Supranational Vs International

Why “supranational”?

When I started this blog I was in doubt. Such a strange word in the title? Will it be understood? Why not global democracy? or international democracy?

But no, no doubt. I know what I want to express here and it is not promoting some unspecified kind of global democracy. And, for sure it is not promoting international democracy.

Inter-national means between or among nations: an international organization is a system where states cooperate to common goals. The will of the organization is the result of internal procedures aimed at putting together the will of the largest number of states, as expressed by representatives of states.

Supra-national, instead, means over the nations: a supranational organization is over and beyond the authority of states. It expresses its own will.

We recognize a supranational organization by a number of distinguishing features: the decisions are adopted through majority vote; they are binding; bodies made up by individuals interact with bodies representing states, the rule of law and the respect of the decisions are guaranteed by courts.

But first and foremost, a supranational organization is able to impose its decisions even over states who disagree. And, in order to do so, it enjoys its own legitimacy, derived directly from citizens.

The best example of such  autonomous legitimacy is in the first two paragraphs of art.10 of the Treaty establishing the European Union:

“1. The functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy.
2. Citizens are directly represented at Union level in the European Parliament.
Member States are represented in the European Council by their Heads of State or Government and in the Council by their governments, themselves democratically accountable either to their national Parliaments, or to their citizens.”

Now, you’ll think that I’m describing a peculiar system, which is just European,  but it isn’t so.

It’s true that this word, supranational, was the expression of what the Founding Fathers wanted for Europe (it appeared already in the Europe Declaration, 1951), but the system evolved over time and for sure it is much more supranational now than 60 years ago.

Other events occurred over the last decades; regional integration organizations evolved in south America, in Africa, in the Gulf: the seeds of supranationality were spread around and they started to sprout in different soils.

What was even more unexpected, even global organizations knew smaller but significant improvements: dialogues with civil society flourished here and there, ombudsmen, mechanisms for claims and  audit bodies were established. Individuals appeared on the stage.

To make a long story short, supranationality is not anymore an exclusive of the old continent, even if there it started first.

And here is where I want to arrive: individuals are an essential ingredient of democracy. They provide an organization with a legitimacy of its own. Purely international or intergovernmental systems may be (maybe?) efficient, but can hardly be defined democratic. And democracy simply is not a parameter of legitimacy in international law.

An easy reply could be: aren’t states representative enough of their own citizens to legitimate also the organization they join? Formally, it is so.

Substantially (i) most of them are not exactly democratic (and in global organizations this is a major flaw) and, (ii) even in the democratic ones, governments are often entrusted with foreign policy outside an effective parliamentary control and manage it in a logic of realpolitik, paying a special attention to national interests.

For all these reasons, I believe that international democracy is an utopia at best, most likely an oxymoron.

Global democracy is supranational or it is not democracy.


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  22. Mar Introini · March 9

    I fully agree with you Susana, however I do not think is the political momentum for this kind of theoretical statements. Indeed, with the advance of nationalism supranational is a concept that sounds a threat for sovereignty. Is it so that for keeping European Union “healthy” and go through a process of reshaping current global model reassuring national values within an European/global context seems to be the resilient path.


    • Susanna Cafaro · March 9

      Dear Mar, I understand… and history seems to go in a totally different direction. I can accept, even if with sorrow, a “downgrading” of the Union, but not a move towards intergovernmental models. Economic policy and foreign policy of the Union, both intergovernmental, are an even too evident failure! And I think we need to explore supranational solutions to global issues, no matter how long it will take.. simply because I don’t see many alternatives around. Anyway, I don’t have a precise institutional shape in mind, I don’t think of a global federation of sorts but of the need to imagine new models.


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