Main values in the context of EU-history

Cards for Democracy
Published on
February 03, 2022
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Background information for teachers and educators: Main values in the context of EU-history

Erasmus + KA 3 project Teachers4EuropeSetting an Agora for Democratic Culture

This blog article aims to summarize important facts concerning the European Union, its history, institutions, and its values.

In this article, we address six basic European values, such as respect for human rights, democracy, freedom, peace, tolerance and respect, and equality and solidarity.


  • Main values in the context of EU-history
    1. Human rights
    2. Democracy
    3. Freedom
    4. Peace
    5. Tolerance and respect
    6. Equality and solidarity
  • Participation
  • References and further reading

Main Values in the context of EU-history

1. Human rights

The Human Rights that apply to the EU member states are enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, which has been in force since 1953. The convention concerns the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, an international organisation founded in 1949 (not to be confused with the European Council or the Council of the European Union).

The European Court of Human Rights monitors compliance with human rights in the 47 member states of the Council of Europe. In addition to the European Convention on Human Rights, there is the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which emphasises the protection of citizen rights before the nation states ( pdf/text_en.pdf).

Neither of the founding treaties of the European Communities – the Treaty of Paris (1951) or the Treaty of Rome (1957) included any reference to fundamental rights. When the European Union was formally established by the Treaty of Maastricht (1992), this case law of the Court of Justice on the dual sources of fundamental rights in the EU was codified in the new Treaty on European Union in its Article F(2). Nonetheless, in its case law the European Court of Justice started to treat such rights as unwritten ‘general principles of Community law’, thereby granting them the status of primary law… The entry into force of the Charter of Fundamental Rights as a binding legal act in 2009 did not, however, deprive the ECHR of its role in the EU legal system as a source of fundamental rights in the form of general principles.

The Charter essentially covers the six major areas: human dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity, civil rights and judicial rights.

The EU’s human rights’ policy does, however, go beyond the guarantee of human rights for its own citizens. For example, the EU has set itself the goal of promoting human rights worldwide. The EU sets the following priorities:

  • Support rights for women, children, minorities and displaced persons;
  • Against the death penalty, discrimination, torture and trafficking; and for civil, social, economic and cultural rights;
  • Appointing for the protection and defence of human rights in partnerships and co-operation with other organisations;
  • Strengthening a common human rights policy of the Member States of the EU through results-oriented approaches.

However, in December 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union did suffice for the protection of the Court’s exclusive jurisdiction. At present, no new accession agreement has been advanced, but ‘both the Parliament and the Commission underline the need for EU accession’.

Scholars seem today divided, with some considering this accession as an added value, and others expressing the view that accession would be harmful to EU citizens.

The following table shows the difference between the European Convention of Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights:

2. Democracy

The term democracy comes from the Greek words “demos”, meaning people, and “kratos” meaning power; so, democracy can be thought of as “power of the people”: a way of governing which depends on the will of the people.

There are so many different models of democratic government around the world that it is sometimes easier to understand the idea of democracy in terms of what it definitely is not.

Democracy, then, is not autocracy or dictatorship, where one person rules; and it is not oligarchy, where a small segment of society rules. Properly understood, democracy should not even be “rule of the majority”, if that means that minorities’ interests are ignored completely.

A democracy, at least in theory, is government on behalf of all the people, according to their “will” […] However, a democracy is also incomplete without a thoroughgoing respect for human rights. Taking part in government, in a genuine way, is almost impossible to do without people having other basic rights respected.

The EU presents an important democratic characteristic: the separation of powers. Even if this does not happen in the classical form of the legislature, executive and judiciary, power is not centred on one person or institution.

The legislative power is constructed in the interaction between citizens, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament:

  • Every adult EU citizen has the right to stand as a candidate and to vote in elections to the European Parliament, to vote in their country of residence, or in their country of origin. Against the death penalty, discrimination, torture and trafficking; and for civil, social, economic and cultural rights;
  • In the European Union, the Council of the European Union (or ‘Council of Ministers’ of the EU) and the European Parliament are the only two sources of democratic legitimacy; they are the EU’s two legislative chambers composed of elected officials.
  • The European Council is composed of the heads of state or government of the 27 EU member states together with its President and the President of the European Commission, and defines the guidelines of EU strategies, priorities and policies.

On the other hand, the European Commission is composed of ‘commissioners’ who are not elected by EU citizens, but who are nominated by governments of the member states in consultation with the president of the commission; commissioners are, therefore, non-elected officials who represent their member state’s executive. The European Parliament approves the EU commission as a body. Further, the executive power is in the governments of member states that implement EU laws and regulations at the national level.

The EU also has a supreme court, the Court of Justice of the European Union, which ensures the uniform application and interpretation of EU law; its decisions are binding for all Member States (see section 4.1.1).

With the establishment of the European Parliament and the first elections in 1979, central democratic institutions were created to increase the co-determination of EU citizens. The voices of the citizens are therefore represented in the European Parliament. National representatives are elected every five years and move into the European Parliament; nevertheless, they are allocated according to the political parties they belong.

There are always discussions as to whether this approach is ideal. For example, each country is allocated a certain number of seats according to the size of its population. This means that in small countries, with few inhabitants, candidates must win fewer votes to get seats than in, for example, Germany in order to get a seat. This principle of degressive proportionality means that not all votes count equally.

The equality of the value of all votes, however, is actually a principle of democratic elections. This is alleviated by the fact that, at least in the national elections, all the votes cast count equally.

The Union offers its citizens an area of freedom, security and justice without internal frontiers in which the free movement of persons is ensured […].

(Extract from Art. 3 II TEU,).

3. Freedom

As already mentioned in Article 2, TEU, all member states of the EU commit themselves to cultivate a plural All member states of the EU commit themselves to cultivate a plural society that is free for every individual. Individual freedoms such as respect for private life, freedom of thought, religion, assembly, expression and information are protected by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Finally, a large area that guarantees free- dom between different Member States within the EU is the four fundamental freedoms of the internal market since 1993.

These concern the free movement of persons, services, capital and goods. This means that people can move and reside within the EU. Under the Schengen rules they can travel without being checked at the borders. Goods can be traded duty-free and services can also be offered on foreign markets. EU citizens are also free to choose the country in which to invest their money.

In addition to the economic union that the EU was at the beginning, it has also been a monetary union since the introduction of the euro in 2002. 19 of the 27 member states to date have adopted the euro as their official currency (European Union, 2019a).

4. Peace

Europe has a major role to play on the international scene and must therefore show its commitment to making this world a safer place, a place of shared prosperity, and a place where human rights and human dignity are at the centre of everyday life.

The European Union should speak with one voice and act accordingly when it comes to peace, security and human rights. In the long run, ensuring stability on the European continent can only be achieved through co-operation (Council of Europe, 2017; European Union, 2019b; European Commission, 2020). Sustainable and social development is integral to peace.

The Second World War ended at least 55 million lives in Europe. In view of this suffering and the intention that such a tragedy would not be repeated, the European states agreed to pro- vide not only for the abatement of military force, but also for a genuine peace between the nation states in Europe. This is what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill demanded in 1946:

“Our constant aim must be to build and fortify the United Nations Organ- isation. Under and within that world concept we must re-create the Euro- pean family in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe, and the first practical step will be to form a Council of Europe. If at first all the States of Europe are not willing or able to join a union, we must nevertheless proceed to assemble and combine those who will and who can. The salvation of the common people of every race and every land from war and servitude must be established on solid foundations, and must be created by the readiness of all men and women to die rath- er than to submit to tyranny.[…] Therefore I say to you ‘Let Europe arise!’”.

(Winston Churchill, 1946)

Robert Schuman, at that time French Foreign Minister, designed on behalf of the French government a first idea of the practical implementation of a peaceful and cooperative Europe. Thus, economic co-operation helped to lay the foundation for 70 years of stable peace in Europe.

The European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for this achievement. The Norwegian Nobel Committee justified this decision with the achievements of the European Union, which can be seen in the successful fight for peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights. This award was, however, heavily criticised in light of policies that left more than twelve thousand refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea and the arms’ exports of European countries. Nonetheless, Herman van Rompuy who was President of the European Council at that time summarised in his acceptance speech:

“Peace is now self-evident. War has become inconceivable. “

To this day, promoting and maintaining peace is a central element of the Lisbon Treaty (Arti- cle 3 TEU), and the pursuit of a peaceful future based on common values is also formulated in the first sentence of the preamble to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

5. Tolerance and respect

Tolerance and respect are enshrined as values in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. The preamble to the Charter already states:

The Union contributes to the preservation and to the development of these common values while respecting the diversity of the cultures and traditions of the people of Europe as well as the national identities of the Member States and the organisation of their public authorities at national regional and local levels […].

(Extract from CHARTER OF FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS OF THE EUROPEAN UNION (2000) – Preamble; https://www.

“In addition, Article 21 (1) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union also contains essential principles regarding non-discrimination:

Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, color, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited.


Conversely, it shows that the European Union is committed not only to non-discrimination, but also to tolerance and the acceptance of the equality of all citizens. This can also be deduced from the importance of human dignity in the EU. Article 1 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union reads as follows:

Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.


In order to make tolerance and respect important factors for living together in the EU, the EU has issued several directives that address various aspects of tolerance and respect:

  • against discrimination on grounds of race and ethnic origin.
  • against discrimination at work on grounds of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.
  • for equal treatment for men and women in matters of employment and occupation.
  • for equal treatment for men and women in the access to and supply of goods and services.
  • against discrimination based on age, disability, gender, sexual orientation and religion or belief beyond the workplace.

Despite these efforts by the EU, citizens’ perceptions of the success of these directives show some weaknesses. Eurobarometer surveys in 2015 showed that 22 percent of respondents in the European Union did not consider anti-discrimination efforts to be effective. In addition, questions on personal attitudes towards discrimination showed that there is a significant part of the population that has reservations about people of, for example, other backgrounds, cultures or religions.

However, it can also be seen from the objectives of the directives that tolerance and respect are also very closely linked with equality. For this reason, the value of equality is examined in more detail below. This value was also seen as a key value by respondents to the survey as part of this project.

6. Equality and solidarity

In general, no differences are made between citizens in the EU, regardless of which EU Member States they come from or which gender they belong to. The EU promises all its citizens to stand up against discrimination and social exclusion that could threaten them.

Diversity should be respected and encouraged.

Another principle of the EU is that all member states are treated equally. For this purpose, the EU establishes its intention to “enhance economic, social and territorial cohesion and solidarity among EU countries” (European Union, 2019c).

Another fact that underlines the equality of all member states is, for example, that all languages within the EU have the same importance. There is no official language, but every important document is always translated into all the official languages of the member states.

Not all policy areas of the EU ensure equality for all. Although laws and rules have been passed at the institutional level that treat everyone equally, there are wage differences in the member states, for example. The full solidarity between the member states is also repeatedly confronted with economic interests. It is, therefore, regularly questioned whether the EU is not primarily an economic union and not a union of values.

[The EU] combats social exclusion and discrimination and promotes social justice and protection, equality between women and men, solidarity between generations and the protection of children’s rights.

It promotes economic, social and territorial cohesion and solidarity between Member States.

[The EU] shall respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and shall ensure that Europe’s cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced.

(Extracts from Art. 3 III TEU, translated into English from:


In addition to the election of the European Parliament, EU citizens have other opportunities to participate. There are also structures of direct democracy in the EU.

With the help of the European Citizens’ Initiative, they can get the Commission to propose laws, which are then adopted in an interplay between the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. For a European Citizens’ Initiative, citizens have to collect one million signatures for their topic of request.

Each citizen of the EU can submit a petition to the European Parliament alone or together with other citizens. He or she can complain about individual or general matters, report violations of the law or demand that the European Parliament give its opinion on certain matters (European Parliament, 2019b).

The last possibility to use a direct democratic structure is to submit a complaint to the Ombudsperson. If an EU citizen wishes to complain about an EU institution, he or she can turn to the Ombudsperson. Only a complaint to the Court of Justice of the European Union cannot be dealt with through the Ombudsperson (European Parliament, 2019a).

[/fusion_text][fusion_accordion border_size=”1″ icon_size=”17″ hide_on_mobile=”small-visibility,medium-visibility,large-visibility” title_font_size=”30″ boxed_mode=”yes”][fusion_toggle open=”yes” title=”References and further reading”]

Churchill, W. (1946). Let Europe arise! from University of Zurich:

Council of Europe (2017). Compass: Manual for Human Rights Education with Young People: Democracy, from

European Commission (2020). Cooperation between regions and countries, from policy/cooperation/.

European Commission (2019). Non-discrimination, from tal-rights/your-rights-eu/know-your-rights/equality/non-discrimination_de.

European Commission (2015). Eurobarometer: Discrimination in the EU in 2015, from

European Court of Human Rights (1950). European Convention of Human Rights.

European Parliament (2000). Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. In the Official Journal of the European Communities.

European Parliament (2019a). European Ombudsman, from

European Parliament (2019b). Petitions, from European Union (2012). Treaty of the European Union (TEU). Official Journal of the European Union.

European Union (2019a). About the EU- Countries using the Euro. Retrieved from eu/countries_en#countries_using_euro.

European Union (2019b). EU treaties, from

European Union (2019c). Goals and values of the EU. Retrieved from

European Union (2019d). Human Rights. Retrieved from

European Union (2019e). Transparent and democratic institutions. Retrieved from

Geuther, G. (2017). Grundrechte in anderen Verfassungen. Informationen zur politischen Bildung / izpb. (305), 58–65.

The Nobel Foundation (2012). The Nobel Peace Prize 201., Retrieved from

Piepenschneider, M. (2015). Vertragsgrundlagen und Entscheidungsverfahren. Informationen zur politischen Bildung / izpb. (279), 18–35.

Schmuck, O. (2015a). Der Weg der EU – Rückblick und Ausblick. Informationen zur politischen Bildung / izpb. (279), 69–76. Schmuck, O. (2015b). Motive und Leitbilder der europäischen Einigung. Informationen zur politischen Bildung / izpb. (279), 7–17.

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