[Opinion] Biden’s ‘democracy summit’ poses questions for EU identity

The EU is at odds with itself. It wants to be a democracy but presents itself as an association of states. The reason for this contradictory state of affairs is that self-proclaimed illiberal member states continue to prevent the Union from committing itself to its constitutional identity as a European democracy.

US president Joe Biden has highlighted the democratic paradox of the EU by inviting the Union to participate in the Summit for Democracy, which he has initiated with the view to demonstrate the vitality of the democratic model. The summit is to be held 28-30 March and will be attended by over 100 countries from all over the world.

The European Union is the only international organisation to be welcomed, along with 26 of its 27 member states. Obviously, Biden regards the EU as a democratic international organisation.

From the perspective of international relations, the EU is a rare bird indeed. Theoretically speaking it cannot even exist. The charter of the United Nations, which underlies the current system of global governance, distinguishes between states and organisations of states. The hallmark of states consists of absolute sovereignty.

States do not have to recognise any higher authority and deal with each other on equal footing. They must refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of other states. Violation of this principle constitutes a valid reason for war (casus belli).

In consequence, states are free to organise themselves in line with their own preferences. From the international point of view, states may be empires, dictatorships or constitutional democracies. Although serious violations of human rights are increasingly becoming a matter of concern to the international community, the principle of absolute sovereignty remains the cornerstone of the global order.

Two devastating world wars taught the Europeans in the 20th century that their continent had become too small for absolute sovereignty. The founding states of the EU agreed in 1951 to break the vicious circle of war and to give up absolute sovereignty in exchange for peace.

As their experiment proved to be successful, they decided in 1957 to broaden their cooperation to the entire economy (EEC). Since the pooling of exercise is only feasible between democratic states, the member states identified their community in 1973 as a “Union of democratic States”.

Fifty years later, the EU has evolved from a union of democratic states to a European democracy. In its seminal verdicts on the conditionality mechanism the EU Court of Justice has described how this process has taken place. The member states have first agreed on their constitutional principles between themselves and subsequently applied them to their organisation.

By doing so, they have transformed their union of states into a democratic international organisation. As a befriended outsider, president Biden has acknowledged this evolution and has invited the EU as a showcase of democratic innovation to participate in the Summit for Democracy.

The European Union, however, is still pondering over its identity.

For the EU Commission this wavering is most problematic. The constitutional democratic approach to the EU is supported by vice-president Dubravka Suica who bears responsibility for democracy and by commissioner Vera Jourova who has to uphold the rule of law.

Moreover, EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen tends to position herself as a torchbearer of democracy. Her 2022 State of the Union address mentioned the term democracy more than 20 times, while she depicted the conflict with Russia over the war in Ukraine as a battle between autocracy and democracy.

Although she is in the position to adjust the outdated presentation of the EU as an association of states to present realities, however, von der Leyen continues to describe the EU in its publications as “a unique economic and political union between 27 European countries.”

Without any reference to citizens, to democratic institutions, to elections or to the European Parliament.

The answer to the question as to why the EU hesitates to come out as a European democracy, lies hidden the caves of Brussel’s bureaucracy.

At the start of the quest for the solution of the conundrum, it must be realised that EU communication is a responsibility of the Union. The commission and its president are in the lead. In practice, however, the commission decides in cooperation with the parliament and the council.

The most likely explanation of the current deadlock is that, while the three institutions have agreed that changes to the existing texts need unanimous consent, the council requires the approval of all member states, thus effectively rendering the authoritarian member states a veto on EU democracy.

Be that as it may, the EU must lift the illiberal veto and seize Biden’s invitation for the summit as a welcome opportunity for committing itself to its constitutional identity as a European democracy.

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