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Flags of the European Union in front of the EU Commission building Berlaymont in Brussels, Belgium (Christian Lue via Unsplash)

Deep Dive: “Militant Democracy” in the European Union?

Words: Emily Tamkin
Pictures: Christian Lue

If European Union member states are backsliding democratically, should the EU respond with “militant democracy”? Is it already doing so? Those are the questions before Tom Theuns in the paper “Is the European Union a militant democracy? Democratic backsliding and EU disintegration” published by Cambridge University Press.

Theuns argues that the EU is a militant democracy in a limited, specific sense, but that this might actually be counterproductive for democratic purposes. 

Theuns argued that the strongest argument for militant democracy requires meeting two conditions: “an ‘existential threat condition’ and a ‘necessity condition.’”

The existential threat condition says that if the threat does not existentially threaten the polity as a democracy, a militant democratic response is not justified. For example, “When faced with minor threats, democracies should wield the standard tools of criminal and constitutional prohibitions, sanctioning anti-democratic actions with fines or imprisonment rather than targeting the equal civil and political rights of anti-democratic actors.”

If European Union member states are backsliding democratically, should the EU respond with ‘militant democracy’?

Relatedly, the necessity condition means that the use of militant democratic measures depends on whether they are necessary to “neutralize” the threat. 

Theuns writes that, to be a militant democratic measure in a narrow sense, that measure must “be suitable to responding to existential threats to the democratic character of the European Union” and also “sanction anti-democratic actors by limiting their equal civil or political rights rather than via ordinary and generalized sanctions proscribing anti-democratic actions.” 

Acting in a “Militant Democratic Fashion”

He then analyzed four ways that the European Union has been alleged to be “empowered to act in a militant democratic fashion to combat democratic backsliding in EU member states”: infringement procedures; the rule of law conditionality regulation; deregistering anti-European parties and foundations; and Article 7. 

Theuns explains that, though you could describe some of these as “militant democracy,” not all fall under that definition. For example, “infringement actions target the anti-democratic action through ordinary sanctions rather than targeting the equal civil and political rights of the anti-democratic actor,” which is to say they would not meet the narrow definition. On the other hand, deregistering actors does.

Theuns, though admitting that the EU may well be acting in democratic self-defense in using such measures, then questions whether it’s really possible to achieve the necessity condition by pointing out that a non-militant response is always possible though forms of EU disintegration.

He concludes that “EU actors should prioritize robust non-militant measures where possible while pro-democratic member states should disassociate from frankly autocratic member states where non-militant measures fail.” When non-militant measures fail, Theuns argues, the democratic members should instead disassociate from their authoritarian counterparts to keep the European Union — and themselves — democratic in nature. 

Emily Tamkin

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