A Handbook on the European Union - Book index

The objective of this publication is to argue that the European Union can be understood as an experiment in transnational democracy. In the present handbook we indirectly examine how this organisation does not fit into any of the existing models for classifying political entities. Though it is a union of states, it is neither a federation nor a confederation. While it is founded on inter-state treaties, it is not like any other international organisation. Even though its legislation is legally binding, it is not a sovereign nation state.

What contributes to such indeterminacy is the very nature of European integration. It is a process that brings together different nation states, each with their own unique characteristics and traditions, with the objective of selectively harmonising areas of policy. By “European integration” we are actually referring to a method for standardising legislation across countries that are members of this organisation. These countries, formally referred to as the European Union Member States, are jointly participating in an array of procedures for bringing about the eventuality of rule standardisation.

If we were to describe the European integration process in a single phrase, it would have to be “cross-border harmonisation”. To understand why that may be the case, and why European leaders find it worthwhile to provide for a common basis for legal provisions and policy targets, we need to consider European history. The European nations were traditionally divided, each developing its own political culture and state structures. To a larger or lesser extent, every European nation that now is a Member State of the EU has had its own historical trajectory as a nation state. From a supranational perspective, each of these paths led to a different direction, eventually contributing to a Europe-wide heterogeneity. Though divisions are a near-permanent feature in European history, it arguably was the experience of two World Wars that made Europeans realise the need for forging closer ties among their nations for the preservation of continent-wide peace. Although conceived to prevent another major war, the first European Communities were economic projects: agreements for gradually developing an area of free trade. With the creation of the European Union, the integration process has, at least in principle, assumed a more ambitious telos: the political unification of Europe.

Examined in its own capacity, every stable state is a peace project among its people. It is a political organisation meant to preserve, at the very least, the public goods of order, security, and health. These are not the only ethical items of a polity. They are however the minimum for preventing lawlessness and internal conflict. Without a certain set of rules, be they codified in law or not, and in the absence of inter-personal qualities for guaranteeing general stability, there can be no functioning state, no organised society. Seen in relation to other states, a stable state can be a degree of peace or a sense of togetherness that is achieved at the expense of other peoples, which amounts to a global “win-lose” situation, where one side gains at the expense of another. That used to be the norm in European power struggles prior to the second half of the 20th century. The European integration process represents a certain change in that regard. It also is a peace project, albeit one that is among stable states: a “win-win” situation, meant to decisively prevent strife on an inter-state level.

A modern republic is not established solely for the purposes of public order, security, and health. There are other values for legitimising a state, most notably the arrangements of power distribution that make up a democracy which functions in accordance with the rule of law. To those we may add economic objectives manifesting in the capacity of individuals to make choices in supplying or demanding goods and services; social considerations such as the distribution of resources, the equal status among social groups, each with their recognition and respect for their unique characteristics; cultural ends like the empowerment of persons through art and self expression, or the equal opportunities for education and participation in the commons; ecological awareness, expressed as respect for the environment, protection of biodiversity, and the overall adaptation of human social experience to nature’s limits. To that end, European integration is not just a peace project, but an overarching ambition to deliver the public goods of a modern republic on a continental level and in a trans-national-border fashion. Transnational democracy is our criterion for judging the European Union. We are, in other words, applying republican principles on a scale beyond the nation state, though not against its normative achievements.

This handbook is divided into three parts. The first concerns the overall design of the European Union, the second is dedicated to the euro, while the third focuses on political theory in order to flesh out the fundamental sovereignty mismatch of the present order. Ultimately though, the themes under consideration do not exhaust the broader subject of European integration. They merely contribute to one’s thinking when examining day-to-day European affairs.