The EU and the Global Quest for Lasting Peace

The EU and the Global Quest for Lasting Peace

[Jaap Hoeksma focuses on the nature and functioning of the EU. He has recently published The Democratisation of the European Union.]

Seventy years after the start of the experiment with pooling sovereignty, the European Union turns out to embody the most significant innovation of the modern state system so far. The hallmark of the EU in its present form is that it applies the constitutional values of democracy and the rule of law to an international organisation. As a result, the EU can no longer be comprehended in the traditional terms of the Westphalian system of International Relations as either a state or an association of states. Instead, the EU has established itself as a new kind of international organisation, which may be perceived from the internal viewpoint of the citizens as a democratic union of democratic states, while it can be identified from the UN-perspective of global governance as a democratic regional polity. Recalling that the original aim of the founding states in the middle of the 20th century was to prevent the renewed outbreak of war (Nie Wieder Krieg), it will be suggested that the EU has developed a new model for ensuring lasting peace.    

Eternal Foundation

The historical reason as to why the new model for attaining lasting peace emerged in Europe, is that the old continent formed the theatre of two devastating world wars in the 20th century. Since the start of the Early Modern Era the states of Europe have been conducting their mutual affairs on the basis of the Westphalian system of International Relations. The core of this system consists of absolute sovereignty. It has been celebrated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the eternal foundation of our international system. 

After its restoration in the wake of the Napoleonic adventures, the Westphalian system was generally regarded as the guarantor of the balance of power. Due to the emergence of the principle of self-determination in the course of the 19th century, major European powers saw themselves confronted with internal unrest and secession movements. The Great War (1914-1918) resulted in the demise of four empires and the rise of numerous smaller sovereign states in Europe and beyond. However, both the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations failed to address the root causes of war by leaving the principle of absolute sovereignty untouched. 

The Legacy of Westphalia

The Organisation of the United Nations, which was founded after World War II, reaffirmed the right of self-determination and accentuated universal faith in human rights. On the old continent, ten countries established the Council of Europe in 1949 and adopted the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in 1950. Promising as these developments appeared to be, they did not meet the demand for no more war, expressed by the peoples of many European countries. The difference between the existing organisations and the European Community for Coal and Steel was that the founding states of the ECSC broke with the principle of absolute sovereignty by attributing sovereignty over the raw materials required for war to a higher authority. So, the process of European integration started as a deliberate attempt to overcome the constraints of the Westphalian system. 

Notwithstanding their intentions, the way of thinking of post-war politicians continued to be dominated by the Westphalian template. In line with the artificial distinction between states and international organisations they propagated the view that the values of democracy and the rule of law can only thrive within the borders of a sovereign state. In consequence, the legacy of the Westphalian paradigm caused a paralysing debate in the emerging polity. While all participants in the discussion about ‘the nature of the beast’ wanted their Europe to be democratic, one school of thought posited that the member states were to be regarded as the natural keepers of democracy, while the other school located the seat of democracy in the polity per se. Over the decades, the two opposing schools came to mistrust each other so deeply that progress could only be made if and as long as the end goal of the common effort was not mentioned. In hindsight, the appearance of this ‘paradox of the finalité politique is the more perplexing since the drafters of the 1957 Treaty of Rome had formulated the objective of their endeavour in post-Westphalian terms as ‘to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’.  

The Democratisation of the European Union

This state of mind may be the main reason for explaining why post-war scholars and politicians have been unable to observe that the steadily expanding European polity was evolving in another direction than they had predicted. While customs unions are not uncommon in international law, the finding of the European Court of Justice in 1963 that the Member States had given their Community an ‘autonomous legal order’, should have been perceived as a clear sign that the polity was moving away from the Westphalian system. The ensuing identification of the Communities as a Union of Democratic States (Copenhagen 1973) served as an encouragement for the Member States to ensure that their polity would also acquire democratic legitimacy of its own. They transformed the existing Parliamentary Assembly into a directly elected Parliament. The first direct elections for the new parliament were held in the spring of 1979, albeit that its members were chosen by the electorates as citizens of the Member States brought together in the Communities. The conditions for European democracy were created through the foundation of the European Union and the introduction of EU citizenship in 1992. Contrary to Westphalian premises, the new status established a direct link between the Union and its citizens and subsequently enabled the citizens to participate in the political life of the Union. The constitutional character of the emerging polity was accentuated through the introduction of the values of the Union by virtue of the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the Union, adopted in 2000, was integrated in the 2007 Lisbon Treaty and openly defies the Westphalian dogmas by applying constitutional principles to an international organisation.  

After the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU was hit by a wave of crises. For almost a decade, the Union was shaking on its foundations, causing a number of member states to raise the question as to whether they should return to the old concept of national sovereignty. One country decided to withdraw from the EU altogether, while other member states envisaged to reform the Union from within. Poland and Hungary contested the introduction of the rule of law-mechanism in 2020 and argued in a dispute before the EU Court of Justice that the new mechanism amounted to unwarranted interference by the EU in their internal affairs. The ECJ rejected the utterly Westphalian complaint by establishing: first, the member states have voluntarily created their Union; second, have first agreed among themselves on their common values; and third, have subsequently applied these values to their Union. By concluding that the Union must also be able to defend these values within the limits of its competences, the Court confirmed that the EU has abandoned the Westphalian system.    

The Kantian Quest for World Peace

Seen from the perspective of the quest for perpetual peace, which was initiated by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant towards the end of the 18th century, it may even be argued that the EU is emulating the Westphalian system. By sharing the exercise of sovereignty and by functioning as a dual democracy the EU is developing an alternative in reality to Kant’s speculative binary option of either World Republic or Free Federation. Recalling the Kantian observation in his essay Zum Ewigen Frieden, that the consequences of injustices, committed in one part of the world, will also be felt elsewhere, it must be concluded indeed that the world has become too small for the exercise of absolute sovereignty by absolutely sovereign states. Today’s blockade of grain from Ukraine by Russia leads to starvation in the Middle East and Africa. Europe may have been the first continent to experience that the Westphalian concept of absolute sovereignty has become obsolete in a globalised world. In consequence, the EU and its member states owe it to the world to lead by example and to show in practice that their post-Westphalian model of transnational governance can work.

Summit for Democracy

The present conclusions are not without relevance for the second edition of the global Summit for Democracy, which is to be held towards the end of March on five continents in a hybrid form. So far, academic authors have merely acknowledged the appearance of the democratic peace dividend. According to the Democratic Peace Theory, countries with liberal democratic forms of government are less inclined to wage war on each other than countries with other forms of government. The way in which the European polity has evolved in the course of seven decades, demonstrates that there is more to it. Summarising the EU’s evolution in an aphorism, it may be suggested that the desire to prevent the recurrence of war is resulting in the emergence of a transnational European democracy. The political prerequisite for this outcome consists of the willingness of the participating states to share sovereignty. Obviously, the practice of pooling sovereignty is only feasible between democratic states. The history of the EU corroborates the thesis that the new model for ensuring lasting peace can work on condition that the participating states have liberal democratic forms of government and that they are willing to refrain from the Westphalian principle of absolute sovereignty for the realisation of their common endeavour.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine without a formal declaration of war and, indeed, without a valid casus belli highlights the challenge for the present and the coming generations of European politicians. They have to make their post-Westphalian approach work in a world in which the Westphalian dogma of absolute sovereignty still prevails. In addition, it must be acknowledged that other democratic countries and allies continue to profess their adherence to the Westphalian paradigm. While the EU may argue that the European experience of the 20th century demonstrates that the 21st century world has become too small for absolute sovereignty, it can not force its friends let alone its foes into acceptance of its multilateral world view. The recognition of this dilemma should, however, not be perceived as an encouragement for returning to the old Westphalian ways, as the Brexiteers in the UK erroneously believe. The lessons to be learned from its own history compel the member states and the EU to go forward. There is no guarantee that their endeavour will succeed and that their attempt to transform the UN-system of global governance will bear fruit. Contemporary transborder problems like nuclear proliferation, climate change and pandemics, however, are exposing the limitations of the current system of international relations. They highlight that absolute sovereignty is no longer the answer to global problems. If mankind wants to ensure the survival of Planet Earth, it will have to substitute a multilateral approach to global governance for the outdated Westphalian paradigm. 

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