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

Transnationally affected interests and multilateral decision-making: The limits of our institutional toolkit

By Joseph Lacey (University College Dublin)


In its most extreme version, the all-affected interests principle says that everyone who is affected by a decision has a right to a say in making that decision. The only way of satisfying this principle fully is through some form of global democracy. Or, if we were to apply the principle regionally to an international constellation like the EU, we would naturally seek to empower supranational institutions to ensure that all European citizens would be equally represented in the decision-making process. This kind of proposal involves, in effect, levelling up national parliamentary politics to the international level. And there’s something to be said for this. Despite its flaws, parliamentary representation is among the best ways we have yet discovered to ensure that policy-making is somewhat responsive to all those whose interests are affected within a jurisdiction. Emmanuel Macron, for one, is seduced by this image in seeking to improve the democratic credentials of the Eurozone by endowing it with its own parliament and finance minister.

Joachim Blatter, in his contribution to this forum, worries that a supranational approach such as that outlined above would be deleterious to national self-determination by disempowering the decision-making capacities of nation-states vis-à-vis supranational institutions. Instead, as I read him, he adopts a two-tiered approach to the all-affected interests principle. First, citizens must be equally represented in multilateral decision-making processes through their states. In the EU, this much is largely achieved in practice. Second, representatives and citizens of each state must consider how others will be affected by any given decision made collectively. By virtue of unanimity or supermajoritarian rules governing EU multilateralism, this second desideratum is also somewhat satisfied. High consensus requirements help to ensure outputs that are responsive to the interests of all states and their citizens in multilateral institutions.

However, Blatter takes the case of the euro-crisis to demonstrate that these conditions do not always hold. In particular, he cites the poor treatment of Greece, which was effectively forced to adopt harsh austerity as a means of reducing its sovereign debt. The first thing to note is that this outcome was in large part due to a breach of those very multilateral decision-making rules mentioned above, which are designed to ensure affected interests are considered. Recall that the handling of the Euro-crisis did not primarily take place through the normal channels, namely the Ecofin configuration of the Council of Ministers, where European finance ministers meet and make decisions under high consensus constraints. Rather, major decisions were made in the informal Eurogroup where normal procedures were dropped and debtor states were exposed to asymmetric raw power politics. It’s in this context that German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble reportedly exclaimed to Greek finance minister Yannis Varoufakis that “its my mandate against yours”. Had the euro-crisis been dealt with through more procedurally proper representative channels, it’s not clear that Blatter’s problematic of ensuring affected interests are considered in multilateral decision-making would be felt quite as acutely. And, indeed, just how far this problem will arise seriously in the future will in part depend on how well-stablished multilateral procedures are followed.

That being said, there is undoubtedly value to Blatter’s aim to ensure that Europe’s national public spheres consider the interests of other states in the course of public debate. If citizens can be habituated into considering other national perspectives, this will ease the pressure on national representatives to resort to raw power politics and, more generally, might make them readier to accommodate the interests of other states. In other words, if Schäuble and other European leaders could speak of a mandate that was not derived purely from national self-interest, we could have expected a more just outcome of the euro-crisis. To take another example, with more transnationally aware national citizens, we should also expect member states to be better able to agree to burden-sharing when it comes to processing and hosting asylum seekers.

Blatter’s proposal to address the problematic is to empower each Eurozone member state to elect a small number of representatives who would be sent to stand in the national parliaments of other Eurozone states. For the less complex example of a bi-lateral arrangement, Blatter suggests that each parliament would reserve one per cent of its seats for transnational parliamentarians. Due to the size of the Eurozone, he believes, however, that not every parliament would be able to hold seats for every other state. I assume that this is for reasons of legitimacy, rather than practicality, since packing national parliaments with too many transnational representatives would conceivably come into tension with the primacy of national self-determination. Indeed, Blatter is keen to ensure that self-determination is protected by giving national representatives in the national parliament the right to refuse (with good reason) the claim of transnational representatives in the same parliament to vote on an issue upon which the latter have a presumptive entitlement to cast a vote.

In his contribution to this forum, Ludwig Beckman believes that Blatter’s proposal must be more sophisticated to ensure that it is truly reciprocal between the states. This is because different powers are distributed across different institutions and different levels of government in different states. For example, in some state, sub-federal units will hold powers that are instituted at the national level in other states. Similarly, in some states the national parliaments will be relatively unimpeded in decision-making, whereas in others a second chamber or Presidency or court may be empowered to check the power of parliament. However, I do not think regime diversity of this nature is a particular challenge for Blatter’s proposal. He is most concerned that transnational representatives have a “say” (at least by voice and, if permitted, by vote) on transnational issues. Indeed, transnational issues are overwhelmingly dealt with at the national, rather than the sub-national level, while parliaments in every member state are the primary venues in which interests are represented by voice and vote (even if there are differing powers among them in constraining their respective executives).

Sofia Näsström is more concerned about how such a proposal will be received in the current climate of national retrenchment. Surely, she asks, transnationalising national parliaments would be seen as just more ceding of sovereignty and unwelcome interference from the outside (one can already hear the “Trojan horse” rhetoric a mile away)? This is a valid concern, but a hostile political climate is not a reason to reject Blatter’s proposal in principle, or even from a practical perspective considered in the longer-term.

There are, however, three reasons to reject Blatter’s proposal. One has to do with its limited effectiveness in achieving its goal. The second has to do with its weak accountability mechanism. And the third has to do with the availability of less invasive options that may do at least as good a job at achieving the goal of including affected interests into national public debates.

On the first point, the limited number of places Blatter gives to transnational representatives in national parliaments limits their ability to have their voices heard in the parliament. Minor parliamentary parties often play only very limited roles in national debate, and there is little reason to think that the small number of transnational representatives would be given particular attention (except perhaps initially, as a novelty). But if transnational representatives ever held the balance of power on an issue, and were permitted to vote on it by the rest of parliament, then the dangers of (perceived) illegitimacy could be very real and problematic. In other words, Blatter’s proposal is generally likely to be too ineffective in ensuring that significant weight is given to the constituency interests of transnational representatives. But, when they are occasionally effective at doing this, it is likely to produce perceived legitimacy deficits.

On the second point, the problems of electoral accountability are well-known. It’s difficult enough for citizens to monitor the behaviour of their representatives within the national sphere. Are we to expect citizens to be able to understand how their representatives are advocating for them in a range of different public spheres? It strikes me that such representatives would be more distant, and potentially less visible, than even current MEPs (who typically receive very little public attention in national public spheres, despite having more power than the transnational representatives would typically have on Blatter’s proposal).

On the third point, there are a range of other options worth considering as alternatives to Blatter’s proposal that could be at least as effective at doing the very difficult job of making national citizens responsive to the concerns of those beyond their state, without requiring complicated institutional tinkering that interferes with national parliaments in any deep way. I give just two examples of such ideas here, though I cannot elaborate them in detail.

One idea would be more formal efforts to Europeanise national public spheres with transnational media frames. Each country could agree to embed something like Euronews into its national broadcasting, such that every 30 minutes of national news is accompanied by ten minutes of Euronews. This could be partly tailored to each state such that each one receives particularly relevant news from the perspective of considering affected interests. So, during the Euro-crisis, it would have been especially appropriate for creditor states to be exposed to the national discourses of debtor states. To be most effective, this strategy would need to be reproduced across various media, and not just television.

A second idea would be a transnational citizens assembly governed by deliberative norms, convened for a one-year terms. The task of this assembly, composed of say 200 European citizens (broken into working groups), would be to serve as a monitoring body over all national parliaments and the European Parliament. Its only formal powers would be to serve these parliaments with notices of concern or, more damningly, notices of censure. In effect, where the assembly considers a national parliament to be ignoring the affected interest of other states in their decision-making process, it could provide them with a reasoned opinion to this effect (notice of concern). Parliaments would then be required to offer a reasoned reply, contesting the notice of concern or demonstrating how its contents have been taken on board. An unsatisfactory reply from the parliament in question could lead to a public notion of censure. The desired effect of both formal powers would be to simply raise the publicity of affected interests in national public debates.

Of course, much as Blatter’s proposal, these two possibilities seem somewhat piecemeal in that they would be limited in their ability to ensure that transnationally affected interests are more adequately considered across national public spheres within the EU. For this task, it seems that there is no more effective mechanisms than multilateral institutions that embody the equality of states through unanimity and supermajoritarian decision rules. Unless we pursue more familiar supranational ideas (such as those advocated by Macron, mentioned at the beginning of this piece), forging a thicker European demos and potentially trading-off further on national sovereignty, then the institutional toolkit available to ensure externally affected interests are appropriately considered across national contexts is underwhelming. This does not mean that such proposals should not be pursued, especially if the supranational options are non-runners on either normative or pragmatic grounds. But we should expect only marginal gains from institutional tinkering on the multilateral approach.