Transnational democracy

A Handbook on the European Union - Book index

In this third and final part of the book we delve into political theory, to examine such notions as “decentralisation” and “sovereignty”, for the sake of adapting them to the reality of the European Union. Our thesis is that the European Union is an experiment in transnational democracy. By that we mean that it is a new way of doing politics in Europe, one that contrasts with the historical paradigm of foreign policy (and war) between European nation states.

The EU is often presented in a negative light, sometimes correctly due to its own flaws and limitations. Its problems are amplified by such shocks as the euro crisis or, more recently, the migrant and refugee crisis. What these phenomena do is put the EU architecture to the test, exposing the areas where it clearly falls short of meeting its own principles and fulfilling its objectives.

Inadequacy and incompleteness do indeed characterise much of the European Union. Yet one ought to bear in mind the nature of European integration as a process. The shortcomings of the existing order should not be the source of negativity and ultimately nihilism, while any shortcomings cannot be blithely attributed to “Brussels” as such, for they often derive from the conflicts of national agendas within intergovernmental entities. It is of paramount importance to keep sight of the broader picture. Each crisis, every instance of friction, does indeed pose a challenge, revealing a certain constraint on collective action. What this system does offer though should not be underestimated nor be taken for granted, while calls for abolishing the EU or parts thereof should be judged on the basis of their merit as realisable and credible alternatives, not be offered support solely as a reaction to the EU’s actual problems.

Criticism of the EU is not a bad thing. Still, one ought to be eclectic and fair, which probably is more demanding than pursuing the politics of negation. An engaged and constructive spirit would ultimately help improve daily life in the EU. One also has to have a historical perspective, to appreciate where Europe was in the first half of the 20th century or in centuries past, and where it now stands. Despite all its frailties, European integration has been mostly positive, something worth having and striving to improve, rather than something to be abolished.

What the political unification of Europe can do is prepare European nations for the global challenges of the 21st century. A united Europe is one that can have an impact on international trade, in global security, and perhaps most importantly, in the protection of the environment and the necessary transition to ecological—maybe more circular—forms of production and consumption. If the European continent were to continue as a patchwork of squabbling nation states, it would have remained fragile, exposed to external shocks, and could have eventually become a peripheral player in global politics.

While such considerations have their value, one should not rely entirely on the international or external challenges facing European nations. European integration cannot be understood as a mere reaction to an exogenous impetus, however defined. The political unification of Europe is something more than a coalition of interests for influencing the international order. A European polity is not a cartel of sorts, nor should it be cast in that light. There actually are endogenous reasons for pursuing European integration.

Firstly, this is a means of guaranteeing inter-state peace. The history of Europe has been one of perpetual conflict between its various nations, including those that currently are Member States of the European Union. No such thing can be claimed about those very same nations since the formal introduction of the European Communities.

Secondly, a Europe divided along national lines is not a good place to do business in a globalising world. It makes little practical sense to maintain all sorts of barriers to the movement of goods, persons, services, and capital while technological innovation as well as a greater awareness of international politics are rapidly making our world a more self-conscious whole.

Thirdly, the nation state arguably is a European invention. Though its underlying nationalism, understood as the traditional sentiment of being pro-nation-state, has achieved certain normative ends, this form of political organisation has also been the source of suffering on a monumental scale. Two World Wars can, to an extent, be attributed to the tensions between conflicting nationalisms. If bringing ideas to the world entails a certain responsibility, then perhaps it can be expected from Europeans to think of ways to correct the inherent flaws of the nationalist conception of statehood. A transnational democracy—understood as transnational and not as a European nationalism—can be that step forward.

Against this backdrop, it is important to adopt a synthetic view of the forces that influence the European integration process. Though differences of opinion may arise as to which set of factors is most important to the political unification of Europe, the fact remains that one has to account for both the internal and external dimensions of the broader issue. Maybe there will be instances of integration that are driven by exogenous events, while others are pursued for endogenous reasons. Whatever the case, Europe’s experiment in transnational democracy, if proven successful, can provide a template for doing politics in an increasingly interconnected global order.