Can there be a transnational democracy? A European model.

Perspectives Internationales 16/12/2012 0

Speaking at a press conference at the eve of the Nobel Prize ceremony, the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said that the award was “for the European project- the people and the institutions- that day after day, for the last sixty years, have built a new Europe”. Following this path, Lora Krasteva argues from a sociological perspective, that transnational democracy, relying on the pillar of the demos and the institutions,  is on its way, not without obstacles, and that we indeed have a lot to learn from the European project.

When reflecting upon the possibility of global democracy, Mathias Koenig-Archibugi [1] makes a clear tour d’horizon of the conditions for democratic institutions and practices to exist. He reaches the conclusion that, despite of what might the nation state experience suggest, there is neither need of homogeneous society nor a full monopoly of the means of coercion. He also discards considerations about the levels of economic income and the size of the polity. Thus it seems that we can have democracy in a heterogeneous society, organised in a large polity where the level of political centralization doesn’t have to be very high. Transnational democracy seems therefore viable insofar two minimal conditions are met. As Tsakatika puts it, the minimal requisites for democracy are demos (understood as “persons that decide on equal terms about those affairs they have come to consider of common concern[2]) and a mechanism through which “the demos can arrive at and enforce joint decisions on matters of common concern[3]. Can such demos and mechanisms exist between nations?

            Traditionally, in the frame of the nation state where popular sovereignty is state sovereignty[4] the demos is the nation and the mechanisms to insure its conclusions and decisions are those of liberal representative democracy. If we search for such a demos and such a democracy in a transnational arena, we will not be able to find them. Nonetheless, what I want to argue here is that there is hope for more democracy at the international level and that a project such as the European Union pushes for a reassessment of the current trends in western democracies.

            I will first show how globalization and increased interconectiveness eroded the nation state and the liberal democracy. Secondly, I will argue that an embryo of global citizenship and civil society already exists which is a healthy sign for transnational democracy. Moreover, in the European Union context such developments seem to found their way and contribute to an emergent transnational polity. Finally, I will conclude on the difficulties that may suppose founding “commonalities” at the transnational level and on how the states ought to be important players in this. For this to happened, liberal representative democracy at the national level has to be completed with other democratic practices which are more adaptable with the “rush to the global” societies are being experiencing.

Globalization, nation state and democracy

            Bottom-up and top-down pressures

Following David Held[5] and Kate Nash’s reading[6], I argue that political communities have experienced important transformation in the light of the processes of globalization. The nation state suffers increasingly from different kind of pressures. One can characterize them as “from above” and “from below”. The first are the internationalization brought by globalization: multinational companies, criss-crossing of financial flows, cross-border movements of population… The increasing complexity of the present world arising from this brings with it a strong fragmentation of interests. This fragmentation acts “outside of the political sphere” as Zolo argues[7]. Negotiations between the different groups involved are thus to be done in the dark since the modern state tends to retreat and leave room for other organizations and institutions. The later fall outside of the scope of representative democracy’s mechanisms such as elections and accountability to the citizens. As Crouch argues[8], this retreat of the state had left room for corporate interests and political elitism. Both actors seem not to be interested in widespread citizen involvement: the quarter stone of representative democracy – participation in electoral vote – is consequently jeopardized since apathy and disenchantment grow. Moreover, because matters start to fall outside the scope of the nation state, more of these are dealt at the international level. Different organizations are put in place mostly on the basis of intergovernmental bargaining so entirely in the hands of the states. Liberal representative democracy however does not stretch so far and quickly the gap between decisions taken at this level and the effects citizens might live lack of legitimacy. An example of this could be seen in the increasing competencies of the EU and how their growth was followed by attempts to close the notorious “democratic deficit”. Many may argue that there is no point precisely because it is a matter of states and not of citizens. However, direct elections and even a mechanism of transnational referendum were incorporated to the EU project.

The rise and adaptability of bottom-up pressures (at the EU level)

The feelings of apathy and disenchantment towards the elites are not only linked to the functioning of the nation state but seem to spill over toward the EU level. They must not be interpreted as a crisis of the political participation since we can witness new methods of contestation and the restructuring of the “idea of political community of fate”[9]. The transformation of the political communities described above thus brings with it a transformation of the political participation as Pippa Norris’ accounts show[10]. Interest groups, new social movements or politics of protest are the activisms to pressure the nation state “from below”. Regional powers or nationalist movements in the very states are also to be added to those bottom-up pressures. Mixt loyalties and new cross-border identities are to be found[11]. Especially in the case of the EU, those types of regional transnational interests can find places to flourish, namely in the frame of the “Europe of regions”. However, they are still not a majoritarian trend albeit some enjoy important powers (the Catalan example is a vivid). The structure and organization of these new forms of contestation seems more adaptable to the complexity and multiplicity of actors and interests interacting in the globalized world. Their use of new media, cross-national co-operation and mobilization is a direct influence of globalization. Moreover, their flexibility allows them to adapt to multilevel systems of governance such as the EU (lobbying in Brussels, political march across the continent[12] etc).

Globalization, citizenship and civil society

            The emergence of a global civil society in Tocquevillian terms

            As we saw, the scope of the nation state is put into question which also affects the system of liberal representative democracy. While low voter turnout seems to be a trend of western democracies, Norris argues that we are far from a crisis of political participation. What happens is a multiplication of actors in the “arena of non-state institutions and practices” or civil society – as defined by Kumar[13]. Since this arena is “interpenetrated by the state” (as he continues, with a Hegelian account) but enjoys certain autonomy, it can turn the effects of globalization to its advantages linking citizens and disregarding national borders or governments for instance. The most famous example is the environmental movement. Through transnational activism, their achievements of transforming national and international agendas are well known. This proves how a transnational civil society is slowly emerging. It is true however that it is not because a more global public opinion can be grasp that we can account for any democratic trends on the international level. If civil society is a sign in favour of democracy, it is not a proof of it. In Tocquevillian terms “civil society and democracy exist whenever the deliberation in civil society concretely translates into the transformation or establishment of institutions endowed with political legitimacy”. A transnational civil society evolving in or towards democracy would have to be therefore capable to push for new institutions or pressure existing ones. For now it seems as the creative part of the emergent global civil society has not been reached yet. Its capacities to pressure however, are not to be underestimated since interactions with states and international institutions do exist (again, the environmental movement is a clear example).

            On its way to post-national citizenship: the individualization of society.

Besides a “flavour” of global civil society, we have to consider the emergence of post-national citizenship, as Nash describes it. She comments on how individuals became object of international law, which bounds the nation states. The most salient examples are indeed the asylum seekers regimes or, in the case of the EU the fact that “universal human rights are attached to persons rather than to [national] citizens”[14] (incorporation of the EU convention on Human rights, judgements of the ECJ and the political aspect attached to EU citizenship where EU members can participate in local elections). Nonetheless, even in the EU post-national citizenship there isn’t that much of a “post-“since it depends de facto on the nation states. It is therefore an additional citizenry, to be granted by the states. This, together with the difficulties for an emerging global civil society to affect the global polity (or transnational ones) unveils the necessity to foster the previous trends in conjunction with the already existing democratic mechanisms.

Conclusion

            Because I want to advocate in favour of transnational democracy, I will draw a possible path towards more democracy at the international level, being it regional (as the EU can be) or global. First of all, since the nation state is seeing its scope reduced and matters escaping the governments, a better clarity is needed between the different actors and interests in politics. A more open and fluid public sphere is needed to ensure a better communication between all involved groups. As Gibbens argues, there is a necessity of “generative politics”[15]. To avoid dependence of the state, cross-national (if not transnational) debate and contestation is to be fostered. As it is believed that states as such aren’t the most interested in this, it is the role of civil society to seek co-operation from neighbours and agents kin on the matters at stake. New social movement for instance are said to be “principal actors in democratic will formation” by defining issues to be dealt with[16]. Then they will rely on conventional channels to see their interests put forward. Going beyond this Habermasian conception, we can also encourage the same movements to exercise pressures not only at a national level but in other levels such as international organisations or meetings. True, this alone is not “democracy” but disregarding their potential for change will be to not make justice to those who succeeded (women rights, gay rights, environmental movements, etc).

Pressures on a national level will therefore aim interests to be mediated by the state itself on the international level, if cohesion is obtained between actors of the civil society and representatives. Running parallel to those pressures, measures to impact directly on a more global level will ensure those or other interests to be pursued. A balance is to be found therefore between the internal national set of institutions and laws and the more global (or regional/transnational) level. Both levels nourish themselves and interact and therefore could evolve towards a democratic polity. Of course many difficulties remain as for instance the question of resources, language, instrumentalization of the available channels or the intensity of relationship between civil society and the state, to name a few.

                                                                                                          Lora V. Krasteva

Lora V. Krasteva is an Msc Graduate from both Sciences Po Paris and the London School of Economics and Political Science, in European Studies, specialized in Ideas and Identities of the European Union. Currently training in creative production with Project Phakama, she explores political engagement and participation via the Arts.

Bibliography

C. CROUCH “Post-Democracy” Cambridge: Polity, Cambridge (2004)

A. GIBBENS “Beyond Left and Right”, Cambridge: Polity, Cambridge (1994)

D. HELD “The transformation of political community: rethinking democracy in the context of globalization” in I. Shapiro and C. Hacker-Cordon “Democracy’s edges”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1999)

M. KOENIG- ARCHIBUGI “Is global democracy possible?”, European Journal of International Relation 17 (3) 2010

K. KUMAR “Civil Society: An Inquiry into the Usefulness of an Historical Term’ British Journal of Sociology 44 (3) 1993.

K. NASH “Contemporary Political Sociology. Globalization, Politics and Power” Blackwell Publishers, Oxford (2000)

P. NORRIS “Democratic Phoenix: Reinventing Political Activism”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2002)

M. TSAKATIKA “Governance VS Politics: the European Union’s Constitutive “Democratic Deficit”, Journal of European Public Policy, 14 (6) 2007.


[1] M. KOENIG- ARCHIBUGI “Is global democracy possible?”, European Journal of International Relation 17 (3) 2010

[2]M. TSAKATIKA “Governance VS Politics: the European Union’s Constitutive “Democratic Deficit”, Journal of European Public Policy, 14 (6) 2007.

[3] Ibid.

[4] K. NASH “Contemporary Political Sociology. Globalization, Politics and Power” Blackwell Publishers, Oxford (2000)

[5] D. HELD “The transformation of political community: rethinking democracy in the context of globalization” in I. Shapiro and C. Hacker-Cordon “Democracy’s edges”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1999)

[6] K. NASH “Contemporary Political Sociology. Globalization, Politics and Power” Blackwell Publishers, Oxford (2000)

[7] In K. NASH “Contemporary Political Sociology. Globalization, Politics and Power” Blackwell Publishers, Oxford (2000)

[8] C. CROUCH “Post-Democracy” Cambridge: Polity, Cambridge (2004)

[9] K. NASH “Contemporary Political Sociology. Globalization, Politics and Power” Blackwell Publishers, Oxford (2000)

[10] P. NORRIS “Democratic Phoenix: Reinventing Political Activism”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2002)

[11] D. HELD “The transformation of political community: rethinking democracy in the context of globalization” in I. Shapiro and C. Hacker-Cordon “Democracy’s edges”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1999)

[12] Different groups departed from around the continent to gather the 15th of October 2011 in Brussels for the international meeting of the newly created 15M movement (originally in Spain).

[13] K. KUMAR “Civil Society: An Inquiry into the Usefulness of an Historical Term’ British Journal of Sociology 44 (3) 1993.

[14] K. NASH “Contemporary Political Sociology. Globalization, Politics and Power” Blackwell Publishers, Oxford (2000)

[15] A. GIBBENS “Beyond Left and Right”, Cambridge: Polity, Cambridge (1994) pp.1-21

[16] K. NASH “Contemporary Political Sociology. Globalization, Politics and Power” Blackwell Publishers, Oxford (2000)

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