After a decade of dismal years, during which the European Union seemed to be besieged by its own biblical plagues, the European Commission took the initiative to restore citizens’ confidence in the Union by publishing a White Paper on the Future of Europe.

Laudable as this initiative may be, the White Paper contains a remarkable paradox. It proposes to strengthen the bond between citizens and the Union by presenting various modes of cooperation between member states.

The need to involve citizens in the functioning of the EU has already been stressed by the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, in his inaugural address to the European Parliament in 2014. He described his team as “the last chance Commission: either we succeed in bringing the European citizens closer to Europe – or we will fail”.

In view of this creed, it seems almost beyond belief that citizens should form the blind spot of the White Paper on the Future of Europe. Admittedly, citizens did not play any part in the organisation of the European Communities. The Declaration on European Identity, which the European Council adopted in 1973, correctly portrayed the Communities as an organisation of democratic states.

“The European Commission should encourage citizens to participate in the democratic life of the Union”

But the character of the organisation changed fundamentally in 1992 with the inclusion of citizens in the legal framework. The Treaty of Maastricht introduced EU citizenship and laid the foundation for the evolution of the EU towards a Union of states and citizens. The Lisbon Treaty, agreed in 2007, pictures the Union as one of both states and citizens, in which the citizens are entitled to participate in the national democracies of their countries and in the common democracy of the Union.

If the Commission wants to overcome the ‘multiple crisis decade’ and intends to restore the trust of citizens in the present EU, the White Paper should be preceded by and/or complemented with a strategy for reinforcing the bond of trust between the Union and its citizens.

The theory of democratic integration – something I have developed since the conclusion of the Maastricht Treaty – is a solid basis for the Commission to launch a citizen-oriented strategy. The novelty of the theory is that it replaces the diplomatic perspective of states with the civic viewpoint of democracy and the rule of law.

The theory presumes that, if two or more democratic states agree to share the exercise of sovereignty with a view to attaining common goals, the organisation they establish for this purpose should be democratic too. The EU should not only pride itself on being the largest union of democratic states in the world – as the White Paper on the Future of Europe does – but aspire to function as a democracy of its own.

The practical value of the theory lies in its capacity to provide guidance to the EU in its transition from an organisation of democratic states (from Copenhagen in 1973) to a democratic union of states and citizens (Lisbon in 2007, and beyond).

“The White Paper should be preceded by and/or complemented with a strategy for reinforcing the bond of trust between the Union and its citizens”

This means that the European Parliament and the European Commission should adapt themselves to the innovations brought about by Lisbon. The European Parliament elections are still based on a law from 1976, with citizens of member states entitled only to cast their vote in the state in which they live: a state-, not citizen-based system. Although Article 10(2) of the Treaty on European Union states that the citizens are directly represented at EU level in the European Parliament, the electoral rules have not been adjusted. The rules may even amount to discrimination on grounds of nationality.

Similarly, the European Commission should no longer regard citizens primarily as participants in Second World War commemorations or twinning activities but encourage them to participate in the democratic life of the Union and initiate EU citizenship education programmes.

Looking beyond the 2019 European Parliament elections, the theory of democratic integration suggests that the long-standing stalemate in the debate about the future of Europe has been overcome. Since Lisbon, the question is no longer whether the EU should become a federal state or form a confederal union of states. Thanks to the Lisbon Treaty the clash of opinions between the federalists and the sovereignists has ceased to be relevant. The novelty of ‘Lisbon’ is that it construes the EU as a democracy without turning the Union into a state. Putting this breakthrough in technical terms, the theory holds that the EU forms a Union of states and citizens.

From this perspective, the long-term aim of the EU should be to evolve towards a Union of democratic states and European citizens, which functions as a constitutional democracy.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – © European Union 2014 – European Parliament