Abstract In contrasting UN with EU democracy promotion discourses, the article

contributes to the debate on the substance of EU democracy promotion by approaching the

question of ‘democratic substance’ from the vantage point of sovereignty. For its analytical

framing, it draws on relevant aspects of Foucault’s work on power. The article suggests

that, due to their diverging obligations to sovereignty, the substance of democracy

promotion in UN discourses revolves around an institutional-centric understanding,

whereas in EU discourses we see a significant reconceptualization of democracy as a

norms-based concept. The latter does not aim at the government of society but the ethical

self-governance of socially embedded individuals. It is argued that, with the decreasing

purchase of democracy as a universal political project and the growing concern with local

contexts, the EU’s norms-based conception emerges as better equipped to adapt to

contemporary challenges of governing. The article concludes with raising some doubts

about the democratic promise and potential of the democratic rationality underpinning EU

discourses. Democracy, participation and political change are no longer conceived in terms

of shaping and influencing public agenda but refer to socially shaping and influencing

subjective perceptions and behaviours.