world republic – or establish a federation of free states.

Kant posited that states wishing to avoid the recurrence of war could either merge into one overarching new state or World Republic – or establish a federation of free states

The EU shows in reality that democratic states can also achieve this goal by sharing sovereignty. In the 20th century, Europe learned the hard way that it had become too small for absolute sovereignty. In the 21st century, this idea has been reinforced by the emergence of global problems like climate change, nuclear proliferation and pandemics.

The Westphalian system of international relations does not offer a reasonable guarantee that the world community will be able to address these challenges in a peaceful manner. Democratic global governance may present citizens of the world with a safer, more reliable alternative to ensure their planet's survival.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Jaap Hoeksma
Jaap Hoeksma
Independent Philosopher of Law

Jaap started his career in human rights with UNHCR, and published about refugee law.

He is based in Amsterdam.

Eurocracy: the board game

Eurocracy Board Game

At the time of the Maastricht Treaty, he published the board game Eurocracy with a view to demonstrating that the Westphalian system is not ‘the eternal foundation of international relations’.

democratisation of the european union jaap hoeksma

Jaap's book The Democratisation of the European Union (eleven, 2023) reveals that the EU has indeed replaced the Westphalian system with the European model of transnational governance.

He tweets @EUSpokesman 

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