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

The Catch-22 of transnational democratic integration

By Luciano Bardi (University of Pisa and European University Institute)

Joachim Blatter’s proposal is very interesting as it provides ideas for the creation of a sophisticated tool for improving European democracy. The debate in this forum has focused mostly on the normative pros and cons from a perspective of democratic principles. I will instead raise questions about the political conditions for introducing horizontal consociations between European states and the incentives and costs for political elites to propose such transnational integration.

In my view, the timing of Blatter’s project is not ideal because the very critical issues that increase the potential demand for multilateral and multilevel democracy also represent as many obstacles to its institutional design. However, creating cross-state consociations, as Blatter suggests, could be initially attempted in selected bilateral settings and perhaps extended if the first experiments should work.

The proposal also provides an ideal stimulus for reflection on increasingly relevant phenomena such as the endemic democratic deficit at EU level or, perhaps more importantly, the hollowing of democracy (Mair 2013) at national level. The two are connected, as the latter stems, at least in part, from the unaccountability of technocratic institutions whose actions and statements impact on governance at all levels. Finding a solution to these problems also begs the question of what incentives stimulate nation states to join or help maintain would-be supranational, but in effect predominantly intergovernmental, institutions such as the EU, and what conditions allow them to do so.

Any institutionally centred reform, such as Blatter’s proposal for improving transnational democracy, implies a (re)assessment by the nation states that would be potentially involved of the net returns that membership in a transnational organisation would provide. In this case there would be only an even trade and not a net surrender of national sovereignty, but other inherent political costs could still outweigh the potential benefits of consociations.

Projects and theories of regional integration

Many transnational integration projects have underlined the importance of common interests and popular support by and within the potential member states. A project developed at a time of great emergency like the “Union now with Britain” (Streit 1941) of fifteen democracies during World War Two did not only stress the importance of the proposed federation to save the democratic world’s “freedom from defeat” and to “win the peace” in the war against the Nazi-Fascist dictatorships, but also argued against “denials that such a union could ever work in actual practice,…[that], according to a Gallup poll, the movement number[ed] millions of adherents in the United States alone” (p. 2 dustjacket). Even this rather rudimental proposal posed the need of attracting or at least assessing the existence of popular support for the institutions that were to be created.

European integration has been based on an elite driven process and was made possible by the indifference or at best the benevolent acceptance of the project by the European publics. As in the case of the ill-fated US-UK Union, the assessment of a “permissive consensus” for EU policy making was also essentially based on opinion polls. The issue of a potential democratic deficit existing in all of this did not emerge because, after all, diffuse support for governmental institutions seemed to prevail over the specific support for government authorities and policies in other, prosperous, national democracies (Easton 1965). Diffuse support was enough because of the generally positive post-war economic cycles that allowed governments to postpone or paper over potentially unpopular decisions. Even the tension between responsiveness and responsibility which is embedded in party government decision making in Western democracies was dealt with by governments by “privileging short-term responsiveness and effectively limiting citizens’ awareness of the impact of global/European constraints, which normally require responsible decisions” (Bardi 2014).

The neo-functionalists’ ostensibly federal project for the EU produced an organisation that is still predominantly confederal and therefore requiring, for its institutional and constitutional progress, unanimously agreed upon treaty-based reforms. As such, it does not necessarily need an accomplished democratic system at EU level to function. Cumulative democratic control through its member states’ political systems should be enough to guarantee the legitimacy of the EU’s legislative and policy outputs. The existence of unaccountable technocratic bodies in charge of enacting and implementing EU policies is not unique to the European Union system. Bureaucratic discretion exists at national level as well and need not affect the quality of democratic institutions per se. Ironically, the current structuring of the EU, far from being federal, as hoped for by the neo-functionalists, the apparent winners of the integration theory debate, is closer to what had been prescribed by some of the losers, the pluralists.

Pluralism, as a doctrine of European integration, is based on the communication theory of regional integration. According to Karl Deutsch the increase in transaction flow rates of trade, mail, travel, migration, student exchange, tourism, and other forms of communication has made our societies more similar, thereby creating the conditions for the affirmation of what has been termed his “sociocausal paradigm of political integration” (Fisher 1969). Specifically, common security interests, in the presence of given levels of cross-societal homogeneity allow for the formation of dedicated communities. These can be pluralistic or amalgamated. Two conditions are sufficient for the creation of a pluralistic security community: a) the capacity of the participating member states to respond to each other’s needs, and b) the compatibility of major values relevant to political decision-making, which essentially means the sharing of a common (free-market oriented and democratic, in the case of the North Atlantic Community) ideology. NATO, created in response to what was a perceived common Soviet threat, loosely met these conditions.

The project for the United States of Europe, which was being discussed more or less at the same time, on the other hand, would have required outright amalgamation of the contracting member states. The conditions for the creation of an amalgamated community are more numerous and more strict: 1) the mutual compatibility of main values, 2) a distinctive way of life, 3) capabilities and processes of cross-cutting communication, 4) high geographic and social mobility, 5) multiplicity and balance of transactions, 6) significant frequency of some interchange in group roles, 7) broadening of the political elite, 8) high political and administrative capabilities. Perhaps even more importantly, there should be a popular willingness to establish, support, and remain loyal to common governmental institutions in mutual respect of the participating partners’ needs and interests (Deutsch et al. 1957).

Consociation: between pluralism and amalgamation

Deutsch tried to assess empirically the existence of the conditions for creating an amalgamated community in Europe and came to a negative conclusion, implicitly endorsing the predominantly intergovernmental and pluralistic nature of the EU. The incentives for the creation and improvement of the EC/EU were broader and closer to the everyday perceived interests of the European citizens than those that had stimulated the creation of NATO. Besides international security, economic interests were a powerful incentive for the building of the EC/EU. All in all, we can say that the conditions behind the building and maintenance of the current EU institutional set-up fall somewhere between pluralism and amalgamation.

The same can be said about Blatter’s consociation. As simple and straightforward as the concept is, it is quite demanding in terms of the incentives and conditions that would be necessary for its practical implementation. The incentives that are listed in Blatter’s contribution are highly symbolic, especially for the consociated citizens, who would be rewarded by being brought closer to international politics and by being allowed to “send a signal to those nation states that they perceive as having an important influence on their lives”. As for the national political elites that should initiate the process, Blatter stresses the attractiveness of potential improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of democratic processes as well as that of an increase in the propensity to produce “responsible” policy decisions.

All of these improvements are normatively important but their mobilising power pales before that of the security and economic incentives on which the EU is built. Yet, the simple signing of a “joint declaration of interdependence” is per se an act that would require the consociated states to exhibit levels of commitment and support similar to those required by a treaty. As more and more policy areas are being securitised (migration for one) and economic interdependence is increasing, more and more of the “bilateral and multilateral forms of intergovernmental rule making” (Blatter) concern matters that are central to states’ and citizens’ most pressing interests. But this is exactly why these bilateral and multilateral agreements and institutional arrangements exist. It seems very difficult to convince the potential actors involved, publics and elites alike, that the additional symbolic and democratic rewards the proposal promises are enough to justify their support for it. For the elites the latter can be actual political costs. When there is a tension between responsible and responsive government there is a reluctance by political elites to even consider responsible ways of conduct, as they would imperil the responsive short-term solutions that facilitate their re-election. Thus, elite attitudes can be the crucial obstacle to the starting of the process. Once the consociated status of two or more states is established, an adequate number of consociated citizens to make the project work can certainly be found. But it is unlikely that pressures coming from these citizens would be enough to motivate the elites to start the process.

Here we come to the conditions for the creation of consociations. I am not aware of the existence of more recent systematic studies of societal homogeneity like Deutsch’s. But we can still observe that there are now 27/28 member states in the EU and 19 in the Eurozone, as opposed to the EC’s original six. Almost half of these members have joined the EU only 15 years ago or less. This fact alone raises doubts as to the existence in the EU of improved levels of cultural, economic and social integration. The difficulties experienced at the time of the ill-fated Constitutional Treaty (the debate on what constituted European values was very heated and came to what was for many an unsatisfactory end), as well as the resistance to the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in the Czech Republic, Ireland (where two referendums were needed for the approval), and even Germany indicate the permanence of significant cross-member state differences. It is very doubtful that the conditions, in terms of perceptions of mutual relevance and commonality of values, exist for the creation of extended multilateral consociations.

These limits have been enhanced by Horizontal Euroscepticism; a phenomenon that stems from the divergence of interests among member states that has been highlighted by the economic and, more recently, migration crises. It is revealed by “statements, positions, and actions, which express negative … feelings by … political actors from one given member state towards other … selected member states … [and] can produce negative, although indirect, … attitudes towards the EU, …its institutions or the principles it stands for. It is induced by perceptions that decisions made at European level … are increasingly being imposed by few, ‘strong’, states on many, ‘weaker’, ones. On the other hand, the perceived reluctance, or even refusal, by the ‘weaker’ states to comply with such decisions can be seen as revealing of … intention[s] to take advantage of the ‘stronger’ states’ generosity and tolerance” (Bardi 2014, p. 358).

After its initial manifestations, which were certainly caused by objective differences over relevant issues, horizontal Eurosceptic attitudes are more and more frequently expressed instrumentally by national actors who resort to “blame-game” tactics to deflect attacks aimed at their own domestic responsibilities. As most governments are now being held accountable for having participated in controversial EU decisions, they try to divert the focus from the decisions to the failure of other member states to implement them correctly. This has become a powerful political tool even for non-populist and non-sovereignist actors and it would be made unavailable to them by any consociational arrangement among states. This is another political cost domestic actors may not be willing to incur.


What we are confronted with seems to be a classic Catch-22 situation. Some of the very reasons for demanding more transnational democracy (lack of decisional accountability at EU level, technocratic discretion, and domestic actors’ unwillingness inability to address these issues) seem to be at the root of the unfeasibility of new institutional responses. Particularly, the economic trends and changes in most member states’ values and priorities have created what appears to be one of the lowest levels of cross-national convergence since the end of World War II. This makes it very difficult to even imagine any actor with domestic governmental responsibility to sign a “joint declaration of interdependence”, as Blatter recommends. This is especially true if this should lead to a multilateral consociational arrangement. If several potential partners should be involved, the transaction costs would outweigh what look like rather immaterial rewards. Besides the political costs there are organisational and opportunity ones that have to do with finding adequate candidates, funding and organising campaigns in the consociated states, dealing with increasing voter fatigue etc. – too many to be listed, let alone discussed here. Blatter’s instrument could however be used in bilateral contexts, where opportunity and organisational costs would be limited. Moreover, it would be more likely to succeed in those cases where the political costs would be nullified or at least greatly reduced by the existence of higher levels of homogeneity and of no dominant reasons for divergence between potential partners. This could be seen as first step in a multi-stage strategy, very much like that conceived by Jean Monnet with his sector by sector design for European integration. If one or more bilateral consociational arrangements should be successful, the process could spill over to neighbouring or like-minded states in a similar fashion to what was the post-hoc neo-functionalist theoretical elaboration of Monnet’s intuition (Haas 1958).



Bardi, L. (2014) Political parties, responsiveness, and responsibility in multi-level democracy: the challenge of Horizontal Euroscepticism in European Political Science, 13 pp. 352-364 doi:10.1057/eps.2014.27.

Deutsch, Karl W.; et al. (1957). Political Community and the North Atlantic Area: International Organization in the Light of Historical Experience. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Easton, D. (1965) A Framework for Political Analysis, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Fisher, W. (1969). An Analysis of the Deutsch Sociocausal Paradigm of Political Integration. International Organization, 23(2), 254-290. doi:10.1017/S0020818300031593.

Haas, E. B. (1958) The Uniting of Europe: Political, Social and Economical Forces 1950-1957 (London: Stevens & Sons).

Mair, P. (2013) Ruling the void. The Hollowing of Western Democracy, London: Verso.

Streit, C. K. (1941) Union now with Britain; New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers.