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

Europeanising parliaments or parliamentarising Europe?

By Mathias Koenig-Archibugi (London School of Economics)


The electoral advance of nationalist and xenophobic parties in Europe has injected renewed urgency into the search for ways to improve the legitimacy of pluralist democracy and governance beyond borders. While institutional reforms should be seen as only a part of a wider response, they are important not least because the problem lies not only in what the authorities do but also in how they do it. In this context, Joachim Blatter’s bold and sophisticated proposal to transnationalise national elections, parties and parliaments provides much needed food for thought to analysts of European politics as well as politically engaged citizens, notably those active in parties and other civil society associations. The proposal deserves to be discussed widely across Europe, and even the ultimately unpersuaded would benefit from a close consideration of the challenge that Blatter throws at dominant assumptions.

Broadly speaking, Blatter’s proposal can be defended from two perspectives. The first perspective attaches intrinsic value to giving citizens (through elected representatives) a say in a forum where decisions affecting their interests are made. By contrast, the second perspective would focus on the instrumental benefits of transnationalising representation and argue that the resulting decisions would become “better”: more effective in solving problems, fairer to all concerned, more acceptable to those who are expected to comply with the decisions, and more likely to enhance the public legitimacy of the political system in the medium and long term.

From the first, intrinsic perspective, the implementation of Blatter’s proposal would certainly be a welcome improvement over the status quo. But it would fall well short of realising the principle that people who are significantly affected by a decision should be given a say in that decision. The reasons for this are explained by Ludvig Beckman in his contribution. In brief, having a say in determining the agenda is more fundamental to democratic participation than voting on the items on the agenda, but in Blatter’s proposal key agenda-setting rights are reserved for nationally elected parliamentarians: whether to accept the presence of external representatives in the first place, and what participation rights the latter would have on specific decisions. Blatter argues that the arrangement he proposes “carefully balances the goal to include currently excluded perspectives and interests with the right of peoples to democratic self-determination.” It seems to me that the proposal gives clear normative priority to “national” self-determination.

Even if implementing the proposal would not bring about transnational democracy, it may still be a very good idea, especially in the light of instrumental considerations. To be sure, some caution is warranted. Jon Elster (2013) reviewed instances of cross-voting arrangements in history and concluded that they rarely achieved the aim of mitigating conflicts between groups. But those historical experiences should not necessarily turn us into pessimists when it comes to the prospects of cross-voting in twenty-first century Europe. The potential advantages of having transnational representatives in national parliaments can be substantial: they can transmit information on affected interests beyond borders, increase the diversity of perspectives in legislative debates, and perhaps exercise a form of moral persuasion. In this context, it is interesting to note that Lucy Kinski (2016, 2018) has found that members of national parliaments already often claim to speak for or act in the interest of citizens from other EU member states. Her finding that there is substantial variation across countries in the frequency of such claims suggests that MPs’ own understanding of the representative role of a national parliament depends partly on the context and should not be regarded as an immutable constraint. If the audience addressed by MPs is extended to include actual representatives of foreign citizens, the “civilizing force of hypocrisy” (Elster 1998) might lead to decisions that are really more in line with transnational interests than they would otherwise be.

However, I think that, considered from an instrumental and pragmatic perspective, Blatter’s proposal entails risks as well. In Europe, the inclusion of foreign interest representatives in national parliaments would not occur in an institutional vacuum, but co-exist with an entity whose raison d’être is the provision of a forum where elected representatives from different countries meet to deliberate and vote on matters of common concern. This entity, of course, is the European Parliament (EP). Blatter notes that his proposal is agnostic in respect to the question of whether supranational approaches should be pursued and that it is embedded in a wider project that contains a proposal for increasing the transnational dimension of EP elections. If pursuing transnational representation in national parliaments were fully compatible with, or even conducive to, the strengthening of the EP as a site for pan-European democratic deliberation and decision-making, then all would be fine. However, there are at least two reasons why there may be a tension between the two pursuits. The first is more contingent: advocating and implementing the institutional reform proposed by Blatter would absorb a considerable amount of time and energy from political parties and activists, which might have otherwise been devoted to initiatives focused on the EP. The second is more structural: the inclusion of external representatives might well be used to justify attempts by national parliaments and governments to undermine the legitimacy of the EP and resist calls for its involvement in areas so far dominated by intergovernmental negotiations, notably the management of the Euro. Such a strategy would be attractive especially for governments and parliaments that have the upper hand in such negotiations. The possibility of a trade-off between the two routes towards the improvement of representation of interests across borders should not be dismissed out of hand.

Let us assume that such a trade-off is real. Which route deserves more support then? Some observers of European politics express legitimate doubts about the capacity of the EP to act as effective pan-European democratic forum. The main exhibits are the declining turn-out in EP elections and the fact that many voters use them to express satisfaction or (more often) dissatisfaction with the government in power in their country. These limitations are real, but they do not seem sufficient to rule out the EP as the most promising vehicle for the democratisation of the EU, including its intergovernmental components (Van Parijs 2018; Hale and Koenig-Archibugi 2016). Let’s consider some of its advantages.

Blatter states that “nation states prefer bi- and multilateralism to supranationalism”, but it is useful to unpack the notion of the “nation state” and try to gauge citizens’ views on the matter. According to the most recent Parlemeter, 48% of respondents across Europe want the EP to play a more important role in the future, 27% would like the EP to play a less important role in the future, and 15% of respondents spontaneously declared that they want it to remain as it is now. It is worth noting that the proportion of those wishing for a smaller role for the EP is significantly boosted by UK respondents, who – at the time of writing – are heading for the exit.

For the purpose of comparing the potential payoff of two strategies – one focused on national parliaments and one focused on the EP – it is also useful to ask which institutions command more trust, and consequently which institutions could provide a more effective platform for promoting transnational interests. Dustmann et al. (2017) analysed all rounds of the European Social Survey (ESS) between 2002 and 2014, and found that in every year covered the average European citizen had more trust in the EP than in his/her own national parliament. The advantage of the EP over national parliaments is more pronounced among the young than among older respondents (this may have implications for which type of reform has more chances to energise grassroots activists). In northern European countries, national parliaments are often trusted more than the European Parliament but – interestingly – that is not true in every ESS round. This suggests that even in those countries the EP does not hopelessly lag behind national parliaments as the most legitimate forum for key decisions. (The exiting UK stands out, again, for its large proportion of EP-sceptical respondents).

Citing these opinion surveys only scratches the surface of a complex set of attitudes and, of course, we do not know how citizens would react to alternative institutional proposals. However, it seems that European citizens “get” the idea of a transnational parliament and quite like it. In my view, this gives EP-focused initiatives a distinct advantage over other schemes for institutional reform that stretch the political imagination.

In sum, I have argued that Blatter’s proposal would not quite amount to establishing transnational democracy, but it would be an improvement over the status quo in various ways. But the inclusion of external representatives in national parliaments entails a not negligible risk that the legitimacy of the EP might be undermined, when the EP still constitutes our best bet for strengthening the democratic accountability of European policy-making, including in monetary affairs.

I would like to conclude with a thought experiment. In his contribution to this debate, Joseph Lacey quotes what German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble reportedly told Greek finance minister Yannis Varoufakis: “It is my mandate against yours” (Varoufakis 2017). Lacey notes that the euro crisis was not dealt with through more procedurally proper representative channels, namely the ECOFIN Council of Ministers, which operates under high consensus constraints. What if all key policy-makers had been operating under a mandate provided by the EP: to address the crisis in a way that reflected the will of the largest number of EU citizens, regardless of how that number was distributed geographically across member states? What would they have done?

Simplifying a lot, policy-makers facing a debt crisis centred on a particular member state have the choice between four courses of action: (a) providing a bailout and make it conditional on austerity policies by the recipient; (b) providing a bailout on terms that are compatible with a fiscal stimulus; (c) encourage austerity without providing a bailout; (d) encourage a stimulus without providing a bailout. Which course of action would have gathered the broadest support among EU citizens when the crisis surrounding Greek debt first broke out? I am not aware of any survey that asked respondents to rank these four options. But the responses to a Eurobarometer survey conducted a few months after the first bailout of Greece, in 2010, can offer us some clues. The two questions given in the table below are especially relevant. The table shows the percentage of respondents choosing each combination of responses (in the following I bracket the problem of non-separable preferences).


“In times of crisis, it is desirable for (OUR COUNTRY) to give financial help to another EU Member State facing severe economic and financial difficulties.”
Totally Agree or Tend to Agree Totally Disagree or Tend to Disagree
“Personally would you say that to emerge from the crisis rapidly, EU Member States should first reduce their public spending or should they first invest in measures to boost the economy?” First reduce their public spending (a)




First invest in measures to boost the economy (b)




Source: Eurobarometer 74.1 (fieldwork Aug-Sept 2010). Note: The table does not show the percentage of respondents who “don’t know” or who spontaneously responded that reducing and investing were “equally important”.


Supposing that the four cells correspond to the four courses of actions summarized above, we note that none would have commanded an absolute majority of preferences among European citizens. If we make the assumption that a citizen who had two preferences satisfied (on austerity and on bailout) would be happier than a citizen who had only one preference satisfied (either on austerity or on bailout), and that the latter would be happier than a citizen who had none of her preferences satisfied, we can see that the course of action that would have left citizens happiest overall is (b): providing a bailout at terms that are compatible with a stimulus. Of course, the actual outcome of the Greek debt negotiations was (a). What this thought experiment suggests is that perhaps the supporters of (b) would have been more successful if they had demanded a genuine pan-European democratic mandate rather than invoking norms of national sovereignty, a strategy unable to stave off defeat when pitted against other sovereignty claims backed up by much larger amounts of material resources.



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European Commission (2013). Eurobarometer 74.1 (8-9 2010). TNS OPINION & SOCIAL, Brussels [Producer]. GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA5237 Data file Version 4.2.0, doi:10.4232/1.11625

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