Let me vote in your country, and I’ll let you vote in mine. A proposal for transnational democracy

In Defence of Adhocery. Transnational democracy should be (mostly) issue-specific

By Rainer Bauböck (European University Institute)


Joachim Blatter’s proposal for transnational representation in national parliaments ticks many of the right boxes. It presents a detailed institutional solution to a burning problem of democratic legitimacy; it acknowledges inevitable trade-offs between the democratic goals of including affected interests and preserving territorial self-government; and it tries to harness the self-interest of political parties so that they would be motivated to bring about the desired transformation.

I would thus defend Blatter against many of his critics in this forum. Sofia Näsström does not like the reformist spirit of Blatter’s model and calls for being “as naive and unrealistic as the populists” by “proposing visions for the future that people may believe in, even if the horizon is a distant one”. It is time to learn the sober lesson that protest movements that focus on a broad agenda of social and economic transformation – from Occupy Wall Street to the Gillets Jaunes – can invigorate democracy but invariably fail to achieve their goals if they shy away from spelling out concrete reforms and from entering the electoral arenas to fight for these reforms. Even those who think that liberal democratic institutions are beyond repair should better think harder about what to replace them with if they want to have an impact in the power game of democratic politics and be more than just the gadflies of liberal democracy.


Why theorists should get real

Ludvig Beckman, Eva Erman, Anna Meine and Antoinette Scherz raise some important objections against Blatter’s scheme of transnational representation from the vantage point of democratic theory. However, we should acknowledge that normative theorists of democracy deeply disagree amongst themselves when addressing questions such as who should be included in the demos and what is the value of national self-determination. If democratic support for a reform proposal depended on a consensus among theorists it would never get off the ground. Of course, this is a forum of academics discussing an institutional reform proposal and they will naturally assess it by testing it against their preferred conception of democracy. I will do so as well in this contribution. However, if we want our critiques to be of any relevance for political actors, they should lead to better proposals how to address a real-world problem rather than merely register inconsistencies with our own preferred version of democratic theory. We may then hope that our proposals can be supported by an overlapping consensus among citizens who do not necessarily subscribe to our theories.

So let me start by endorsing Blatter’s question. There is a growth of intergovernmental governance through which national executives and technocratic experts impose solutions that democratic legislatures have little control over. This is the result of growing interdependence between notionally sovereign states that makes it increasingly impossible for them to control their own political agendas. At the same time, this entails that decisions taken or merely ratified in one national parliament can have huge impact on the citizens of other countries without those ever having a say. One response to these circumstances is to scale up democracy to a supranational level. The Member States of the European Union have pooled their sovereignty and created (strong) mechanism of democratic representation and (still weak) accountability for supranational governance. A number of commentators in this forum (Mathias Koenig-Archibugi, Eva Erman, Anna Meine and Antoinette Scherz) prefer a further strengthening of the European Parliament, e.g. through transnational party lists or a Europe-wide second chamber, to Blatter’s horizontal and reciprocity-based transnationalisation of national parliaments. However, the example of the Greek debt crisis that Blatter uses for presenting his proposal, as well as the 2015 EU crisis over refugee admission and relocation, illustrate well that this may not be a sufficient response. Even if a plurality of EU citizens might have endorsed debt relief combined with anti-austerity policies, as Koenig-Archibugi argues, it remains unclear whether and how European legislators could have legitimately imposed such policies on Member States such as Germany, sidelining their national parliaments.


Ad hoc responses to transnational spillover

Yet I also have my doubts whether Blatter’s scheme would have achieved a better outcome by empowering national parliaments to reign in executive intergovernmentalism and technocratic imposition. Would a handful of German delegates in the Greek Parliament and of Greek representatives in the Bundestag have swayed the legislators to endorse a different reform package for Greece or would their protests instead have further stoked populist outrage about the capture of national sovereignty by foreigners in both countries? In any case, the inclusion of some delegates elected by foreign voters whose powers to set political agendas remain limited seems like a reform that would not have matched the crisis in terms of scale and urgency.

The scale and urgency of the crisis were invoked by the dominant political actors to justify emergency measures that failed to meet conditions of procedural democratic legitimacy. Yet alternative ways of negotiating might have been possible that could have secured greater legitimacy by involving parliaments. Instead of leaving governments in charge, we can imagine that the Greek Parliament and the Bundestag could have initiated an ad hoc deliberative assembly composed of parliamentary delegates in which the various policy proposals would have been debated and recommended for approval or rejection by the national parliaments.

There are other situations in which it seems appropriate to transnationalise not only representative but also direct democracy. Suppose that the British government fails to prevent a hard Brexit. Shouldn’t voters in Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland be given the opportunity to vote in a referendum on whether they agree to reintroduce a hard border that divides the island and risks rekindling sectarian violence?

Take as a third case the refugee relocation crisis that involved all Member States, albeit in very unequal ways, dividing them along lines of national interest into first admission, transit, destination and bystander countries. Joseph Lacey suggests a deliberative European citizen assembly that serves as a monitoring body for national parliaments and the European Parliament. Imagine that such an assembly had been created ad hoc by the EP or the Commission and with a single issue mandate: to come up with policy recommendations on how to distribute responsibility for refugee protection among EU Member States. Its members would have been selected randomly from national voter registries and would have deliberated on this issue after listening to inputs by national governments, the EU Commission, the UNHCR and independent experts. It is possible that its advice would have been ignored, but I guess that it might have carried considerable weight.

These three examples illustrate cases where there is a undisputable spillover of policies across international borders that massively affects the citizens of other countries. Blatter’s scheme of reciprocal transnational representation does not capture these cases well, because it must be set up long in advance of such crises and is thus not adapted to their specificities, because it involves only countries and individual citizens in these that have chosen to consociate, and because it limits the impact of transnational representation in order to preserve national self-determination.


Who has a claim to authorise the government?

I do not only have doubts about how effective Blatter’s proposal is in addressing the problem, but also about the theory of democratic legitimacy from which it emerges. As I have argued elsewhere (Bauböck 2017), democratic legitimacy requires that affected interests must be taken into account before a decision is taken. Depending on the strength of negative impact, “taking into account” can mean that decision-makers need to consider such interests, that they have to invite delegates representing such interests to participate in legislative deliberations, or that they ought to give externally affected populations a veto over the policy. Including externally affected interests in any of these ways does, however, not require expanding the demos (Bauböck 2018). In large scale representative democracies, the demos is not a decision-making body. It consists instead of permanent members of the polity who authorize governments that exercise power over a territorial jurisdiction and parliaments that are free to set their own political agenda. Democratic theorists who argue for including all affected interests in the demos confuse the tasks of deliberation and decision-making with the task of authorizing decision-making bodies. If non-residents who have no claim to citizenship could vote in national elections, the state’s citizens would be dominated by outsiders.

Blatter’s scheme is aware of this danger and sits therefore on the fence between those who argue for expanding the demos to include externally affected interests and those who reject this idea for the sake of preserving the integrity of territorial self-government. As this forum debate has shown, Blatter’s proposal can be interpreted either way. If it is meant to expand the national demos by including potentially affected external interests, then it would indeed be problematic to count the votes of consociated citizens unequally and to give their delegates lesser decision-making power than the regular parliamentarians enjoy, as Beckman, Erman and Meine point out. If, however, representatives elected by externally consociated citizens have primarily the role of providing deliberative input but cannot set the parliamentary agenda, then the consociated citizens are not members of the demos and have no claim to equality.

Extraterritorial interests that have a claim to be included in democratic deliberations and decisions are actually, not potentially affected ones. They can be known only once a legislator has tabled a proposal that would have a predictably impact. As they cannot be known far in advance, they are better captured through tailor-made ad hoc arrangements, such as those that I have mentioned above. But what about structural interdependencies between groups of states, such as those that bind together EU Member States in a shared destiny that they cannot fully escape even through exiting from the Union – as the troubles with Brexit demonstrate? Here I side with those contributors to this debate that point to the European Parliament. Blatter’s horizontal scheme of reciprocal representation seems less suited as a response to such interdependence than nested the multilevel democracy that has gradually evolved in the EU through strengthening the powers of the EP.


Including the unaffected

Michael Frazer has thrown a wrench into our debate by arguing for reciprocal transnational representation on very different grounds. Letting non-citizen non-residents elect a few representative is more likely to represent unaffected interests than affected ones, which could be justified if it improves the impartiality and epistemic quality of parliamentary decisions. And reciprocity would guarantee that no polity is unilaterally dominated by being exposed to unaffected foreign voters (see also Frazer 2014). This is a fascinating argument. If interpreted as an alternative principle to including actually affected interests it would radically undermine democratic self-government. As an postmodern exercise in a “devastating politics of laughter”, Jerry Frug (1993:336) proposed to give every American citizen “five votes that they can cast in whatever local elections they feel affect their interests” (ibid: 329). Along similar lines, Robert Goodin and Ana Tanasoca have suggested to remove the special privileges of dual citizens who can vote in two national elections by giving everyone a vote everywhere, so that “everyone would be able to exercise the same amount of power over the world through their votes” (Goodin and Tanasoca 2014: 756). Note that both these proposals still adhere to the idea of including all potentially affected interests, but they do not aim at all to track actual affectedness and are thus easier to justify on grounds on Frazer’s principle of including unaffected interests. The effect would be to abolish territorial self-government altogether since neither local nor national governments would then be authorized by and accountable to their particular demoi. The election of governments would become instead somewhat like a beauty contest in digital social networks.

Frazer himself does not endorse this interpretation of a principle of including unaffected interests. He maintains instead that “unlike those affected by a decision, the unaffected have no right to participate on democratic grounds”. Yet if the point of including unaffected interests is to improve the quality rather than the legitimacy of decisions, I wonder what the argument is for including the representatives of unaffected interests through democratic elections. Would it not be better to select them randomly, as with citizen juries, in order to avoid the false impression that they represent a specific constituency and its interests?


Conclusion: Three prongs for strengthening transnational democracy

The conclusion I draw from our debate is that national democracies must be transnationalised through various means depending on the specific problem that is at stake. When states have chosen to form a union in order to secure peace among them and to maintain their national self-government while promoting their common interests, they become structurally interdependent in a way that requires democratizing their joint supranational government. This is why strengthening the European Parliament has been the right response to the democratic legitimacy deficit created by deep immersion of European states in intergovernmental decision-making.

When a policy or decision of a particular state impacts profoundly on the capacity of other states to govern their own economy and society, the externally affected interests must be taken into account or else the policy becomes democratically illegitimate. This is the proper meaning of the principle “quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbetur”. Permanent schemes of reciprocal voting and representation like Blatter’s are unlikely to capture these interests adequately. Ad hoc arrangements, such as joint interparliamentary deliberations or transborder referendums would do a better job.

Finally, decisions and policies that affect other states are less exposed to scrutiny within a shared public sphere (as pointed out by Lacey) and more likely to be distorted by special interests. Frazer is thus right to emphasize the virtue of including unaffected interests in order to improve the quality of such decisions. Involving ordinary citizens in addition to professional arbitrators, technocratic experts and standing courts might enhance the legitimacy of such decisions in the eyes of the affected citizens. But this does not amount to an argument for reciprocal transnational representation of unaffected interests.



Bauböck, Rainer. 2018. “Specifying the three inclusion principles – a reply to Biale, Pellegrino and Ottonelli,” in: Who Belongs to a Democratic Demos. The Boundary Problem and Its Solutions. Symposium on Rainer Bauböck’s Democratic Inclusion, Biblioteca della Libertà, vol. LII, 221, October 2018: 57-72

Bauböck, Rainer. 2017. Democratic Inclusion. Rainer Bauböck in Dialogue. Manchester, Manchester University Press, December.

Frazer, Michael L. 2014. Including the Unaffected, The Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 22, No. 4: 377-395.

Frug, Jerry. 1993. “Decentering Decentralization”. The University of Chicago Law Review, vol. 60, No.2, spring: 253-338.

Goodin, Robert E. and Ana Tanasoca. 2014. “Double Voting”. Australian Journal of Philosophy (DOI: 10.1080/00048402.2014.913300).