The European Union is an International Organisation or a Federation?


The development of the EU is a remarkable success story of international cooperation; “The European Union is an extraordinary-and extraordinarily controversial-case of cooperation between sovereign states”. The EU has always caused a lot of questions and debates regarding its nature because it`s a unique institution that sits between the federation system and international organization? One of the very basic explanation is: “EU is not a federal state like the United States of America because its member countries remain independent sovereign nations. Nor is it a purely intergovernmental organization like the United Nations because the member countries do pool some of their sovereignty—and thus gain much greater collective strength and influence than they could have acting individually”.

From my perspective, the formulation “sits between”, which stated above, implies a subjective assessment and can be best answered by analysing the EU in these two systems. I plan to divide the chapter into three sections. First, I will analyse the EU in the context of the federation. Second, I will analyse the extent to which the EU can be classified as an international organization. In the final section, I will conclude.


The European Union as Federation

The Federal idea comes to us from an age when the only alternative to the federation was a pattern of treaties in which states promised to act together if certain circumstances arose. There are multiple definitions of the federation. According to the Robert A. Dahl, it`s a system in which some matters are exclusively within the competence of certain local units-cantons, states, provinces and are constitutionally beyond the scope of the authority of the national government, and where certain other matters are constitutionally outside of the authority of the smaller units”. Arend Lijphart popularized the term by describing its characteristics Five secondary characteristics can be identified: a written constitution, bicameralism, the right of component units to be involved in the process of amending, the federal constitution but no change their constitutions unilaterally, equal, or disproportionately strong representation of the smaller component units in the federal chamber and decentralized government.

William H. Riker made his statements narrow, by making points on the federal constitution “A constitution is federal if 1)Two levels of government rule the same land and people, 2)Each level has at least one area of action in which it is autonomous, and 3)There is some guarantee of the autonomy of government in its sphere. By the federal principle, Kenneth C. Where meant The method of dividing powers so that the general and regional governments are each, within a sphere, co-ordinate and independent. So, for being considered as a federation political system must have a) divided government, b) written constitution, c) explicitly formulated exclusive and concurrent areas of jurisdiction. d) consensus in the polity on the value of this complex federal endeavour, implicitly grounds the other three.

Second World War had shown the devastation that ultra-nationalism could cause, the federal idea gained salience, and progress in that direction was begun with the creation of the European Communities. According to the famous declaration of the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman By pooling basic production and by instituting a new High Authority, whose decisions will bind France, Germany and other member countries, this proposal will lead to the realization of the first concrete foundation of a European federation indispensable to the preservation of peace”. At the same time within Europe, West Germany in 1994 adapted for itself a federal constitution. The fundamental principles of the structure and functioning of any federal system can be run to the system of the European Union, as a voluntary association of states or state entities into a federation, equal rights of subjects of the federal system regardless of the area of their territories, population, economic potential, pluralism, and democracy in the relations between the subjects of the federal system among themselves and with citizens, a wide opportunity for citizens to actively and freely participate in federal and regional political processes. Due to its “high degree of “constitutional” development, supranational components, and the rule of law features”, the EU looks like a federation. The EU has the authority to impose rulings on MSs and EU`s institutions, such as the European Commission, Court of Justice, and the European Parliament, are working on a supranational level.

The European Commission can be considered as the largest administration and main policy manager within the European Union (EU), but also a source of political and policy direction”. The most supranational attribute of EC is that Commissioners are nominated by the president or prime minister of their countries, instead of being elected by people, and they shall refrain from any action incompatible with their duties. Member states should respect their independence and shall not seek to influence them in the performance of their tasks”. EU`s another supranational tool is the European Parliament, which is the largest Parliament in the world. EP possesses a high degree of pluralism, but MEPs are acting according to their parties and committee’s interests rather than the interest of their countries and EP elections are second-order in character. This means that most electors consider the European political arena to be less important than the national one and that they, accordingly, use their votes in EP elections to express feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with domestic parties or to bring about political change in their own country.

European Court of Justice also shows the EU`s supranational nature. The rule of law is fundamental for the trajectory taken by integration. The rule of law principle allows for a constitutional interpretation of the Court of Justice of the European Union’s jurisprudence, which since the early 1960s has aimed at the humidification of the integration process and the autonomization of European law. As a principle, it has a “life of its own” and supports far-reaching developments of the law that transformed and constitutionalized Europe. They can be “cooperation” between the CJEU and national courts. But sometimes the latter do not essentially voice concerns regarding the CJEU becoming too powerful. The MSs know that ultimately the power and the legitimacy of the Court are dependent on them and there is no factual top-down approach imposing European law on national judicial authorities. Due to the above-mentioned facts, some scholars argue that the EU is a federal-state or federal commonwealth. Some authors even claim that the path toward an EU has been guided by two models, which aimed to create a European federation, albeit by different means.

Although it should be noted that in the draft Constitution and the Lisbon Treaty of 2007 many features make the EU look like a federal one. First: the EU has a centralized authority, the organization of which increasingly meets the principle of the division of power. Second: the existence of a two-level system of legislation: EU law operates on the territory of the EU, which is limited by the powers of the institutions and bodies of the Union, and at the same time has priority over the law of member states. Third: dual citizenship of the Member States and the EU, however, it has a subsidiary character; the subject of international legal relations of both Member States and the EU. Fourth: The EU has its currency and a very limited amount of taxes. Finally, the existence of a federation-wide practice of dividing competence into exclusive and general. However, this is also not enough to recognize the European Union as a federal entity, since it still does not have its powers, and will act only within the powers granted to it by member states to solve the tasks set for it by the Constitution. This is illustrated by the fact that in the field of foreign policy and security, as well as cooperation in the field of justice and internal affairs, member states fully retain their sovereign rights.

However, federation can produce one advantage in which the functional approach may easily forfeit. It allows issues to be debates in democratic institutions under the guiding influence of public opinion. There is a danger that if West Europe is organized exclusively in expert committees, for removed from the public gaze, vested interests and bureaucratic inertia may slow down progress. On the other hand, some politicians think that for the EU it is better to become a federation. For example, ex-president of European Commotion Jose Manuel Barroso in his annual speech to the European Parliament said “Let us not be afraid of the words: We will need to move towards a federation of nation-states. This is our political horizon. This is what must guide our work in the years to come. It needs to be highlighted, that the EU has no common fiscal policy, and fiscal divergence and associated inflation differentials make the ECB’s job a tough one.

Nevertheless, there are two main differences between the federal system and EU: fiscal federalism and exclusive power for changing the treaties of the EU as before entering into force amendments need to be ratified by the Member States. It`s hard to identify federal features of the EU, because of its combined intra-state (co-operative) and inter-state (dual) federalism. Piattoni stated that the main roadblock towards the federalization of the EU is the weird division of competences at the national and supranational level in the EU, and we can consider that this is the main reason for falling Constitutional Treaty in 2005. In contrast to the federalist political system, the EU separation of power is kind of uncertain and undistinguished. On the other hand, having interaction through governing bodies the EU`s branches of power are separate.


The European Union as International Organization

According to the Yearbook of International Organizations international organization as a body which is being based on a formal instrument of agreement between the governments of nation-states (charter, treaty, etc.), includes three or more nation-states as parties to the agreement and possesses a permanent secretariat performing ongoing tasks. This definition can be applicable in for EU as the EU is created by several treaties. The bases of the EU are European Communities: ECSC, EURATOM, EEC, which are created by treaties. Along with the development of the European Union, new agreements were signed. All those treaties were international, signed by member states as the sovereign party of the treaty, presenting high contracting parties. Parallel to the development of EU, this treaty started to give EU institutions the ability to act independently from member states․ So we can conclude that EU is based on rule of law, and every single action taken by EU is founded on treaties, which lay down not only the objectives of the Union but also rules of EU institutions, decision making and the relationship between EU and its Member States.

The current structure of the EU created according to the Treaty on European Union: The Union shall have an institutional framework which shall aim to promote its values, advance its objectives, serve its interests, those of its citizens and those of the Member States, and ensure the consistency, effectiveness, and continuity of its policies and actions”.

According to Article 47 of the TEU The Union shall have legal personality”, which means that the EU can exercise rights in the international legal transaction and enter into obligations over the whole field of the treatises’ objectives. It is crucial not to forget that EU MSs have their legal personality too.

According to EU treaties, we can consider that the EU has two levels of objectives: regional, as It shall promote economic, social and territorial cohesion, and solidarity among the Member States and international as promoting economic, social and territorial cohesion, and solidarity among the Member States. Combining these objectives, we can state that the main objective of the EU is to create collaboration between MSs in the base of treaties and promote economic growth, security and democracy; and that objectives haven't changed since 1950. When the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman announced that France and Germany would place their main war industries under the control of a supranational organization: We must build united Europe not only in the interest of the free nations but also to be able to admit the peoples of Eastern Europe into this community”.

The main characteristics of International organizations are working languages and the budget. Regarding the working languages, today EU has 24 working languages, from which 3 (English, French, and German) have a higher status of “procedural languages” for the European Commission. But in its first years, the EU used to have four working languages: Dutch, French, German, and Italian. The 2019 EU budget is set at €165.8 billion in commitments (money that can be agreed in contracts each year) and €148.2 billion in payment credits (money that will be paid out).

So, the EU can be considered as an international organization concerning the above stated classical definition: it was established by nation-states based on a treaty and has objectives, finances, working languages, and distinct legal personality. The diverse culture within the EU, full of diverse languages and cultural beliefs is another argument to perceive EU as an International Governmental organization; but on the other hand, the EU can be considered as a regional organization of integration, because of its political and sectorial nature.



This essay has shown that while undoubtedly the fact that the EU has a federal feature at the same time it can be considered as an international organization. The reason for this phenomenon is how the EU is using its powers. Due to its way of being and institutional characteristics the EU is a unique system. Answering to the question “The EU is more than an International Organization and less than a Federation?” always raises many problems. The EU has some characteristics typical for an international organization and others for the federation, but at the same time, it cannot be considered as a federation or international organization. It can be noted that today there is no objective basis for any definitive conclusions regarding the determination of the form of the EU device. From my perspective, despite its federal features, the EU is nevertheless a unique international organization, as its legal order is recognized by the EU Court as autonomous, it is a special part of international law. Therefore, the EU legal system is largely consisting of international legal instruments, especially in the framework of the second and third pillars, where member states retain their sovereignty. Like many international organizations, the EU combines intergovernmental forums, with unique supranational institutions. The fact that EU institutions have powers only in specific areas means that they are not able to choose their priorities like a sovereign state; nor meet modern states' challenges. As the world`s largest and most extensive regional integration project, the European Union is bound to be closely observed by academics, policy-makers, and the world public alike, as regional integration continues to deepen around the world.  At the same time, we can conclude that European Union is a sui generis organization that contradicts the standard models of international organizations, with its supranational components, democratic creation, constitutional development, and rule of law.

Anzhela Mnatsakanyan is a political researcher, focusing on the European Union, the Eastern Partnership, the EU-Armenia relations and on Nagorno-Karabakh. Currently, she is a PhD student at Yerevan State University. She holds an Advanced master's degree in Arts in European interdisciplinary studies from the College of Europe in Natolin and a master's degree in International Relations from Yerevan State University. Anzhela is an author of the numbers of academic papers and research articles.