04 April 2014

People, not member states: A treaty change for a new era of political organisation

The idea of a new treaty reform is out there – and it is time to talk about our priorities. In this loose series of guest articles, eurobloggers answer to the question: “If you could change one thing in the EU Treaties, which would it be?” Today: Protesilaos Stavrou. (Back to the start of the series.)

The sovereign state once bore a sword and a sceptre, now it is signing treaties. But isn’t it time for citizens to speak for themselves?
In this blog post I wish to propound an argument for amending Article 1 of the Treaty on European Union. My analysis will reflect on the tenets of statehood, as encapsulated in the fundamental concept of sovereignty. Ultimately, the main claim is that a change to the EU Treaties can set a new direction for political organisation; one that is no longer founded upon the primacy of the quasi-personified state and the alleged “transcendental” presence of the nation, but which rather rests on the person as the indivisible component of the political whole.

The Westphalian Tenets of Statehood

The Peace Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, that ended the Thirty Years’ War, was the first to arguably introduce some key concepts peculiar to what later became the nationalist conception of statehood; “nationalist” in the sense of identifying a “nation” to a “state”. Although alluding to that treaty may not pay justice to either its letter, spirit or the historical milieu that engendered the need for its enactment, I shall use the term “Westphalian” as a shorthand for naming a magma of significations attached to the concept “state” as these were formulated by subsequent interpretations of the original treaty and, most importantly, by the application of the inferences that were drawn from them.

These Westphalian tenets of statehood can be summarised and enumerated thus:
1. The reification of the state as the entity that exercises supreme authority over a clearly delineated territory,
2. The principle of self-determination of states that also entails the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of another state,
3. The principle of equality between states qua states.

This list of basic principles is covered by —or derived from— the core concept of “sovereignty”. Benign or pernicious as their meticulous implementation may have been, this is the legacy of the Peace Treaty of Westphalia; that primary idea of state sovereignty which has heretofore permeated and penetrated most of the emanations of political organisation.

If, for the sake of clarity, we were to pierce the hermeneutic patina of the Westphalian shibboleths, we would recognise that they originate in an otherwise phantasmagorised understanding of the state as an exalted impersonal agency that has “rights” and “powers” of its own; all of which are derived from its presumed primacy over a given territory. Such ontological considerations aside, these principles, anachronistic as they might appear to EU enthusiasts and “supra-nationalists”, have hitherto been at the heart of the European integration process, as shall be presented below.

Article 1 TEU

Before providing the argument for amending Article 1 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), let us proceed with presenting its actual text:
By this Treaty, the HIGH CONTRACTING PARTIES establish among themselves a EUROPEAN UNION, hereinafter called ‘the Union’, on which the Member States confer competences to attain objectives they have in common.
This Treaty marks a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen.
The Union shall be founded on the present Treaty and on the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (hereinafter referred to as ‘the Treaties’). Those two Treaties shall have the same legal value. The Union shall replace and succeed the European Community.
The founding treaties of the EU are legal acts between states, underpinned by the principles of statehood outlined in the previous section. Sovereign states are agreeing to a sort of a contract that binds them to a specified objective or set thereof and which entails certain rules, obligations and modes of conduct. The Treaty on European Union is no exception. Its signatories —the high contracting parties— are none other than the Member States of the Union.

The EU as a society of states

Notwithstanding the degree of mysticism necessary for accepting that a nominal entity —a state— can actually assume any duty or follow any course of action, there is a more practical problem with the wording of Article 1 TEU. Namely, that it unequivocally establishes the European Union as a society of states whose interests happen to converge on certain issues, allowing them to part some of their sovereignty for the sake of meeting their ends. Thus, the European Union is, in essence, the vivid realisation of a common agenda of some states.

This is not to suggest that its presence is not desirable nor to claim that individual citizens have nothing to gain out of it. It is just an observation of a fundamental presumption in EU politics that is made manifest as inter-governmental policy-making over a range of issues. States indeed agree to take decisions “as closely as possible to the citizen”, though that pledge still suggests that the primacy of decision rests with them, not with the people or their elected representatives in the European Parliament.

A sum of democracies does not make a greater democracy

It is indeed the case that all EU Member States are more or less governed along democratic lines. However, it also is a fact that their interoperation does not give rise to a genuinely democratic order; one that could arguably be greater than that of its parts. The reason for this outcome is to be identified in the Westphalian principles that inform and invigorate the inter-governmental, quasi-confederal institutional architecture of the Union.

Take for instance the three institutions involved in the legislative process. For the time being, the European Commission is not elected by the citizens, regardless of whether that would/could occur in the framework of a parliamentary or presidential system. The Council of the European Union is comprised of ministers or even “Permanent Representatives” (i.e. ambassadors) from Member States, who happen to be appointed in office. That leaves only the European Parliament as the institution that enjoys democratic legitimacy.

Then, of course, there also is the European Council, the formal setting for the heads of state and government of Member States, which is not involved in the legislative process, yet whose decisions are of cardinal importance in shaping European political reality (not to mention the other key institutions in that respect, the European Central Bank and the Court of Justice of the European Union).

Against this backdrop, the EU cannot become a genuine democracy, for ultimate authority does not lie in the hands of the demos. A number of institutional actors, operating at higher levels of power, where an immense penumbra of complexity surrounds the exact terms of the process, take decisions in ways that citizens may not agree with or be fully aware of. Hence, the remoteness of European politics, not in the spatial but the perceptual sense, consists in individual citizens being prevented by structural factors from actually contributing to the policies that ultimately influence or condition their lives.

Sovereignty springs from the people

In light of the above, I consider that Article 1 TEU needs to be amended as follows (new text is in bold and italics):
We the people of Europe establish among ourselves a EUROPEAN UNION, hereinafter called ‘the Union’, on which we confer competences to attain objectives we have in common.
This Treaty marks a new stage in the process of creating an overarching European democracy, in which decisions are taken with our participation and consent.
The Union shall be founded on the present constitution.
Admittedly, this modest reformulation would not be sufficient to tackle all of the EU’s shortcomings. It would however provide the impetus for gradually overcoming the Westphalian tenets of statehood, by first and foremost swiping into the dustbin of history the presumption that states can be treated as persons.

Political authority will eventually have to be recognised as ultimately springing from the individual, since “sovereignty” —the power to determine oneself— is connatural with all the inalienable and indivisible rights that partake of the very humanity of the person. If it were to be accepted that citizens/persons are the ones who ultimately hold supreme authority —sovereignty— and not some impersonal entity —the state—, that ostensibly acts in their name, then it would follow that they can by themselves agree to the creation of an overarching European democracy.

Polycentric democracy

Such a reversal to the flow of sovereignty, as tacitly suggested by the above amendment, is not only vital for truly democratising the EU, it can also herald the start of a new era of political organisation that would transcend the status quo. One such possibility is to move from the current setup of democracy as a largely monocentric edifice into a dominantly polycentric one.

In this new type of political organisation there could be micro-centres such as in the form of independent cities or autonomous regions, whose people proceed to regulate the common affairs of their own in whatever manner may suit them best, without violating the overriding principles that are shared between all the micro-centres. In other words, these micro-centres would operate within a given framework of fundamental values that would be common to all citizens regardless of the micro-centre they would happen to reside in. It is such general values, such a framework, that the overarching European democracy can uphold.


To conclude on a more general note, the purpose and usefulness of theory is, among others, to suggest potential states of affairs, to reveal cases yet to be constituted. Democracy itself did not start off as a definitive roadmap for political reform. It was a simple idea suggesting that the people can take care of their own affairs, without having to put their faith in those who would purport to act on behalf of some nebulous authority.

Simple ideas such as that one can still push us forward, not only to address current problems such as the democratic inadequacies of the European Union, but above all, to overcome the constraints imposed on us by outdated conceptions of political reality. An amendment to a single EU Treaty Article cannot force a shift in paradigm, yet its significance consists in revealing the possibility of thinking and acting otherwise. Once that is comprehended and internalised, no atavistic concept can withstand the inexorable impulse for change.

Protesilaos Stavrou, also known as “Prot”, is an economist and political scientist working at the European Parliament as an assistant to an MEP. He used to have a blog on the Eurocrisis and EU politics though he currently is interested in philosophy and aspires to pursue an academic career in that field. His website, where he now writes about his philosophical considerations, is protesilaos.com.
If you could change one thing in the EU Treaties, which would it be?

1: Wenn du eines an den EU-Verträgen ändern könntest, was wäre es?
2: Making the Commission truly Democratic ● Eurocentric
3: Against the creeping transfer of powers: a subsidiarity test by the European Court of Justice ● Martin Holterman
4: Political union – the butterfly effect of a single word ● Horațiu Ferchiu
5: People, not member states: A treaty change for a new era of political organisation ● Protesilaos Stavrou
6: Eine Klausel für sozialen Fortschritt ● Eric Bonse 

Pictures: Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan [Public domain]; private photograpg [all rights reserved].

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