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A plea for transnational groups in international parliaments

Vote in the European Parliament in Strasbourg approving the European Commission (in 2010). Photo: European Parliament, Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On June 9th, Europe will vote. On this day, over 370 million citizens of the European Union’s 27 Member States have the opportunity to directly elect their members of the European Parliament.

The European Parliament stands out as the most developed supranational parliament that exists today. It has legislative, budgetary and supervisory powers and direct elections were introduced in 1979. But there are more international parliamentary bodies, for instance the Pan-African Parliament, the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly or Parlasur. Their powers are often limited to a consultative function.

While there are plans for some of them to be directly elected, these parliaments and assemblies do not reflect the preferences of their citizens in the same way as the European Parliament does – in the European Parliament, candidates are elected through party lists and seats are allocated accordingly. This means that the entire political spectrum is represented.

In the European Parliament, members are organized in transnational groups

In contrast, members of most other regional parliaments and parliamentary assemblies are not directly elected but are instead appointed by the parliaments of member states. Most importantly, their members do not organize themselves in transnational groups like they do in the European Parliament since the 1950s. In the ninth legislative period that is coming to an end this month, there were nine such groups.

In parliamentary assemblies without transnational groups, however, it is difficult for citizens to understand how their representatives will act and vote. They are hardly accountable to anyone.

There is a longstanding proposal for the UN to establish a Parliamentary Assembly. Recently it was put forward at the UN’s Civil Society Conference in Nairobi. Image: UN headquarters in New York. License: Shutterstock

Regional parliaments and parliamentary assemblies could play a more significant role than they do today. Only the European Parliament has so far developed into a serious player in regional politics. The potential of the others remains untapped. They too could become an effective platform for parliamentarians from different countries to interact and make political decisions that can help solve transnational problems.

This potential exists, as shown by a study by Mathias Koenig-Archibugi and Luka Bareis on the influence of international parliaments on foreign policy and civil rights. The researchers found that frequent interactions between parliamentarians in international parliamentary assemblies over time lead to more similar foreign policy positions among their governments, indicating that international parliamentary assemblies can be a stabilizing factor and help overcome cleavages.

But why have many regional parliaments and parliamentary assemblies hardly changed since their founding and have not become more influential? 

I am convinced that this is largely because the parliamentarians of these international parliamentary bodies do not organize themselves in transnational groups. Instead, they de facto simply represent their member states and thus do not develop a sense for transnational solutions in the interest of the common good.

What organizing into transnational groups can mean is shown by a study by Thomas Winzen and Jofre Rocabert on the representational design of international parliamentary institutions. The two researchers found that the designs of international parliamentary bodies significantly affect their functioning and their influence on international cooperation. They distinguish between two different designs: a citizen-centred representational design and a state-centred representational design.

What is the point of national delegations of parliamentarians?

A citizen-centred representational design would favor the direct election of members of parliament, seats in parliament are distributed roughly proportional to population size, and parliamentarians organize themselves into transnational groups defined by specific political positions.

In contrast, the state-centred representational design involves national delegations being sent from the national parliaments of member states, and members organize themselves into national or geopolitical groups. National delegations primarily see themselves as representatives of their countries and often reflect the positions of their respective governments.

While the former design promotes a more direct involvement of citizens and an awareness of transnational solutions, the latter fosters the parliament’s insignificance. What is the point if national delegations of parliamentarians merely represent their countries’ interests on the international stage?

Without transnational groups in international parliaments, there are no structural incentives to seek solutions beyond geopolitical positions – and then it all depends on committed individual parliamentarians looking for these solutions nonetheless. But this will be the exception rather than the rule. As I have observed, this leads to a certain disillusionment among some parliamentarians, because they realize that hardly anything new is possible, but that familiar positions, often coming from the governments, are simply rehashed again and again.

What lessons can be drawn from this for the proposed UN Parliamentary Assembly as a step towards a global parliament? And what would be the benefit of the UN General Assembly setting up such a parliamentary assembly? If members of this assembly were to organize themselves into national delegations and geopolitical groups, the expected added value would be minimal.

Its design would be similar to that of the UN General Assembly, only different people would be sitting in the seats. The political divides that run through the UN General Assembly would continue in the parliamentary assembly. Worse still, parliamentarians could mirror or even exacerbate existing national and geopolitical conflicts.

A parliamentary assembly at the UN can only be innovative and powerful if from the outset national control over its members of parliament is restricted. Such an assembly, as advised by Democracy Without Borders, needs to be composed of transnational groups and consist of parliamentarians working together across geopolitical divides, so that it is able to embody a global perspective.

Transnational groups in international parliamentary bodies not only increase the motivation and discipline of members in the parliament itself. They also encourage their members to represent and promote common concerns in their respective nation-states. This, in turn, can strengthen the legitimacy of the international order, just as the European Parliament makes the European Union more legitimate.

Simon Taverna
Simon Taverna is a board member of Democracy Without Borders-Switzerland. He is working on a PhD on the involvement of parliamentarians at the international level.