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

Does transnational voting increase national sovereignty or democracy?

Antoinette Scherz (University of Oslo)


What is at stake? National sovereignty or democracy?

Joachim Blatter argues that the increase in bi- and multilateral forms of rule-making might lead to either technocratic intergovernmentalism or populist nationalism. Therefore, he suggests transnationalising the voting in national parliamentary elections. Blatter worries that representative democracy in national states has been hollowed out by technocratic forms of intergovernmental rule-making. Yet, is this also true of the European Union (EU)?[1] Has the EU really hollowed out democracy within its member states, or is national sovereignty at stake instead? To begin, recall Rodrik’s (2000) globalisation trilemma, which claims that we can have (at most) two of the following three things: 1) international economic integration; 2) national sovereignty; 3) democracy. Given that one of the EU’s main aims has been economic integration, at least one of the other two will suffer.[2] However, how we can have democracy without national sovereignty? Rodrik argues that under global federalism, democratic politics would not shrink. Rather, they would relocate. Equally in the EU, the restriction of national sovereignty might be paired with the relocation of democracy to the supranational and transnational level.[3] In contrast to other international or multilateral rule-making institutions, the EU has debated the question of democratisation for decades; different measures have been taken to this end, such as the expansion of the European Parliament’s (EP) competences. In the EU, the issue is not so much democracy, but rather a loss of national sovereignty. The restriction of national sovereignty can also be normatively problematic, but this requires another argument besides the loss of democracy.

For Blatter, the problem lies in the perceived threat to democratic self-determination. This perception, in my view, points to at least three possible problems: 1) a failure of democratisation at the supranational, i.e. the EU, level; 2) a loss of national sovereignty, not democracy; and 3) a lack of trust in the EU’s democratic institutions. While it is unclear that the loss of national sovereignty is necessarily a normative problem if it is not linked to a simultaneous decline of democracy, 1) and 3) present clear challenges to democracy. Regarding 3), the lack of citizens’ trust in the institutional system, not just in a particular government, undermines the functioning of democracy. Reinforcing the transnational dimension of democracy can be helpful or even necessary in mitigating the first and third issue in a multilevel democracy such as the EU. As far as 1) goes, the jury is still out on whether the EP, as it is currently constituted, is fostering transnational discourse and interests (cf. von Achenbach 2017) or whether improvements are possible. In this forum debate, Joseph Lacey, Mathias Koenig-Archibugi and Eva Erman have already proposed to strengthen or reform the European Parliament or to complement it with European-level democratic forums; I have argued elsewhere that the enforcement of these transnational dynamics could be achieved by electing a Europe-wide Subchamber of the EP (Scherz 2017).

Blatter and I agree that the transnational aspect of democracy is essential to establish a viable democracy beyond the state. Therefore, Blatter’s institutional proposal is a thought-provoking contribution to the debate on how to strengthen such transnational integration and trust. Whether this institutional alternative would fare better than the EP in terms of creating trust in EU institutions and perhaps even solidarity between European citizens is a question of political psychology, which I cannot answer. But the proposal is valuable insofar as it tries to address the general problem that democracies are only responsive to their own constituencies and the growing gap between responsive and responsible governments. On the one hand, elections force governments to be responsive to their own citizens and, on the other hand, responsible governments in office need to find feasible solutions in an interconnected world. Promising more than can be achieved during elections to please the voters and blaming the EU for problems pays out in the EU two-level-game. This dynamic benefits the rise of national populism. Another way to address these issues would be to increase the importance of the supranational level – in particular that of the EP – shifting decision-making power up from the national level and rendering it more a one level game (with the normative problems that are associated with this). Therefore, here I will focus on how the proposal of consociated transnational voting compares to existing supranational institutionalisation in the form of the EP.


Normativity and feasibility

First, we need to clarify whether Blatter’s proposal is a normative recommendation that is left to nation states to implement, i.e. is it something states should do, or something we can expect them to do? In other words, is it about normativity or feasibility? I understand Blatter’s proposal as claiming both (a) that the suggested transnational voting scheme is normatively desirable, and (b) that it is at least not completely infeasible. Of course, these two aspects are not unrelated. However, we should keep them distinct and highlight their differences in order to evaluate the proposal. A second question is whether the proposal is an alternative or an addition to current or improved supranational institutions. In the former case, both the normativity and the feasibility of Blatter’s proposal are in competition with supranational forms of democracy. Some other commentators (e.g. Koenig-Archibugi and Erman) argue that the proposal is normatively desirable (i.e. better than the status quo), but that it might still be less desirable than the full supranational alternative. However, the proposal can overall be more desirable because it is more feasible. Although Erman is right that feasibility does not determine the overall desirability, it is still relevant if we want to compare the two options. In the latter case, the proposal is supplementing rather than replacing supranational solutions, which raises questions of compatibility.

The proposal’s feasibility depends on whether the agreement of the individual states is required. Politically, there is hardly any other way in which it could be implemented. Further, such agreement is also normatively required. The decision to expand the national demoi in the proposed way would be problematic if constituted democracies were forced to include other demoi. However, if the states have to consent to the implementation, the most influential states become veto players. If states such as Germany and France refuse to join the multilateral consociation, it would be a futile project to create transnational democracy in Europe. Yet the incentives are likely to differ for the more and less powerful states. The feasibility of the proposal also depends on establishing reciprocity for the more powerful states, which in turn depends on the particular institutional implementation of the proposal.


Institutional issues

First, if the “joint declaration of interdependence” is signed and representation is agreed upon bilaterally, a fixed percentage of representatives is included in both parliaments. However, when moving to multilateral representation between several peoples, these percentages cannot simply be cumulated, or else those states that are chosen by several states (i.e. states perceived as more powerful) would have to reserve a greater number of seats in their national parliaments. Therefore, Blatter suggests a form of multilateral or diffuse reciprocity. What does this mean? One can imagine that the percentages in the states that are selected more than others will be higher but not cumulative. Yet, this would be a disadvantage for the more powerful states. This is, however, an issue of feasibility since it is imperative for the success of the whole enterprise to have these states on board. Alternatively, the percentages could remain fixed for all states. In states that have been selected by more than one of the other consociate states, the reserved seats would be divided. The question again is: how? Counting all votes equally, assigning quotas for states for the consociated seats, or some other formula to account for the difference in population size between states? In any case, the influence of the citizens of less powerful states on legislation in the powerful states will be reduced by the numbers of other states that decide to send representatives. This means that one part of the proposal’s revolutionary potential is diminished, because the power relations between the interdependent states are not reshaped.

Second, the matter of generating reciprocity is further complicated by the variety of domestic political institutions. Besides the differences in institutionalisation of the parliaments and the importance of parliaments in the different domestic settings (cf. Beckman), the influence of consociated seats will vary depending on the party systems and the majorities in different national parliaments, even if the percentages of consociated seats are the same. Lacey is right to note that this is not a normative issue for Blatter, but I think it is one of feasibility. If there are constant discussions about the equality of representation in different states, the arrangement cannot be stable. One alternative way to institutionalise the representation of consociated citizens is to give their representative only deliberative rights, i.e. a voice but no votes. This would avoid several complications of the institutionalisation such as percentage, ratio, and restricted right. However, such an advisory role would hardly motivate the citizens and parties in the way that Blatter hopes.

Third, the appropriate percentage of consociated seats in national parliaments is hard to pin down. It would need to be high enough to be salient for voters and parties in order to generate the envisaged change in deliberation, but it should not be too high, in order to protect self-determination. It is likely that higher percentages would create more opposition to implementing the proposal, making it less feasible. However, the graver normative issue is that there seem to be incompatible values at the proposal’s core, namely national sovereignty and democracy (against the background of economic integration). The more equal and thus democratic the voting rights of the consociated and national citizens are (in terms of both the ratio and the issues on which they can vote), the less compatible they are with national sovereignty or what Blatter calls self-determination. Blatter seeks to strike a balance between the two values, which means establishing both in part. This, however, cannot erase the fact that there is a trade-off.


No equal status – no democracy

My main concern with the proposal is that I do not think that the restricted rights granted to consociated citizens are sufficient to establish democracy (similar worries have been raised by Beckman, Meine and Lacey). The fact that the ratio of representatives to citizens will be lower for consociated citizens, and that the voting rights of consociated representatives are subject to the consent of national representatives, means that they do not enjoy the status of equal citizens. Democracy as a normative ideal is the political practice of equals who mutually recognise each other as such, in both deliberation and legal rights. The rights of consociated citizens are better than nothing, but they fall short of ensuring equality. Therefore, in my view, supranational forms of democracy (like the EP), which institutionalise a stricter equality, are preferable. Of course, such institutions have their own problems and need to be improved further. However, if we understand Blatter’s proposal as an alternative to supranational institutions, the main difference seems to be that it strikes a different balance between national sovereignty and democracy. It seeks to protect national sovereignty (though more inclusive) or, in other words, the range of national decision-making, but at the cost of equality and thus democracy.

Finally, can the proposal supplement existing EU institutions? I think this is the most promising way in which to understand it. Yet, Koenig-Archibugi raises some important questions about the compatibility of the two projects. Additionally, I worry that voting in several national parliaments and the EP creates a complexity issue. Such complexity is not just a matter of feasibility; it is also normatively relevant as it can undermine the very goals that Blatter’s proposal seeks to promote: returning politics to the people and empowering parties and parliaments. In conclusion, the proposal’s feasibility is difficult to evaluate because it depends on its specific institutionalisation, which is not yet clearly defined. The institutional questions that I have raised do not show that the proposal is unfeasible but since its feasibility is questionable, it is not preferable to the supranational option on grounds of feasibility. In terms of normativity, I have doubts that the proposal promotes democracy better. Although it might increase national sovereignty, this is normatively less important than democracy if we have to choose between the two. We do not face this dilemma if we are willing to give up (some of) the economic integration instead. So, in my view, both the feasibility and the normativity of Blatter’s proposal are not superior to those of supranational institutions. Nevertheless, I believe that the proposal highlights that the transnationalisation of parties as well as public discourse (the media, in particular) remains an unresolved issue for the EU and requires action. Furthermore, in order to protect democracy, it has to be ensured that existing institutions such as the EP cannot be sidestepped in the decision-making process.



von Achenbach, J., 2017. The European Parliament as a Forum of National Interest? A Transnationalist Critique of Jürgen Habermas’ Reconstruction of Degressive Proportionality. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 55 (2), 193–202.

Rodrik, D., 2000. How Far Will International Economic Integration Go? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14 (1), 177–186.

Scherz, A., 2017. Representation in Multilateral Democracy: How to Represent Individuals in the EU While Guaranteeing the Mutual Recognition of Peoples. European Law Journal, 23 (6), 495–508.



[1] In his contribution, Blatter only considers the Eurozone and not the EU as such. In order to determine how to institutionalise democracy between and beyond states, we need the comparison with EU institutions. To be sure, the fact that many of the EU procedures were not used in the aftermath of the Euro crisis creates substantive doubts about the reliability of the EU’s democratic procedures, but we should still consider them and how they could be improved.

[2] Of course, one can and should question the normative legitimacy of economic integration as an aim. However, for the purpose of this paper, I will take it as a given because I think the differences between combining economic integration with national sovereignty and combining such integration with democracy can shed light on how Blatter’s proposal compares to other institutional suggestions.

[3] Supranational bodies have authority over several states and a certain degree of independence from national governments while transitional cooperation occurs horizontally between states and across borders. In the following, I will refer to supranational democracy as a shorthand for ideal democratic institutions for the EU. These can include not only supranational (e.g. the EP and the European Court of Justice) but also intergovernmental (e.g. the Council of the European Union) and transnational elements (e.g. exchange between national parliaments). For the EU, I believe that an ideal of demoi-cracy or multilateral democracy, which includes a strong transnational dimension, is appropriate.