Democracy Beyond Nation-State: Fostering a European Civil Society And Common Identity

By Sean Patrick Bray, Gael Sirello, Olivier Sirello, European Horizons

Today, the EU is clearly undergoing one of its deepest political and economic crises since its early foundation, which, unlike the former, could be fatal this time. Everyone in the EU with important public responsibilities cannot truly disagree with this basic statement. However, no one seems really to be able alone to take decisive actions to prevent the European project to fail. Yet, too many challenges for too many leaders: from financial instability to a lack of the most fundamental democratic features, the European dream is progressively fading away from the younger generations, which increasingly think of the EU as an undemocratic polity with mere apparent use-less regulatory powers. The nature of the European Union is indeed among the top concerns for its citizens. Increasingly facing global challenges, such as immigration and terrorism to name a few, many EU citizens are progressively realizing the importance of European integration. But they have also been increasingly asking to have a say in its political orientation in recent years, coming to fear that uncontrolled integration may engender a threat to democracy, so far exercised effectively only at domestic-national level. Pointing out the lack of representation, accountability, and participation, the rise of populism in several European countries may well express this concern. With exceptions, this may be a clear signal for the EU and national leaders to take significant steps to make the EU a more convincing democratic and fair polity. In this alarming context, a long run vision on European democracy is required to make the project successful. We believe that this calls for political innovation and, first and foremost, a redefinition of democracy at a supranational level. This starts from the formation of a European civil society, involving the building of a common public sphere, which will facilitate political, economic and social interactions among EU citizens and shall be triggered by a sense of European identity forged thanks to common educational and on the basis of welfare policies.

In this short paper, we will start by claiming that the EU is facing a crucial lack of democracy. This claim is even truer if we consider that the EU arguably lacks a European civil society with an integrated public sphere, which prevents the formation of a European political spectrum and, consequently, EU democracy to properly work. From these main assumptions, we will advocate the need for a redefinition of democracy at a supranational level which shall overcome national bar-gaining and be based on a mutual and understanding of common EU norms and values


Lack of representation, accountability and participation: an undemocratic design. One of the critiques we can easily address on the nature of the EU is undoubtedly the lack of sufficient representation, accountability and participation. Even if not unanimously, many EU scholars do not hesitate to point out the lack of an efficient democratic institutional design, which prevents the EU to be qualified as a proper “democracy” (Hix and Føllesdal 2006.) Not representing efficiently the political willingness of its people, the European Parliament is often seen as the symbol of the undemocratic nature of the EU. Although its powers have been reinforced in recent decades, they are none-theless too weak and the majority of EU legislation is actually passed under the consultation procedure (Ibidem: 535.) It is difficult to conceive a democracy without an assembly representing the political diversity of voters, even if we may easily object that this is precisely one of the issues that large democracies pose, since it is well agreed that representation is the inverse function of the number of citizens (Dahl 1998: 107.) Leaving this issue aside, the EU lacks also of accountability, which is meant to be one of the founding characteristic of every democratic system. As recently shown during the financial and Euro crisis, the Commission, which could be qualified the executive heart of the EU (Nugent 1997: 6), is often judged as a remote, distant and intangible institution that, even if it does de jure respond to the European Parliament, de facto it is “not sufficiently accountable to the European public” (Carrubba 2003: 76.) In the same perspective, the Council of the European Union (Council of Ministers) is hardly seen as a direct accountable institution to the European people (Ibidem: 76), while it is one of the most relevant legislative arms of the EU. Finally, the institutional design of the EU is not facilitating EU citizen participation. European elections are fought mainly on domestic issues, rather than on a proper European level (Hix 1999; Marks et al. 2002 cited in Hix and Føllesdal 2006: 535.) Lacking of European parties and marked by higher abstention percentages, EU elections could be considered more as a “parking” for national politicians than a democratic competition to influence the setting of the EU agenda.

Insufficient indirect legitimation. We may also reject the idea the EU is a democracy since Member States provide it with indirect democracy. Those supporting this contrasted view argue national governments continue to impose tight constraints on the EU and check-and-balance its activity democratically (Moravcsik 2002: 609.) However, from our perspective, they overestimate the importance of the intergovernmental nature of the EU and underestimate the importance of supranational institutions. We may indeed reject some assumptions of the classis check-and-balance stance and consider that the communitarian component of the EU, where “supranational features are most evident” (Majone 2000: 16) is not sufficiently backed by the intergovernmentalist one. Recent integration history has shown that “Member States cannot unilaterally ignore and undesirable ruling” (Carrubba 2003: 3), particularly from the ECJ (see Costa versus ENEL, 1964, and Cassis de Dijon, 1978; Mattli and Burley, 2006.) Rejecting this intergovernmental assumption, we argue that an intergovernmental transfer of power to the EU increases the democratic deficit even more.

Without a proper building of the supranational legitimacy at the EU level by means of in-creasing accountability citizen participation, it seems plausible to claim that the more governments will transfer their presumed democratic prerogatives to supranational institutions, the weaker the tie between citizens and institutions will be. In other words, we argue that it will be possible — and needed — to transfer national powers to the EU level only and only when some fundamental democratic features — accountability, representation and participation to name a few — will be implement-ed at a supranational level. This will not be done automatically while transferring powers, but should be achieved before such an important transfer of prerogatives. This will require a huge political effort from Member States in the short run, which will be nonetheless democratically beneficial to EU citizens in the longer run. However, so far, we can only agree that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit since we have shown that the intergovernmental structure is as weak as its supra-national counterpart, whose legitimacy should be improved.

National politics as a hurdle to European democratic development. National politics can be indeed considered as a hurdle to a proper European democratic development. The last developments of the Euro crisis can only confirm that European policies are very frequently a projection of biased domestic policies, not only whose democratic nature at a national level can be contested but which, when pursued at a supranational level, often “[they] are not supported at the domestic level” (Hix and Føllesdal, 2006: 537.) Rejecting the difficulty to think and pursue policies at a regional level, many EU countries have explicitly revealed the domestic essence of their policies. This is easily demonstrable taking into account the global threats to which the EU is confronted today. Issues connected to global immigration are only dealt from national perspective, implicitly undermining the essence of the European project initiated precisely on a mutual normative understanding among States. Immigration requires a regional strategy, involving a transfer of resources to Southern and Eastern countries, as a condition to pursue efficient decisions at the EU level, regardless of their importance and relative impact in domestic terms. In this context, national interests determining EU policies through arcane, weak and unclear bargaining, arguably constitute a threat to European democracy at a larger scale.


In the previous section, we argued that the EU could not be fully considered a democratic polity. In this section, we claim that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit because it has been failed to build a proper European civil society and, thus, create a common public sphere. We as-sume that these features not only seem to be crucially needed for a democracy to function, but also their absence prevents the building of a political spectrum in which voters can identify themselves to take part to democratic life.

Democracy and identity are two intertwined notions. We shall firstly underline the crucial relation-ship between the emergence of a civil society and the building of an effective democracy. In doing this, we may broadly define civil society in Perez-Diaz’s words (1998 cited in McLaverty, 2002: 304) as “an ideal type of society characterized by a set of sociopolitical institutions such as the rule of law, limited and accountable public authority, economic markets, social pluralism and public sphere.” Arguably based on a mutual understanding of common norms, this notion seems to subsuming that of democracy. Indeed, Gellner (1991 cited in Ibidem: 306) points out “the ideas of civil society are […] intimately connected with the establishment of a democratic or liberal social and political order.” We may easily support this claim since it is well agreed that the civil society involves a public sphere, whose notion is undoubtedly related to that of democracy (McLaverty, 2002: 307.) Pushing this argument even further, Habermas indeed argues that public sphere as a condition of civil society “is crucial to the enhancement of democracy” (n.d. cited in McLaverty, 2002: 307) allowing us to acknowledge that without civil society and the public sphere it involves, it is difficult to conceive democracy, at least in its participative sense. From this assumption, we may argue that civil society could be understood as a mould to build a European public sphere as a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy to work.

The absence of a European civil society and public sphere. So far, it is difficult to conceive a civil society at a European level, precisely because it is difficult to conceive a real European public sphere, which is the space for political, economic and social interactions among EU citizens. As evidence, because of the lack of public European medias and the difficulties to overcome linguistic barriers, it is arguably demonstrable that the EU has neither a public sphere nor a civil society (Kas-toryano 2003), which are indeed irrelevant in EU governance (Steffek 2008.) According to Heidbreder (2012: 28), “EU civil society is unlikely to quickly develop into a unified and coherent entity but will for some time remain an assemblage of most Europeanized national publics.” More-over, if we push these arguments even further, the absence of a civil society — public sphere prevents the EU to define a clear European political spectrum, which is arguably one of the needed conditions to build of an efficient democracy.

The consequent lack of European political spectrum preventing EU democracy to work. When citizens and their representatives make informed decisions on national policies, they usually know how to place themselves within their political spectrum. An example might be when one votes for a tax cut for the wealthy, the identity associated with that outcome is generally conservative. On the other hand, if one votes for increases in taxes on the rich, the identity associated with that outcome is generally progressive. Each member state has its own national democratic spectrum. Governments and their citizens have defined the limits of these spectrums working within a defined national identity. Thus, when a French citizen for example votes in an election for the conservatives, he or she understands how those sets of policies will shift the direction of France as a whole.

In terms of the European politics, however, there is no such clear political spectrum. As op-posed to national level where citizens are aware of their common identity when making their choices, the lack of a proper European civil society prevents European citizens voting on European policies from having an opportunity to weigh the consequences simultaneously on both national and EU levels.

The absence of spectrum also produces uncertainty on policy outcomes, as is the case in the Greek referendum. Spectrums are useful because they define the minimums and maximums of a certain policies and allows for societies to find a sustainable balance between the two extremes, limiting risk and fear of the unknown because the two extremes of the spectrum are defined. But the absence of such spectrum at the European level creates fear and uncertainty to move ahead. As soon as the road becomes difficult, the fear of the unknown takes over the psyche of the society, and the society reverts back closer to the known national limit. In terms of European integration, because of the absence of a political spectrum and its limits, the march ahead toward more integration is left unknown. When integration begins to become difficult, Europeans tend to revert back to their national state’s comfort. A few examples would be the recent referendum vote in Greece and the potential Brexit. This trend occurs even when most people would agree that in the long run, a closer union is a stronger union and underlines that the EU has not yet a well-defined political spectrum. Showing the importance of a civil society and its public sphere as well as its implications in terms of political spectrum, we may well argue that the EU lacks of democracy.


Insofar, we have tried to show the extent to which European integration is tied between two problems. On the one side, European institutions suffer from democratic deficit but they play a crucial role into overcoming national decision-making frameworks that appear to be ineffective in the age of globalization. On the other side, it is also arguably true that the lack of a European civil society and public sphere not only compromises the transmission belt between supranational institutions and citizens, but also prevents the creation of a European political spectrum and thus generates uncertainty over EU integration. In this last part, we would like to show that establishing a EU democracy overcoming traditional national boundaries is arguably possible through the rise of a European civil society, which would be facilitated by the creation of a common European identity in the spirit of a constitutional arrangement of the public goals of Europe. To prepare the land for such a project, two of the most important challenges that the EU should tackle are the creation of common systems of public education and welfare policies at the European level.

A renovated view on EU democracy through a deeper integration. Accepting the idea of democratic deficit implies the deep belief that the European project is not just an economic and legal union, but mainly a political union founded on the principles of constitutional representative democracy (Habermas 1990.) Drawing on arguments defended by constitutional republicanism, the basis of European unity should be a constitutional arrangement of the public goals of Europe in the spirit of the Copenhagen declaration,” mainly founded on a set of liberal principles, such as democracy, participation, norms of justice, and civic republicanism (De Beus, 2001.) Following this idea, closing the democratic gap would require a rise of European identity to foster active citizenship in EU policy-making. Such a project would require in turn the formation of a European demos endorsing those liberal values. An ambitious plan to promote a European dimension in education would be a small step for achieving such a big goal.

The role of education into uniting people from different countries in a same union has been crucial since the early stage of the Common Market in 1957. Convinced that public education plays an important role into creating a common identity, the founding fathers and all European elites after them always considered that building a common European public space through the formation of a common identity had to be considered a necessary step towards “an even closer union” (Petit 2007.) Sharing many features engaged by states in nation building but preserving national diversity, the European Commission made several efforts to develop a common identity through transnational practices, among them the most popular Erasmus program. Still, current research on European educational programs like Erasmus shows that they make very little to foster European identity, since the many students involved feel already European (Kuhn 2012.) Several analyses made by Euro barometer does show a clear pattern where higher degree of cross-border mobility among students correspond to higher skills and social position (European Commission 2007.) Said differently, Erasmus program fails to target the low-skilled part of population, which is less persuaded by the importance of the EU as studies on populism in Europe clearly demonstrate (Mayer 2005.)

This is why we as Europeans need first and foremost to establish a common education system across all member-states within the European Union. Without putting aside different national heritages, an effective way to foster a European feeling would start from the harmonization of national school systems beginning from the primary school. For instance, a “European angle” to the contents of several national textbooks is still lacking despite the effort of the European Commission to develop a “European dimension in education” since the late 1970s. Programs of history, geography, literature, and many other subjects, remains too much focused on their respective national dimensions, widening the gap between different — but still similar — cultural legacies within the EU. A re-form of educational programs introducing specific European perspectives to several subjects — first of all, history and geography — should be seriously taken into consideration by the European Com-mission. Increasing transnational practices in education and harmonizing different school systems remains one of the most important challenges for the European Union to tackle to develop a strong-er European feeling. But this is essential to create a sense of unity and make democracy work better in the EU.

Democracy based on common principles to pursue European goals: welfare policies. Welfare policies also constitute the very heart of a promised European land of democracy and prosperity. Ram-pant inequalities within and between national states, to use Balibar’s words, are to be a key factor engendering popular alienation from European democracy (Balibar 2013.) The recent economic crisis seriously jeopardized the dream of a social Europe. Countries like Greece, Portugal, and several other debt-burdened member-states were — and some of them still are — unraveled by deep austerity measures, undermining not only their own internal social cohesion, but also the whole project of integration. As Habermas points out in Democracy in Europe, “[if] for decades the populations perceived the European project as a positive-sum game and embraced it[,] in the course of neoliberal economic globalization, this idea of a social Europe failed” (Habermas 2014: 5.) But, at a time of uncontrolled inequalities, in a period when the social gap between skilled elites and poor educated individuals continues to deepen, and in a continent where the tensions between majority cultures and ethnic minorities cherish extremisms, the social project for Europe cannot be left aside. On the contrary, it should represent a crucial milestone as starting point to rethink the whole European integration. Such an ambitious shift towards a social European dimension must be also met with political re-embedding, requiring additional sovereignty transfer to the European level and enhanced European Parliament.

This is why a common European identity is needed at the European level. A redefinition of democracy from cultural values and from a supranational perspective will be achieved only after the rise of a common European civil society. Indeed, because of the lack of a common identity, today European citizens make their decisions based merely on outcomes from their respective national perspective, thus compromising “the transmission belt between supranational institutions and single citizen” (Heidbreder 2012: 28.) It is imperative that all citizens of Europe, and specifically their leaders, define and promote altogether a clear European identity, which should take into account the most fundamental norms that have driven EU integration and that continue to make the EU a land of alternatives and differences. The completion of the democratic limit’s definition is the only way to provide European voters with a fair and equal opportunity to make informed decisions. This would be one of the first steps in closing the democratic deficit in the EU.


In conclusion, if it is undeniably true that the EU represent today a crucial milestone for its member states in a globalized world, the democratic question of its governances cannot be ignored. Quite the opposite, better democratic governance would result almost certainly in stronger union. It would be an effective antidote to a possible disintegration of the project, more and more threatened by forced national interest-based cohabitation between member-states. A European political union will not mean a blind subjection to a single top-down European policy. It would mean creating an open a space for democratic discussion, participation, and deliberation at the European level. In our very modest view, education and welfare policies represent, among many others, the starting point to develop a Europe-wide sense of identity, solidarity, equality, and dignity among citizens of member states.


Balibar, E., 2013, “A new Europe can only come from the bottom up”, Open Democracy [online]. Available at: [Accessed on 20th June 2015]

Burley, A. M., and Mattli, W., 2006, Europe before the Court: A Political Thoery of Legal Integra-tion. In Sangiovanni-Eilstrup, M., 2006, Debates on European Integration, A Reader, London: Macmillan Press

Carrubba, C. J., 2003, “The European Court of Justice, Democracy, and Enlargement”, European Union Politics, 4, 1: 75–100

Dahl, R. A., 1998, On Democracy, New Haven: Yale University Press

European Commission, 2007, “Eurobarometer 67.1. Cultural Values, Poverty and Social Exclusion, Developmental Aid, and Residential Mobility”, February-March 2007, TNS OPINION & SOCIAL, Brussels [Producer]; GESIS, Cologne [Publisher]: ZA4529.

Føllesdal, A., and Hix, S., 2006, “Why There is a Democratic Deficit in the EU: A Response to Ma-jone and Moravcsik”, Journal of Common Market Studies, 44, 3 INSERIRE PAGINE

Gellner, E., 1991, “Civil Society in Historical Context”, International Social Science Journal, Vol. 32, №3: 495

Habermas, J., 2014, “Why the Development of the European Union into a Transnational Democra-cy is Necessary and How it is Possible”, Democracy in Europe — ARENA Working Paper, 13: 5.

Habermas, J., 1990, Die Nachholende Revolution, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp

Hix, S., 1999, “Dimensions and Alignments in European Union Politics: Cognitive Constraints and Partisan Responses”, European Journal of Political Research, Vol. 35, №1: 69–106

Kuhn, T., 2012, “Why Educational exchange programs miss their mark: Cross-border mobility, ed-ucation and European Identity”, Journal of Common Market Studies, 50, 6: 994–1010.

Majone, G., 2000, “Europe’s Democratic Deficit: The Question of Standards”, European Law Jour-nal, 4, 1: 5–28

Marks, G., Wilson, C. and Ray, L., 2002, “National Political Parties and European Integration”, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 46, №3: 585–594

Mayer, N., 2005, “Votes populaires, votes populistes,” Hermès, La Revue, Vol. 42, №2: 161–166 McLaverty, P., 2002, “Civil society and democracy”, Contemporary Politics, 8:4, 303–318

Moravcsik, A., 2002, “In Defense of the Democratic Deficit: Reassessing the Legitimacy of the Eu-ropean Union”, Journal of Common Market Studies, 40, 4: 603–634

Nugent, N., 1997, At the Heart of the Union — Studies of the European Commission, London: Mac-millan Press

Perez-Diaz, V., 1998, ‘The Public Sphere and a European Civil Society’, in Alexander, Real Civil Societies: 211

Petit, I., 2007, “Mimicking History: The European Commission and its Education Policy”, World Political Science Review, 3, 1: 1–25 [online]. Available at: [Ac-cessed on: 15th June 2015]

Sangiovanni-Eilstrup, M., 2006, Debates on European Integration, A Reader, London: Macmillan Press

Todd, E., 2008, Après la démocratie, Paris: Gallimard.

About the authors

Sean Patrick Bray: American, is currently an accelerated master’s student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for International Public Policy. He is completing his bachelor’s degree in Economics and International Studies with a focus on European Studies.

Gael Sirello: French and Italian, is currently an undergraduate Visiting Student at Magdalen College, University of Ox-ford, reading for Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). Previously, he studied International Relations and Eco-nomics at l’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po Paris) and published many articles concerning Interna-tional and EU domains.

Olivier Sirello: French and Italian, is currently an Undergraduate Visiting student at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. He previously studied International Relations and Economics at l’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po Paris). He has published several articles related to international rela-tions, EU Affairs and political science.

Originally published at on August 28, 2015.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
The European Horizons Editorial Board

The European Horizons Editorial Board


European Horizons empowers youth to foster a stronger transatlantic bond and a more united Europe.