“Governing together, but not as one”: The Case for EU democracy

Updated: Aug 30, 2019

The EU may be described as a system of multi-level governance, where sovereignty is divided between supranational, national and subnational actors. Facing a difficulty with capturing the nature of the multi-level governance of the EU, the Union has often been referred to as an incomplete project, with the future shape of it being most often seen in the form of a federal polity or an intergovernmental cooperation. The Eurozone and the refugee crisis have witnessed a further shift in this ongoing debate, with many seeing the EU as at a crossroads between federalism and a complete political disintegration.

Let’s overcome this stiff binary, however, and try to rethink the way European democracy works, which is arguably at the heart of the project. Let’s consider an alternative to the “either federalism or nothing”-logic and think about ways of improving the quality of EU democracy without changing the basic structure of the EU (and the identity of its citizens): demoiracy.


At the core of the development of the concept of demoicracy lies the problem of the lack of a common European people, a demos. Most often problematized in the context of the debate around the EU’s supposed democratic deficit, the argument is that the EU cannot be fully democratic because it does not have a common people to sustain its democracy. Indeed, if democracy is government of, by and for “the people”, then it is necessary to specify who “the people” in case of the European Union are. This is all the more important since we usually consider a demos to be more than merely the formal members of an electoral constituency (such as all people eligible to vote in EU elections) and more than all citizens of a state or other political community. In the words of Lars-Erik Cederman, a demos requires a “sense of community, a we-feeling”, and is best understood as “a group of people the vast majority of which feels sufficiently attached to each other to be willing to engage in democratic discourse and binding decision-making”.[i]


Looking for the European demos invariably leads to an investigation of the extent to which a common European identity has developed among the citizens of the EU. In this regard, recent Eurobarometer survey’s paint a mixed picture: A full 38 percent of Europeans identify solely with their respective nation, 52 percent identify primarily along national lines, but also as Europeans (secondly), 6 percent consider themselves Europeans first, national citizens second, and only 2 percent feel European with little attachment to national identities (which does not preclude identifying with sub-national or local entities).[ii] On the basis of these numbers, one would be hard pressed to argue that a unified European demos capable of legitimizing EU democracy currently exists. Does that mean that the EU is undemocratic? Not necessarily. But it requires us to rethink democracy and democratic legitimacy in the EU.

We argue that the perception that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit stems from confusing the EU with something it is not: a nation-state. Regardless of whether one is in favor of turning the EU into a fully-fledged federal nation state (“the United States of Europe”), or not, one must acknowledge that it is not a nation-state right now, and that Europeans currently lack the strong feeling of transnational community necessary to legitimately turn the EU into a nation-state. At the moment, the EU is something in-between; neither a fully-fledged nation-state, nor merely an international organization. The European Union does not comprise of a single demos, but of a multitude of different, and sometimes overlapping, demoi. Rather than think of this multitude as an obstacle towards a fully democratic EU, we propose to re-think the model of democratic legitimacy of the EU. In other words, rather than as a nation-state-democracy-in-the-making, let’s think of the EU as a democracy of different demoi, or a demoicracy.


At the core of the concept of demoicracy, developed in the early 2000s by scholars such as Kalypso Nicolaïdis, James Bohman, Francis Scheneval and Frank Schimmelfennig, lies a simple idea: For the peoples of Europe to govern together, but not as one. Europeans identify both as national citizens, but also, and increasingly, as citizens of the European Union. Correspondingly, we simultaneously find national demoi, and a (slowly) emerging European demos, or rather a “demos of demoi” comprising all national demoi. Importantly, this “demos of demoi” is less than a monolithic “European people” (comprising of people who consider themselves solely “Europeans”), but rather a demos of people who consider themselves national citizens and Europeans, and who recognize the citizens of other nation-states as relevant members of an overarching European demos.

Any attempt to resolve the tensions between national and transnational identities in favor of either a scaled-back, purely intergovernmental European Union (as many Eurosceptics would have it) or a European nation-state (as many pro-EU federalists advocate) would, for the time being, ignore one side of European identities. Rather than seeking political models that fit one side of the equation, demoicrats want to balance national and transnational aspects of European identity. This would mean re-conceiving the EU not only as multi-level, but also as multi-centric, and to emphasize horizontal cooperation between the member in addition to the vertical integration in the EU system. Rather than mere institutional tinkering, demoicracy is about an opening of member-state demoi, about strengthening the mutual recognition between national demoi without dissolving them as the primary frames in which democratic self-determination takes place. Two obligations arise for a demoicratic theory of EU democracy, one regarding the vertical integration of EU demoi, the other the horizontal cooperation between demoi. Vertically, demoicrats seek to balance the institutional representation of EU citizens (1) as individuals (transnational) and (2) the representation of EU citizens as members of a national demoi. Horizontally, demoicracy aims at balancing equal transnational rights of citizens on the one side with national policy-making autonomy on the other.


The consequences of these thoughts on how we think about the quality of EU democracy are profound. First, the current institutional setup of the EU roughly corresponds to the demoicratic model: the representation of EU citizens as individuals via the European Parliament vis-à-vis the representation of EU citizens as members of a national demos via the European Council (and the Commission as a European body that needs the support of both). Perfecting the balance between the two requires (at least) two more things: the right of initiative for the parliament (on par with the European Council), and the possibility of transnational lists for European elections, thus realizing the aim of turning the parliament into a representative body of a transnational European citizenry. Contrary to supranationalist visions of the EU, however, the main focus of EU politics should not be on EU-level institutional reform.


This is because, secondly, demoicracy puts member state democracies in the spotlight of the debate around the EU’s democratic deficit. “Silo-democracy”, in which only the results of national discourses independent from one another are passed on to the EU-level, and results of EU-level-decision-making passed down later, are unacceptable from a demoicratic perspective. Negotiating where the right balance between equal transnational rights and national policy-making autonomy is, requires constant interaction and debate between the European demoi and an opening up of national public spheres and media systems. The “demos of demoi” (less than a single demos) can fully emerge only once Europeans see each other as relevant members of the same European demos of demoi, and recognize that what is done and decided in one member state affects other member states as well as the EU, and vice versa. We have seen indications of this already happening, with national debates in certain member states showing more and more interest in the situation in the other ones (for example, the French presidential elections and the justice system reform in Poland).


To conclude, the advantage of demoicracy over other models of EU democracy is that it is less of a utopian vision the EU should strive for than a systematic analysis of how the EU currently functions, what EU democracy is based on, and how it can be improved in the near future. It is not impossible that long-term interaction between EU demoi will lead to the emergence of a European demos in the strong sense of the word. However, as the “long-term” already implies, for the time being, we better focus on how to reconcile national demoi with the European demos of demoi, and how to work towards a stable EU democracy that accepts Europeans as both citizens of a nation state and citizens belonging to a transnational European community.

Dominika is a supporter of the European project, alumni of Euromasters programme and European Horizons and a fresh employee of the European Commission. She believes that the moment to reform the EU is now, and that we need to make it a real Union, which acts in an appropriate manner and on time. Beyond that, she enjoys travelling and learning new things, going to art galleries with her riends and family and doing sports. You can reach her at domineeka.rihova@gmail.com

Patrick is Co-President of the Berlin chapter and one of the European Regional Coordinators. When he's not getting into passionate arguments about the future of the European Union or picking up ever more pieces of movie trivia, he is working on his master's thesis in International Relations. You can reach him at patrick.mesenbrock@europeanhorizons.org


Recommendations for further reading:

- Bohman, James (2005), 'From Demos to Demoi: Democracy across Borders', Ratio Juris, 18 (3), 293-314.

- Cederman, Lars-Erik (2001), 'Nationalism and Bounded Integration', European Journal of International Relations, 7 (2), 139-74.

- Cheneval, Francis and Schimmelfennig, Frank (2013), 'The Case for Demoicracy in the European Union*', JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 51 (2), 334-50.

- Cheneval, Francis, Lavenex, Sandra, and Schimmelfennig, Frank (2015), 'Demoi-cracy in the European Union: principles, institutions, policies', Journal of European Public Policy, 22 (1), 1-18.

- Nicolaïdis, Kalypso (2003), 'The New Constitution as European Demoi-cracy?', Federal Trust Constitutional Online Working Paper No.38/03.

- (2013), 'European Demoicracy and Its Crisis', JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 51 (2), 351-69.

[i] cf. Lars-Erik Cederman, 'Nationalism and Bounded Integration', European Journal of International Relations, 7/2 (2001), 139-74.


[ii] Eurobarometer 83 (2015), http://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/archives/eb/eb83/eb83_en.htm

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