What is reciprocal voting meant to achieve and why shouldn’t we aim for more?
By Eva Erman (Stockholm University)
Joachim Blatter rightfully worries both about the nationalist and populist tendencies in Europe and about the democratic deficit. His proposal for how to democratise the European Union (or the Eurozone) consists of what we may call a ‘principle of reciprocal representation’, through which a transnational voting schema is established. According to this schema, citizens get voting rights in the parliament of other states. The idea is, roughly, that every involved state permits its citizens to elect a limited number of special representatives who will bring their perspectives and interests into the decision-making process of other states in cases where they are subjected to or affected by a decision. It is reciprocal since if state A allows five representatives from state B, the same number of representatives from A will be included in B. However, since the citizens of A are (generally) less subjected to and affected by the laws and policies of B, their representatives are granted only limited rights and responsibilities. Realising the principle of reciprocal representation, Blatter argues, strengthens democracy in the EU without undermining national self-determination.
Blatter’s proposal is innovative and thought-provoking. Since I am no expert in institutional design, I will instead point to weaknesses of the project as a whole. In my view, two aspects related to the overall aim or function of the account are severely undertheorised, not only in Blatter’s proposal but in the literature on regional and global democracy generally. The first concerns the kind of principle intended, i.e., what the principle is meant to achieve. The second concerns its conditions of applicability, i.e., under what circumstances the principle applies. Satisfying these desiderata is crucial for a sound proposal, or so I shall argue. Doing so not only opens up space for improving the kind of account Blatter wishes to develop, but also makes the discussions about regional and global democracy more precise and nuanced.
What does the proposal aim to achieve?
I agree with Mathias Koenig-Archibugi that Blatter’s proposal, if realised, would improve the status quo. This is a rather uncontroversial claim: with reciprocal representation, the decision-making in the EU would be better or more desirable than it is today. But better in what sense? To respond to this, we have to have a much clearer grasp of what kind of principle is intended. For example, is it a principle of justice, a principle of political legitimacy, a democratic principle, or something else? What sort of proposal is Blatter offering? According to Blatter, it is intended to be a democratic principle, or a principle of democratisation, but on closer scrutiny it is not clear why. Even if ‘external’ representatives justify their demand to vote on an issue by fulfilling the criteria proposed by Blatter – showing that their constituency will be subjected to or affected by the decision – the national representatives in question may decide to deny them this right, as long as they justify their decision to do so (here no criteria for justification are offered). This does not sound very democratic. Moreover, as stressed by Ludvig Beckman, ‘external’ representatives are allowed to vote only on a predetermined set of issues, and therefore have no control of the agenda, which is generally considered to be a fundamental property of democracy (Dahl 1989). The control of the agenda includes the right to determine the distribution of power between public institutions, as noted by Beckman, but it also includes the power to shape the basic form of these institutions and the overarching societal goals and aims (Erman 2018).
Hence, it seems to be something other than democracy that Blatter’s proposal aims to achieve. Perhaps procedural fairness would be one candidate – focusing on taking into consideration in the process all those whose fundamental interests are affected – perhaps something else. But until we know what kind of principle is intended, we cannot properly evaluate the soundness of his proposal. Actually, there is a general tendency in empirically-oriented democratic theory, in particular in a regional and global context, to see any strengthening of key values associated with democracy – such as participation, voting, accountability, deliberation, and so on – as instances of democratisation. However, we have to carefully distinguish the values that a normative theory expresses from their meaning, role, normative status, relative weight and internal relation within that theory. For example, the two key values of John Rawls’ theory of justice are freedom and equality. But their meaning (roughly, basic liberties and equal opportunities), status, relative weight, and internal relation must be understood within the theory as a whole. Similarly, whether more participation, voting, and deliberation leads to more democracy depends on, for example, how these values are substantiated, their internal relation, and so on within the proposed theory.
How is the proposal supposed to be applied?
The second blind spot in Blatter’s proposal concerns its condition of applicability , i.e., how and within what temporal horizon the principle is supposed to apply. What is the sought application of Blatter’s principle of reciprocal representation? It seems to be a principle of a non-ideal kind in the sense that it takes as empirical premises several facts about current political conditions, such as the state-centred decision-making in the EU, current resources and the (lack of) motivations among those involved. Hence, it is intended to be realisable here and now with some effort or at least in the foreseeable future. But these assumptions about feasibility conditions should be made explicit, for we cannot judge the soundness of a principle, or its validity, until we know to what feasibility constraints it is tied. Thus, whether Blatter “offers too little”, as Sofia Näsström claims, partly depends on his response to this concern. And above all, these feasibility conditions should be motivated and defended. Why are these conditions the most appropriate when theorising democratic principles for the EU? Even if we can realise fully a non-ideal principle within a limited time frame and realise only a little bit an ideal (even unachievable) principle, it is an open (and substantial) question which path we should choose. There is nothing in the full realisation as such that makes the first option superior from the standpoint of democracy.
In the debate on global democracy generally, there has been a tendency to dismiss more ideal accounts at the outset as being too unrealistic to be of interest or of any use at all. Despite this criticism of ideal proposals, critics have themselves been rather silent about the feasibility constraints tied to their own supposedly more realistic proposals. Instead, some underspecified notion of feasibility is either implicitly presumed or articulated but not motivated. This has led to a general confusion with regard to feasibility and what role it plays in theorising global democracy. While methodological and metatheoretical questions pertaining to feasibility have been intensively discussed in the philosophical literature on global justice in recent years, the progress made there has unfortunately not made its way into the debate on global democracy in political theory (Erman and Kuyper forthcoming).
For sure, sometimes non-ideal proposals of the kind Blatter offers are exactly what is called for, to guide us in our efforts to take the concrete next step towards more democracy under current conditions, characterised by lack of motivation among political actors, widespread nationalism, right-wing populism and general Euroscepticism, and so on. But sometimes they might lead us into a deadlock, or prevent us from achieving what we can in terms of democracy.
If Blatter instead would have borrowed some of Näsström’s optimism, which I wholeheartedly share, and construed his account under weaker feasibility constraints – say, demanding that a principle must be compatible with the basic features of human nature as we know it and be possible to achieve from the status quo – his commitment to the all subjected principle with regard to law-making would have entailed robust supranational arrangements for EU decision-making, at least in some policy areas. Such an ideal standpoint would not only be inspiring since it forces us to keep the bar high for what democracy requires; it may also be helpful in guiding our efforts to formulate non-ideal proposals for how to come closer to this ideal. With such a long-term outlook at our disposal, alternative non-ideal proposals might come to the fore which are more attractive than Blatter’s since they are equally feasible, but make European decision-making more democratic, for example, by strengthening the European Parliament. On this view, and in line with Koenig-Archibugi, it seems that the European Parliament is the most promising vehicle for the democratisation of the EU under present circumstances.
Dahl, R. (1989), Democracy and its critics. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Erman, E. (2018), ‘A Function-Sensitive Approach to the Political Legitimacy of Global Governance’, British Journal of Political Science (Online First).
Erman, E and J. Kuyper (forthcoming), ‘Global Democracy and Feasibility’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy.
 Thanks to Ludvig Beckman and Rainer Bauböck for comments on earlier drafts of this paper.