Principles of economic union: An extension of
John Rawls's theory of justice
In this article I identify the principles of justice by which an economic union is to be constituted. For this purpose, I
extend John Rawls's constructivist theory of justice to economically integrated societies. With regard to the
principles identified, I defend a twofold claim. First, the principles of economic union generated by this extended
procedure of construction can serve as common points of reference for the subjects of an economic union.
Second, these principles cannot come into conflict with similarly constructed prior principles of social justice
and international justice.
In recent years the European Union has been confronted with wars near its borders (Ukraine, Northern Africa, Middle
East), with an influx of refugees, partly as a result of these wars, and with difficult relations with some Member States
(Greece, Poland and the UK). Some have argued that the response of the EU to these problems reveals that the Union
suffers from a legitimacy crisis or an identity crisis.
These latter two crises are related: as long as the standards of
justice by which the Union is to be constituted remain unclear or contested, which amounts to an identity problem,
there cannot be agreement about the Union's legitimacy.
In this article the aim is to identify the standards of justice
that ought to guide an economic union and to help address the identity issue in this way.
That it makes sense to search for such principles of justice is disputable. There is an influential line of thought
according to which justice applies only within a society and therefore has no relevance beyond the state.
statism, as it is called, is exemplified, both its adherents and critics agree, by the theory of the American philosopher
Faculty of Law, Department of Legal Theory and Legal History, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (firstname.lastname@example.org). I am grateful for the
comments on previous versions of this article by Jan Pieter Beetz, Luigi Corrias, Ben Crum, Alon Harel, Markus Patb erg, Jared
Sonnicksen, Olaf Tans and by the attendees of the two author workshops in Amsterdam, of the panel Theorizing the Normative Identity
of the EU Polity of the ECPR Standing Group on the European Union Conference in Trento, 16 June 2016, and of the meeting of the Vrije
Universiteit Centre of European Legal Studies in Amsterdam, 30 June 2016. I am also grateful for the papers presented on these occa-
sions, from which I have learned a lot. Antoinette Scherz's discussion of Francis Cheneval's theory of multilateral democracy gave me
the idea for this article.
See, for instance, the recent discussion in E. Herlin‐Karnell and P.F. Kjaer, ‘Dimensions of Justice and Justification in EU and Trans-
national Contexts', (2017) 8 Transnational Legal Theory,1,1–2. The premise of these and similar analyses is that the EU, as it is, is capa-
ble of solving the problems referred to in the main text. This premise does not underlie this article. The EU, both as economic union
and international organisation (see Section 2), is not equipped to deal effectively with all of these problems. The identity crisis may be
best explained as the corollary of the premise itself, i.e., of the expectation that the EU can act as a federation.
For the way legitimacy and justice are related, see J. Rawls, Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 1993), 136–137.
With justice is referred here to social justice, which is understood in this article to include political justice. Rawls's principles of justice
as fairness comprise a well‐known conception of social justice.
454 © 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Eur Law J. 2017;23:454–466.wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/eulj