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

Re-Inventing the Wheel? Reciprocal Representation in Bentham and Blatter

By Peter Niesen (University of Hamburg)


Cosmopolitans are not all of one kind, and I applaud Joachim Blatter for keeping open a neglected avenue of great cosmopolitan potential with his proposal to introduce foreigners‘ reciprocal voting rights in parliamentary elections. Indeed his is one of the more credible cosmopolitan suggestions to have been formulated from a recognisably ‘demoi-cratic‘ point of view. Blatter gives institutional shape to what other demoi-crats have so far merely hinted at, i.e. the transnational opening up of consociated peoples for the recognition of each other’s interests. Under his proposal, one can see clearly that the political fates of interdependent peoples should not just depend on awarding each other some material entitlements, such as mobility and migration rights, rights to free commercial exchange, and guarantees for similar first-order interests. Their cooperation and coexistence systematically depends on outsiders‘ political inclusion in domestic weak and strong publics, which is why Blatter’s suggestion is a timely one in a transnationalising world.

Having praised Blatter for his modernisation of the demoi-cratic paradigm, it must be said that it is curious that he should propose this particular model as a reform suggestion for the European Union. As contributors to the debate have noted, compared to the current state of integration of the EU, Blatter’s plan would amount to a manifest regression.[1] In the European federation, a pan-European citizenship status has already been established that grants EU citizens direct electoral powers to the European Parliament, a co-legislative organ, at the same time generating a claim for them to be part of a supra-state constituent power (Patberg 2017), and not just candidates for electoral rights in cross-border legislative participation. In the current political and theoretical climate, Blatter’s suggestion must be read together with the disintegration tendencies induced by the crises he vividly presents. However, common solutions to financial, labour market, or migration crises are not to be expected from brokering the interaction between 27, or 19, coordinated parliaments, but from concerted initiatives of the member states and the organs of the EU, under pressure from a slowly awakening EU citizenry. So if Blatter’s proposal is „too little too late“ (Näsström) as a reform proposal for the European Union, what is it good for? I see its strengths more as a model of political integration in contexts where regional unions have not yet reached the degree of cohesion the EU has already established. In such contexts, Blatter’s consociationism can serve as an important contribution towards peaceful cooperation, and perhaps as a preparatory step toward establishing supranational organisations.

To make my point, I want to add some historical depth to the debate in introducing (what seems to me) an important predecessor of Blatter’s scheme. During the French Revolution, Jeremy Bentham put forward a recommendation to exchange parliamentary delegates between enemy countries. Despite the fact that it was a non-starter at the time, he returned to a similar suggestion in the 19th century, when working out his version of cosmopolitan constitutionalism. In going back to Bentham, we will need to confuse the tidy categorisation of principles suggested by Eva Erman, since his suggestions were normatively much overdetermined. While I do think that some plausible standards as adduced by Erman, such as equality, legitimacy, and epistemic quality will have to operate as side constraints to all instititutional innovations, my claim will be that reciprocal representation can serve a transformative purpose, as securing the conditions for supra-national integration. I focus on the task of creating trust and peaceful understanding between peoples.

Bentham thought that all parliaments would profit from admitting a handful of foreigners. In two successive campaigns, he called for foreigners’ participation in representative assemblies. His two approaches to the issue, one early, one late in his career, result in two different proposals that need to be distinguished, and can thereby shed some light on advantages and disadvantages of Blatter’s suggestion. The first version, a model of ‘reciprocal representation’ (Schmitter 1997), [2] was developed in the context of the Franco-English confrontation induced by the French Revolution. In such a situation, Bentham thought, reciprocal representation could be conducive to trust between nations, and perhaps to peace:

Were the French and English legislature to interchange a few Members, there could not be a more powerful means of wearing away those national antipathies and jealousies which as far as they prevail are so disgraceful and so detrimental to both countries (Bentham [1789] 2002a: 250).[3]

While the proposed exchange of delegates is to counter nationalistic sentiment, the cosmopolitan character of Bentham’s suggestion is limited in two ways. The first feature is that the scheme is designed to accommodate only a single foreign country and address a particular historical experience of conflict. It does not seem far-fetched to argue that Bentham’s suggestion echoes the system of appointing “war residents” in enemy countries under early modern international law (Bentham [1786-9] 1843: 545).[4] In line with Blatter’s suggestion, however, reciprocal representation could easily be extended to any number of countries and therefore reach regional or, perhaps, global scope. Since it is not implausible that the danger of war may arise between any two countries, a systematically enlarged system of reciprocal representation may avoid this difficulty. The second feature is that the normativity of the requirement of foreigners’ representation, in Bentham’s scheme as well as in Blatter’s, cannot simply stem from its voluntaristic origins in a reciprocal compact between peoples, or in a joint ‘declaration of interdependence’. Those only seem to ratify prior relations of influence, and make exchanges of parliamentarians narrowly rational. But arguably, the danger of war could be seen as counting as a relevant interdependency relation in Blatter’s account, too. If appointing foreign delegates is conducive to peace, or has other important advantages, a unilateral anticipation of foreigners’ claim to representation could be mandatory and prepare the way towards a reciprocal cooperative system among states.

More than thirty years after the French Revolution, after turning his attention to constitution-making in the Americas, Bentham picks up his old suggestion again and sheds the reciprocity requirement:

In the case of a legislative body the members of which are freely chosen by the people, why should not they aggregate to themselves a few members, selected by them from other political states, associates, whose constitution bears more or less analogy to theirs. […] An aggregation of this sort would be – not only a source of information, but a bond of fellowship (Bentham [1822] 1998: 205f).

Here Bentham talks explicitly of the unilateral advantage of adopting some foreign delegates. He again highlights the perspective of generating friendship and trust, but his main point is one of political quality:

In the case of these foreign associates, to the right of speech and motion need not, nor should, be added the right of suffrage: for, to any use, derivable from information, afforded by a man in the character of a witness or an advocate, would be applied – not addition but subtraction, by any share, given to him in the power of a Judge. Power, it would not be competent to them to give: information, so it but afforded any the least promise of being of use, no man can be incompetent to receive (Bentham [1822] 1994: 205).

Bentham’s suggestion differs from Blatter’s in not awarding foreigners’ representatives decisional capacities. But it is crucial that in addition to debating rights, Bentham envisages initiative capacities (‘motion’ rights) for them. In this, he awards them agenda-setting competences. They can force parliament to discuss and decide on an issue, although they cannot prejudice its decision. It is true that Bentham mainly highlights the epistemic advantages of foreigners’ representation, an advantage that Michael Frazer has likewise recommended in Blatter’s proposal, and thereby opens himself up to legitimacy-based arguments. I fear that disallowing such arguments altogether by reference to the all affected interests-principle or the all subjected-principle, as Rainer Bauböck has suggested in his comment, enforces a serious impoverishment on our debates, and on the functions of parliamentary representation. At any rate, Bentham dodges strong legitimacy-based objections concerning over-inclusion since he offers initiative and deliberative rights, but withholds voting rights from foreigners’ representatives in parliament. The foreign members’ competence is restricted to an “influence of understanding over understanding”, while they do not partake of an “influence of will over will”, as manifested in voting rights (Bentham [1789] 2002b: 422). Those who reject Blatter’s proposal since they adhere to a strict interpretation of the all affected interests or all subjected principle may still find Bentham’s weaker suggestion useful.

In restricting the intake of foreign parliamentarians through a condition of constitutional similarity, Bentham’s proposal parallels the constitutional quietism that Ludvig Beckman has criticised in Blatter’s proposal: Foreigners’ representation, in order to be useful, appears to require institutional similarity. However, Bentham’s restriction seems to be motivated by the need to identify trustworthy and usefully experienced candidates in similar practices of constitutionalism, and not by an expectation of their ideological conformity. The transformative character of his model is highlighted by the fact that Bentham suggests foreign parliamentarians might be especially welcome in recently decolonised countries. Bentham betrays little sensitivity for the circumstances of decolonisation, especially if delegates from the former colonising country are not to be excluded from candidate status. But young, consolidating democracies may find it useful to avail themselves of foreign expertise, and cooperation may build on this. This aspect is wholly absent from Blatter’s proposal, but can be added to its advantages. Again, this suggests that Bentham’s proposal is to provide a stabilising anchor for transitioning and consolidating democracies, not so much a final institutional setup to be reached in its own right, and capable of substituting for supranational organisations.

To sum up, I have suggested that we add Blatter’s proposal to the permanent toolbox of strong transnationalist, potentially cosmopolitan innovations. Since I see it as a regressive move vis-a-vis existing EU citizenship rights and institutional setup, I have historically and systematically outlined an alternative use for his scheme: It can serve as a preparatory program for peaceful coexistence, and for creating the relations of trust that are conditions of possibility for supranational integration. I have questioned whether strict reciprocity is a necessary condition for adopting foreigners’ representatives to domestic parliaments, and recommended allocating them Bentham’s somewhat weaker, but not toothless, bundle of participation rights. In Bentham’s later proposal, foreigners’ representatives are admitted as semi-strong members of strong publics (debating and initiating, but not participating in, decisions). This move would occasion, as Frazer has outlined, a plausible shift in function, from the representation of affected interests to a representation of cognitive concerns. Such a revised scheme would privilege the epistemic function of foreigners’ inclusion (which may well cover their, as well as everybody else’s, moral interests) over claims to a representation of their rational interests, e.g. as parties affected by the impact of domestic legislation. I admit that this twofold shift would weaken its decisional impact, but perhaps it would yield a stronger defence of Blatter’s reciprocal representation scheme.



Bentham, Jeremy (1843) ’Principles of International Law’. In Jeremy Bentham, Works. J. Bowring (ed.), Vol. II. Edinburgh: Tait.

Bentham, Jeremy (1998) ‘Codification Proposal Addressed by Jeremy Bentham to All Nations Professing Liberal Opinions’. In Jeremy Bentham, Legislator of the World. P. Schofield (ed.), Oxford: OUP.

Bentham, Jeremy (2002a), ‘Projet of a Constitutional Code for France’. In Jeremy Bentham, Rights, Representation and Reform. P. Schofield, C. Pease-Watkin and C. Blamires (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 227-262.

Bentham, Jeremy (2002b), ‘Of the Influence of the Administrative Power over the Legislative’, in Jeremy Bentham, Rights, Representation and Reform, 419-427.

Patberg, Markus (ed.) (2017), Symposium: The EU’s Pouvoir Constituant Mixte. Journal of Common Market Studies 55 (2), 165-222.

Schmitter, Philippe (1997), Exploring the Problematic Triumph of Liberal Demo­cracy and Concluding with a Modest Proposal for Improving its International Impact. In Axel Hadenius (ed.), Democracy’s Victory and Crisis. Cambridge: CUP, 297-307.



[1] Blatter argues that his suggestion is “agnostic“ (Fn. 2) vis-a-vis supranational democratic integration, but his interpretation of the Euro crisis shows that he is skeptical of the problem-solving capacities of vertical institutions beyond the nation state. At no point does he tie his suggestion to the existing European constitutional setup.

[2] The term ‚reciprocal representation‘ was introduced by Philippe Schmitter ( (1997:303-5). Schmitter suggests that neighbouring sovereign nation states are to award each other two or three seats in their respective parliamentary assemblies. Such representatives are to have debating rights and rights of documentation, but no voting rights. Reciprocal representatives could then supplement the normal channels of diplomatic relations by publicly highlighting problems that might arise and thus embody an “early warning system” for policies that could negatively affect the citizens of their respective home countries. Bentham’s first suggestion and Blatter’s proposal are both more ambitious than Schmitter’s in that they do not pre-empt reciprocal representatives’ voting rights. Both are also more universal in scope than Schmitter’s since they do not require that representatives belong to neighbouring states.

[3] Bentham leaves it open whether he would like to extend voting rights in addition to debating rights to the foreign parliamentarians. He does not comment on the electoral details of the process, but an “interchange” of parliamentarians does not seem to require breaking up the integrity of nation state elections. It is consistent with Bentham’s proposal that parliaments should reciprocally co-opt their respective members. Here Blatter adds a crucial cross-border electoral dimension that clarifies the principal-agent relation, although, as Anna Meine and Rainer Bauböck have argued, the authority of the relevant demoi is not crystal clear.

[4] “When war has broken out, a palliative for its evils might perhaps be found in the appointment of war-residents, to provide for prisoners and to prevent violations of the laws of war. Will it be said, that in quality of a spy such residents would be to be feared? An enemy known to be such, could scarcely be a spy. All the proceedings of such residents should be open, and all his letters subjected to inspection. At present, foreigners are scarcely excluded from an enemy’s country—scarcely even military men or ministers; and so soon as it is wished to employ a spy, could not a native be found? A resident of this character could always be employed as a channel of communication, if an accommodation were desired”.