Supranational Democracy in a Nutshell

A few days ago I had the opportunity to give a speech about the need for democracy at global level and about what we, as individuals, can do.

I post it here because it summarizes well what is explained in several previous posts:





From Limited Sovereignty to Shared Sovereignty

“Sovereignty, though its meanings have varied across history, has a core meaning: supreme authority within a territory. It is a modern notion of political authority” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

It was only after the Peace of Westphalia, in 1648, that -in Europe-  sovereign states appeared as we know them.

As we know them?

I am not really persuaded that I really know (or have known) “sovereign states”.

When I was a child, in the bipolar world, maybe just the United States and the Soviet Union were sovereign states. Maybe China too, in a different way.

The theory of limited sovereignty was spelled in clear words in the Eastern bloc, a bit less clearly (but it wasn’t less true), in the western one.

Since WWII, another kind of limitation of sovereignty came from international law, especially by International humanitarian law and human rights law. States were not completely sovereign anymore since they had obligations towards their enemies and towards their own citizens. The notion of domestic jurisdiction was gradually eroded.

In this sense, compressing national sovereignty was not necessarily bad, even if it came with lights and shadows: how many states signed human rights declarations only as a tool of propaganda? How many of them were willing to guarantee human rights and repress gross violations in other countries -using military force- even if standards at home were not so high?

The United Nations cannot really enforce what is officially declared or check the good faith of the states showing good will.

Eventually, the world became more and more interconnected and economically integrated: the so-called globalization. And new constraints on sovereignty were accepted – as WTO regulations – as a price to pay for the access to new markets.

Now, it is clear to me that sovereignty is nothing more than a fictional concept. The state is not anymore a supreme authority, a superiorem non recognoscens (if there ever was one).

It is a loss of sovereignty if we look at it from the state perspective. But we could try to see it from a different perspective.

From the global perspective – or the global public goods perspective – the loss of many fragmented sovereignties could be positive as far as they are replaced by some authority in charge for tackling the issues at stake and equipped to do it.

It is a shift from many not-really-sovereign entities to common authorities where sovereignty is fairly shared among the members.

Climate change offers a great example, but it isn’t the only one. The issue of nuclear nonproliferation is another one. What about financial instability?

From the global citizens’ perspective, the answer is not an allocation of power in whatever authority, but in the kind of authority they can interact with, and control. An authority provided with legitimacy and accountability, whose policies are inclusive.

The United Nations are not yet this kind of authority, nor the Bretton Woods institutions, but single projects and processes are leading the way. See, for instance, the World We Want platform.

Some regional organizations, as the European Union, paved the way (to some extent), but they can still improve.

Some atypical new international organizations opened innovative paths of supranational interaction among stakeholders: the Kimberley Process, the Internet Governance Forum, the Global Environmental Facility. They are an example of what I call democratic experimentalism.

The way from limited sovereignty to shared sovereignty is not a short or easy one, but what really matters is that it is not a loss, but a gain in sovereignty.

All the Roles of Civil Society (Supranational Democracy Applied)

It is a little-acknowledged truth that civil society plays today a significant role in several important international organizations.

While the legitimacy of international organizations (IOs) is still based on the conferral of competences and participation by member states, their accountability is somehow  enhanced by an increasing dialogue with civil society and every year new inclusive processes are launched to involve in consultations NGOs and other non-statual actors.

Of course, not all the IOs are evolving in this direction and among the evolving ones the pace may differ, but when this happens in big organizations as the UN, the UNDP, the World Bank – and on big issues such as climate change or post 2015 development agenda – the phenomenon deserves a serious analysis.

What exactly is happening in these important  organizations? What role does civil society play? Is it up to the task?

Let’s take a closer look.

The roles that civil society can play are various. The first and typical one is a role of watchdog: they observe, evaluate and – if necessary – raise public concern about any misconduct or abuse of power. In this role, many NGOs have significantly contributed to transparency, giving voice to a need of information which is the first step in order to watch and evaluate. Several IOs have accepted the challenge of opening up, a progress which has to be credited to the efforts of civil society. In this role NGOs enhance accountability.

A more sophisticate – formal or informal- role is the one of advisors. The choices of international organizations may be legitimate ones, may even be inspired by the best intentions. Still, often, other solutions are possible, with better outcomes or a more desirable social impact. The mere fact that a solution doesn’t come from a top- down approach but  stems from a dialectical process makes it more politically acceptable. Of course, proposals and suggestions from NGOs don’t find an easy way through the complex machinery of the IOs decisional process. Often, they are nothing more than messages in a bottle, but still…

The more civil society is able to participate in decisions, the more it strengthens the democratic legitimacy of an organization, adding elements of supranationality to their decision making process.

A third role of civil society is giving voice to “those who are not in the room”: minorities, people living in extreme poverty or impaired by a lack of literacy. In this role, civil society may tell unconfortable truths and raise awareness, it is maybe the most precious role of all, serving social inclusion.

Now, the second question  naturally arises: are non-governamental organizations up to the task?

Are, themselves, legitimate, accountable, inclusive?

It is impossible to give universal or definitive answers: every NGO is an organization of its own kind. Possible answers come from the transparency of their inner decisional process, their budget (especially their financing), their tools and ways of acting. Decisional and budget autonomy is the dividing line between real and fake NGOs (the so-called GONGOs, serving the interests of some undemocratic government).

Moreover, civil society cannot, in any way, be considered as a spokesman or as an interpreter of a global population or, more precisely a global “demos”, whose very existence is extremely controversial in doctrine. NGOs represent just their members, citizens engaged and active on the global stage. We can only wish that their number will increase over time.

Let’s give some examples of this increasing role of civil society:

The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) interacting with the UN Economic and Social Committee grew exponentially in the last decade both in number and participation: in 1946 member NGOs were 41; in 1992 more than 700, in 2011 more than 3400. Specific websites have been set to interact with civil society and collect their opinions on several topics.

Specific polls and meetings are dedicate to interact on important issues, such as the post-2015 sustainable development goals.

During the  IMF/World bank annual and spring meetings, a civil society policy forum gives to NGOs the opportunity to interact among them and a specific meeting – the Town hall meeting – allows them to engage directly with the president of the Bank and the managing director of the IMF. Other, more restricted, consultations and meetings happen during the year and they have contributed significantly to increase transparency in the two organizations (especially in the Bank). Moreover, development projects on the grounds may involve local civil society.

The UNDP Civil Society Advisory Committee was created in 2000 as a formal mechanism for dialogue between civil society representatives and UNDP’s senior management on key issues of policy and strategy. UNDP regularly invites civil society representatives to engage on current development issues as they are key actors in development and participatory governance.

Although these processes should not be overestimated, they cannot be dismissed as “democratic embellishments”, because they are in fact enabling the emergence of supranational polities.

Looking at the same phenomenon from the NGOs’ side, we can only welcome the increasing awareness of citizens engaged in global processes.

A good example is provided by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that trains and supports local teams of citizen volunteers to become policy advisors to their own elected legislators. The organizations is active in many countries and in all the 5 continents, it is actually building an open network aimed at monitoring and enhancing the work of governments to achieve decarbonization, so to have a say in the next United Nations Frame Convention on Climate Change in Paris in December 2015.

The campaign name is “Pathway to Paris“. It is an interesting lab of participatory democracy and I suggest you keep an eye on it.

Democratic Experimentation

A possible paradigm for democracy in international organisation is what I call democratic experimentation.

The aim of it is reinforcing the typical elements of the democratic model – legitimacy, accountability, inclusiveness – inside IOs in the most effective ways, consistently with the specific institutional frame and goals of each organization.

In order to do so, the embryonic forms of legitimacy, accountability and inclusion – already existing in a number of IOs – may be progressively strengthened and may evolve into more effective tools and channels. They may be declined in original ways to be improved gradually.

Why “democratic experimentalism”? Because the need to invent new formulas to adjust to the different fields of action and to the different global public goods involved requires that we proceed empirically by trial and error.

A model in this approach is the European Union, defined as “a new legal order” by the European Court of Justice in the famous Van Gend en Loos decision (1963, Case 26/62). It is a model only in terms of process, i.e. in the ability to proceed by trial and error towards more mature forms of democracy, but not in terms of outcome, which is the product of specific historical, cultural and geographical circumstances.

In other words, each international organization could experience a “legal order formula” of its own for  legitimacy, accountability and inclusion, which would be the result of its own specific features and aims. In order to allow such evolution, it is necessary that statutes and founding treaties  establishing the IOs foresee a clear and accessible revision procedure and that they are not considered as carved in stone.

Cultural and structural differences among the organisations prevent from finding universal solutions. What is necessary is rather to find a method and agree on the values and objective to be pursued. As was the case with the process of European integration, other international organizations could evolve into sui generis  legal orders, never seen before.

The twofold advantage of this approach would be: (i) allowing us to read in a teleological frame a series of small evolutions taking place in the law of international organizations (the multiplication  of complaints mechanisms, monitoring bodies, dialogues with civil society); (ii) giving us a key to interpret and measure their progress.

There isn’t yet a ranking of international organisations according to their democratic standards (as there is for States). Nonetheless, it would be possible to build a set of criteria and data to make it possible.

I’m sure that this would be a valuable exercise… and I’d love to contribute.


The Basics of Democracy: 3. Inclusiveness

It could be easy to think that a legitimate governance plus a number of accountability channels give, as a result, a real democratic system. And it is so, impossible to deny.

Unfortunately, it is so in a utopian world, where citizens are really equal. Equality is a precondition to making each vote count and each trial be fair, to give everybody the same opportunities to access democratic rights and to see guaranteed their civil rights. Alas, formal equality isn’t enough and substantial equality is far from being the reality, so we need inclusiveness.

Inclusiveness is the specific target to include citizens into the channels of participatory democracy or to help them access the accountability channels. Without a specific commitment to inclusiveness, the processes to make international organizations legitimate and accountable will remain the privilege of a white, English-speaking elite, with high academic qualifications, connected to the internet. Just have a look at most of the civil society active at the global level and you will see it.

It is OK. I don’t want to delegitimize the civil society active on the global stage or underestimate its precious (invaluable!) avant-garde role. But, after the avant-garde -better soon than late- I hope to see a more diverse, multicultural civil society, really representative of the world pluralism.

A substantial -and not merely formal- democracy requires specific tools for inclusiveness aimed at stimulating the widest possible participation.

Where to start from? Let’s start from formal equality where it is still needed: gender equality (and the right to education for boys and girls), equality before the law, equality no matter the sexual orientation, the ethnicity, the origins and the life conditions.

But then, let’s move to substantial equality: fundamental rights, civil rights, political rights, rights to access and participation. We’ll discover easily that on the side of substantial equality there is still much to do almost everywhere. Nothing seems more difficult than guaranteeing equality before international organizations where we see further obstacles. This implies: overcoming the gap known as the digital divide, both in cultural as well as in infrastructural terms; going beyond the obvious barriers that stem from cultural and linguistic diversity, reaching minorities and disadvantaged groups; overcoming national barriers which may be the result of some governments’ obstructionism. A cultural engagement, here, should go hand in hand with a conspicuous economic investment and with specific strategies.

This point would deserve to be listed among the sustainable development goals…

The Basics of Democracy: 1. Legitimacy

We associate legitimacy with free elections.

National legal orders are perceived as legitimate if they are the result of a democratic constituent process and if parliaments (and governments) are periodically renewed through free elections.

In international organizations, it isn’t so simple.

International law knows just one way to recognize as legitimate an IO: the respect of the rule of law.

It is that simple:

1. An organization is legitimate if it has been established by a valid and ratified international treaty and respects international law.

2. It works legitimately if it respects its establishing treaty and the rules and procedures adopted according to it.

This is not surprising, as most of the International organizations were created after WWII when the world was much less interconnected and the state was considered the only legal framework for democracy.

Luckily, something is (very slowly) changing.


I. What if rules and procedures just cover a mere balance of powers, ignoring the rights of individuals or even of the weaker states?

II. How can legitimacy work in a society of states, which is not a society of equals? How a governance system may fairly represent all them?

III: Is it possible to imagine a legitimacy stemming not from states but from individuals and, if so, how?

Of course, we could imagine more and more problems to solve, but these are enough to start with… so, let’s try to offer some contribution to the solution.


Beside this legitimacy descending from the respect of the rule of law there is (or should be!) another, more substantial point: an organization is perceived as legitimate if it pursues the objectives assigned to it and reflects the common values shared by its members. And perception is important when the effectiveness of the decisions adopted rests on national systems of enforcement.


An organization is considered legitimate if its decisional bodies are perceived as representative of its members. As states are all but equals,  it is accepted in most international organizations the principle that Member States are represented differently as they reflect different realities (in size, wealth, power)

The decision-making bodies nonetheless enjoy a greater or lesser degree of representation depending on the way they reflect directly or indirectly the membership. When their representation is mediated by weighted voting, it is quite possible that some states do not feel adequately reflected in the number of votes they express.

Are the current parameters the correct ones to reflect their differences? Could we imagine different criteria to make some countries more prominent than others (and not just the winners or WWII or those having bigger GDP?). No matter there are better ways to reflect their contributions to the world, as the HDI index or even more creative, as the Good Country one.


Of course, it would be all different if representativeness was referred to individuals, instead of states.

In this case, it would be necessary to pay specific attention to the main form of legitimacy: free elections and – as a consequence – an elected parliament. This is what already happens in the EU and this is what many scholars and activist think should happen in the United Nations. Today, 24 parliamentary assemblies are institutionally part of international organization, the oldest one being the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, established in 1946

The equal representation of the states and the equal representation of their citizens, therefore, are potentially in conflict: proportional representation applied to whole humanity would make a couple of countries rule the world (if they just voted all the same, something whitch I doubt, but still…). So, some kind of degressive proportionality has to be imagined, weighting more the citizens of small countries and less those of the bigger ones. You may think all this is nothing but a speculative exercise, but I assure you that this may be something very realistic if only it is given a chance (and for sure it is worth the effort of distinguished colleagues).

Without going so far, some international organizations are equipped with parliaments which are not directly elected, but represent nonetheless their citizens through national parliaments’ members. It is a first step. Even in the EU the story started so: the Assembly of the European Economic Community asked from the very beginning – and obtained step by step – to become a real parliament.

Interesting examples of such parliamentary bodies are the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe,  the Pan-African Parliament of the African Union, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, while the Parlamento del Mercosur is rapidly evolving into a directly elected chamber. Unfortunately, these important institutional actors mostly play a consultative role.

But parliaments are not the only possible tools for democratic legitimacy.

Alternative solutions do exist, grounded on creativity and political will.

Have a look at what happens in the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tubercolosis and Malaria, in the Kimberley Process, in the Internet Governance Forum, in the Global environmental facility. All of them involve in original ways states, individuals and other stakeholders. And they are all different!

There is much room for legal creativity in the globalized world and it is time to take advantage of it.

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.

Democracy, What Does it Mean?

We know (or think to know) the exact meaning of the word “democracy”. Our idea of democracy is grounded on personal experiences of democratic – or undemocratic – national systems as well as on something we studied at school: the Magna Charta, the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, the United States Declaration of Independence.

And we all know the origin of the word in ancient Greece from the two words “Demos” and “Kratia“: people and power. So, democracy literally means power to the people or power for the people. No doubt it means for us free elections, equality, pluralist society, fundamental rights,  access to justice.

We tend to forget, nonetheless, that this definition is relative in space and time. In the ancient Athens as in the 13 American colonies there was an aristocracy living on the work of slaves and women enjoyed very few fundamental rights. Only in the XX century, our democracies acquired the current structure and still… we cannot say they perfectly mirror our ideal of democracy. Let’s face it: democracy is more a process than a state. Whatever the democracy we are in, there is always something we can do to improve it. This is clearly recognized in international rankings – such as the Democracy index or the Global democracy ranking.

Both rank countries according to levels or degrees of democracy, not just by its existence/non-existence. Not only democracy is different according to historical evolution, it is also different according to the territorial dimension we are in. Democracy in a city-state is radically different from democracy in a big country: different ways to build consensus, different ways to participate. In the first it is easy to use the instruments of direct democracy, in the second it is less. And still, both are states.

The difficulties involved in moving this democracy model from the state to the global arena are all too evident: we deal with a community of states and a community of individuals (humanity!), both crossed by deep cultural differences and dramatic inequalities. Not only there isn’t a shared concept of democracy in a framework different from the state, but it is simply impossible to apply to international organizations a model of democracy conceived in the eighteenth century for the state. Several attempts have been done by academia to build an autonomous model, but we are far from a shared vision. Moreover, international organizations are the result of a different evolutive path over the centuries, grounded on the principles of international law: a law for states, not for individuals inspired by the different logic of international relations.

So, a new democratic model for global institutions has to be implemented and, at the same time, old visions  -not serving us anymore- have to be dismantled. Utopistic? For sure! But have we a different choice? Before an institutional formula for global democracy, we need a methodological approach to get there. The aim is double: to evaluate the existing “level” of democracy in international organizations and to propose possible reforms in line with the legitimate expectations of democracy emerging in the global civil society.

Utopistic? For sure! But have we a different choice? Before we imagine an institutional formula for global democracy, we need a methodological approach to get there. The aim is double: to evaluate the existing “level” of democracy in international organizations and to propose possible reforms in line with the legitimate expectations of democracy emerging in the global civil society.

My suggestion is to ground this process on values more than on rules and institutions: let’s identify values first. My choice? Legitimacy, Accountability, Inclusiveness. They will be explored, one by one, in the following posts.

Which is your idea of democracy? Do you have a different list of values? A ranking of priorities? I’d love to know!

Starting With Why

The global challenges and concerns we face today are well known: the peaceful coexistence of states and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the deterioration of the environment and the need for sustainable development, the threats to financial stability, the tragic inequalities across the planet in wealth and democracy.

We need to do something. And, first of all, we need to reflect on what to do.

To face such challenges and to guarantee global public goods, the international community has created after world war II a number of international organizations responsible for the pursuit of specific goals, which have been given more or less adequate competences and tools.

Are these organizations democratic? Are they efficient? If the answer is no (or not enough) how could they be improved?

Could we – 75 years later – imagine something new? Is there a  better way to organize coexistence inside the human family, not just aimed at avoiding conflicts but at thriving as species, in harmony with the Earth and with all the other living beings?

The awareness on these topics is growing. It is time to become creative, to network and exchange ideas, to recreate and co-create a new way of living together on this planet (maybe to dis-create something as well…).

Democracy is the result of a social pact: we are all involved.

Democracy nowadays cannot just be national as problems and challenges are getting more and more global.

To try to respond to the challenge, I decided to focus on what are (at least for me!) the three key ingredients of a modern democracy: legitimacy, accountability, inclusiveness. I built on them a paradigm for democracy in international organisations which I called democratic experimentation.

As individuals are an essential ingredient of democracy, I think that democratic international organization should be supranational, or move towards more advanced forms of supranationality. But how individuals can interact on a global stage, legitimize global fora, hold them accountable?

They may interact as civil society or just as informed public opinion. Internet plays a major role in allowing them to become global citizens, if (and where) internet access is guaranteed.

So many topics to discuss about, so important to deepen the analysis and offer solutions. The debate is open and you’re all welcome!