Power, representation and the demos in transnational democracy
By Ludvig Beckman (University of Stockholm/Institute for Futures Studies)
I share many of Joachim Blatter’s worries regarding the democratic legitimacy of bi- and multilateral forms of rulemaking. However, I am less convinced that his proposal is effective in addressing them. In contrast to Sofia Näsström, who questions whether Blatter is radical enough, I am this going to engage with the internal coherence of his proposal. According to Blatter, a new transnational demos can be created that includes citizens from separate nation-states. Instead of creating a supranational state that replaces existing national democracies, Blatter suggests that citizens should be afforded a limited representation in foreign parliaments and to vote in foreign national elections on a reciprocal basis. The aim of this scheme is to reduce the exclusive reliance on national constituencies in decisions that affect or subject people beyond national borders, thereby mitigating the democratic deficit of existing inter-governmental forms of decision-making while at the same time steering clear of radically revising the nation-state system.
A striking feature of Blatter’s proposal is that it leaves the larger issues in democratic theory out of the picture. The paper identifies a problem and a remedy but says little about the values and principles upon which they are grounded. I believe this is a defect and I will try to explain why by offering just two remarks on the relationship between the demos and the powers of national parliaments and their relations to one another. In brief, my concern is, first, that the idea of transnational voting defended by Blatter is inconsistent with the status of the demos according to the democratic ideal and, second, that the scheme for reciprocal representation is oblivious to the differences between the status of national parliaments in different countries.
The central component of Blatter’s proposal is that nation-states together agree to form “consociated states” where citizens from other states are reciprocally granted rights to vote in their parliaments. The point is not to dissolve national parliaments but to enlarge their constituencies by expanding the demos. Foreign citizens thus included in the demos are nevertheless offered only “limited rights and responsibilities” and the reason, as Blatter explains, is that they are less subjected to or affected by the decisions than citizens. Thus, Blatter turns against the tenet that political inclusion is an “all or nothing affair” in the sense of a person either being a member of the demos or not. Instead, he imagines that a citizen can be a member of a demos to a degree. In the consociated state, foreign citizens are members of the demos only to a degree because they participate in the election of representatives with “limited voting rights” in the parliament. Deciding on the powers exercised by these members is up to the “regular” members of the parliament – those representing the citizens – who can decide on a case by case basis.
It is worth taking a brief look on the rationale for the tenet that inclusion in the demos is an all or nothing affair. I believe it derives from the conviction that procedural democracy involves what Robert Dahl (1989) called the “control of the agenda”. As stressed by Dahl, the ideal of political democracy includes the right of a people to determine freely its own fate; the distribution of power between public institutions is in the last resort for the people to decide. The control of the agenda so understood is an all or nothing affair, no part of the state (such as the military, the judiciary, for example) is beyond the powers of the people to regulate. In order for the people to take part in the control of the agenda, it is essential that the body exercising this control is authorised and elected by the people. An inclusive demos is essential for the people to share in the control of the agenda. An inclusive demos is in that sense not just important to the individuals involved but also for the democratic status of the state.
But in Blatter’s scheme, it is not true that the demos excerises control of the agenda because consociated voters cannot elect representatives with the powers to make decisions about the distribution of power between public institutions. Foreign citizens are members of the demos only in a reduced sense, due to the limited powers of the representatives they elect. Although Blatter speaks about expanding the demos to foreign citizens and creating a form of transnational democracy, I believe his scheme does neither. Foreign citizens are not members of the demos in Dahl’s sense, and the resulting political order is not in fact a transnational democracy. Instead, it is a traditional type of democracy in the nation-state to which a limited scheme for the representation of affected interests has been added. The political representation of foreign citizens sketched by Blatter is more akin to liberal ways of protecting interests by the institutionalization of rights or the creation of separate bodies, such as the ombudsmen. They may of course be effective in protecting affected interests. Yet, they do not amount to democratic forms of decision-making whereby public power ultimately rests in the hands of the people.
To illustrate, consider a decision to exit from the consociation agreement with another state. The question then is who should be entitled to participate. One answer is that every member of the demos should be able to participate, including foreign citizens. After all, foreign citizens could plausibly maintain that a decision to exit from the agreement with other states affects them significantly as it removes the opportunity to influence future policy decisions that are affecting them. But if foreign citizens are allowed to vote on the future status of the consociated state, national citizens have in effect surrendered control of the agenda to the new demos and a new supra-national democracy would have been created. This option is hence inconsistent with the continued existence of separate nation-states. Yet, I doubt this is what Blatter proposes, as he argues that “national representatives will decide” whether or not the representatives of foreign citizens will be able to vote or not. In that case, it is effectively up to the national demos – excluding foreign citizens – to decide if the consociated state experiment should continue or not. The implication is that only national citizen are members of the demos in Dahl’s sense and that the consociated state is not an incidence of “transnational democracy”.
A less decisive objection that I believe is nevertheless important to raise is how to integrate the system of reciprocal representation envisaged by Blatter into the diversity of institutional frameworks of national democracies that currently exist. Blatter wisely insists that a system of transnational representation must be reciprocal by which I take him to mean that the powers surrendered should be roughly equal to the powers granted. Following the proposal, the proportion of seats in the national parliament reserved to representatives of foreign citizens should be the same in all consociated states. Blatter’s proposal thus appears premised on equal power sharing between national parliaments. Blatter exemplifies it by arguing that if one country offers five seats out of 500 to foreign representatives, then the foreign parliament with 300 seats should make three seats available in return.
Now, such equal proportional representation does not automatically secure equal power sharing. The reason why is that the powers vested in parliaments differ between political systems, since national constitutions distribute powers differently among public institutions. Consider for example the differences between unitary systems (such as Sweden) and federal ones (such as Germany). In Germany, the Länder possess many of the powers that in Sweden are regarded as belonging to the national parliament. The legal powers vested in the national parliament of Sweden are in this sense considerably larger than the legal powers vested in the Bundestag. Or, consider a parliamentary democracy where the courts play a minor role in reviewing legislation, with a political system where power is shared between an elected assembly, an elected president and the judiciary. Arguably, the national parliament in the former country is incomparably more powerful than in the latter. Clearly, “reciprocal” representation in parliaments, even if it ascertains proportional equality, does not add up to equal power sharing. This of course undermines the motivational effects of reciprocity stressed by Blatter.
Let me add a last point: A plausible scheme for transnational representation within the framework of existing national parliaments is unlikely to be as simple as the one included in Blatter’s proposal. A truly reciprocal form of representation between nations that distribute public power differently between their institutions requires a more complicated scheme that makes it much less likely to ever materialise.
The more fundamental point that I wanted to draw attention to, however, is not about feasibility but about the democratic status of the proposal itself. Voting rights are not merely vehicles for individual influence; they also play a fundamental role in democratising the collective powers exercised by the electorate and parliaments in controlling the agenda. A system of representation that ignore these powers does not amount to political democracy at all.
 I follow Blatter in referring to ”citizens” though I believe that there are good reasons to define membership in the demos in terms of residence and not of legal citizenship. See Beckman 2014 and 2009.
Dahl, R. (1989). Democracy and its critics. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Beckman, L. (2014). The Subjects of Collectively Binding Decisions: Democratic Inclusion and Extra-Territorial Law. Ratio Juris, 27, 252–270
Beckman, L. (2009). The Frontiers of democracy. The right to vote and its limits. Basingstoke: Palgrave.