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Transnational representation — How members of national parliaments in the European Union also speak for other EU nationals
Members of national parliaments (MPs) in the European Union (EU) representing other EU nationals? What sounds unlikely at first, does happen in the national parliaments of Austria, Germany and Ireland during the Eurozone crisis. In their article recently published in Political Studies, Lucy Kinski and Ben Crum call this transnational representation. They find especially left-wing MPs to oppose EU decisions in the name of other EU nationals and argue how the concept may enrich academic and political debate on representation in an internationalised world.
Read the full article published in Political Studies here.
In an increasingly interdependent world, decisions taken in one nation state can have severe consequences far beyond its territory. This observation is particularly true in the European Union (EU). In the EU, the policies that national parliaments adopt may not only have effects beyond their borders, like pollution or trade. At times, they actually hold the key to the fate of another country, like approving the accession of a new member state to the EU or endorsing emergency loans as in the Eurozone crisis.
From a democratic perspective, these situations give rise to a problematic mismatch between the people authorising a decision within national confines and the ‘foreign’ people who are affected by this very same decision. On the one hand, public power is exercised across national boundaries. On the other hand, political identification remains anchored at the national level. Indeed, national parliaments continue to be the main sources of political legitimacy.
Conventional wisdom has it that national politicians represent no one but their national citizens. In representative democracies, national electorates vote their representatives into national parliaments. The members of these parliaments (MPs) are to be responsive to their electorate’s wishes and responsible for their needs.
We argue that this conventional, nation-centred understanding is inadequate, and that we need new understandings of democratic representation in an internationalised world. In a recent article in Political Studies, we propose ‘transnational representation’ as one such understanding.
Transnational representation takes place when a member of a national parliament makes representative claims on behalf of foreign citizens. To get to this perspective, we follow recent theories (above all by Michael Saward) that see representation as expressed by the claim to represent the interest of others rather than as a status that relies on appointment or election. This focus on claims making allows representatives to represent constituencies without necessarily having been elected by them.
What we precisely mean by transnational representation is best illustrated by an example. Consider the following statement by Michael Schickhofer, MP for the Social Democrats in the Austrian Nationalrat on the first comprehensive European bailout mechanism:
I quite frankly admit that this decision to agree to this rescue package is not easy, but we should briefly consider how the people in Greece are doing. There, too, are employees who have worked for many years, paid into the pension system and are now confronted with the fact that 20 percent of the pensions are to be reduced. There are civil servants who have always remained in their country and who have been there for the people and are now being confronted with the idea that 30,000 to 40,000 jobs are to be cut […] (Michael Schickhofer, Social Democratic Party of Austria, Austria, EFSF Expansion, 30 September 2011).
Schickhofer affirms that the decision ‘cannot be just about our own interests’ (emphasis in original). He adds: ‘I stand by the Austrian interests, but we must also think in terms of Europe and the people of Greece’. Thus, besides speaking for his Austrian electorate, he makes two more claims to representation. One is to represent a collective European interest (which we call ‘supranational representation’). The other is that he also inserts the hardship of the foreign citizens of Greece into his considerations. The latter is what we call transnational representation.
We argue that there are three ways in which such representation of other EU nationals in domestic parliamentary discourse may help to reconcile democratic representation in national parliaments with international interdependence.
First, transnational representation does not do away with national parliaments. Instead, it relies on our established representative institutions, but gives their inhabitants leeway to speak for and link to constituencies with which they have no direct electoral connection. Thus, while transnational representation remains connected to a national context, it also cuts across national borders.
Second, it brings the perspectives of other EU nationals into domestic will-formation. Their concerns are no longer ignored or simply seen as an external constraint to national interest representation. Instead, national MPs ponder the fate and fortune of other EU nationals when making decisions.
Third, this may draw national representatives into transnational debates that may create argumentative linkages across national borders. Such cross-national networks of representative claims may in turn foster transnationally linked public spheres.
In a case study, we look at parliamentary debates on the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) in the lower houses of Austria, Germany and Ireland. The EFSF was set up during the Eurozone crisis to offer emergency loans to struggling Eurozone members to save them from bankruptcy. We analyse what kinds of representative claims the parliamentarians make. Do they speak for national citizens (national representation), do they speak for other EU nationals (transnational representation) or a collective European citizenry (supranational representation)?
Four findings stand out. The first is that we can assert that transnational representation does take place in national parliamentary debate about issues such as the Eurozone crisis. Indeed, approximately every fifth representative claim we find in these debates has a transnational representative dimension. Second, transnational claims do not necessarily point into one policy direction. In fact, we find the use of transnational claims both among parliamentarians who support the policy proposal as well as among those who oppose it. Third, (left-wing) parties with more internationalist orientations are more likely to adopt transnational representation in their speeches. Finally, national MPs often combine representative claims and avoid simply taking a nationalist, a European or a ‘foreign’ side. Instead, they try actively to reconcile different interests.
There is still much to be discovered. What motivates national representatives to engage in transnational representation? How sincere are they in doing so? Is transnational representation in the end simply a way for the opposition to embarrass the government for the effects of its policies on foreign constituencies? Do we find instances of transnational representation in debates on regulatory or institutional affairs? Is there, for instance, any transnational representation of the distinctive interests of the British people in the parliamentary debates on Brexit that are held on the continent? What happens, if we look beyond the EU at global agreements like the ones on fighting climate change? Ultimately, the concept of transnational representation raises a normative question: How do we know the claims made on behalf of foreign citizens are valid and legitimate?
Eventually, transnational representation is not going to ‘take over’ national parliamentary debates, as there is every reason to believe that most parliamentarians prioritise national commitments. Still, even a limited share of transnational claims literally changes the debate by introducing outside voices and by calling upon others to respond to them. In that sense, transnational representation is bound to provoke a dialogue between the national interests and those of others.
Lucy Kinski is Assistant Professor of Politics at the University of Düsseldorf and Fellow at the Düsseldorf Party Research Institute (PRuF). Her research focuses on parliamentary representation and political parties in the context of European integration. Her work appears in journals such as Journal of European Public Policy, Journal of Common Market Studies and Comparative European Politics.
Ben Crum is Professor of Political Science at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and a member of the EU’s H2020 funded RECONNECT research project. His research focusses on the way processes of internationalisation – European integration in particular – affect established practices and understandings of democracy and solidarity. He has published extensively on these topics in international and national journals. He authored the monograph Learning from the EU Constitutional Treaty (Routledge, 2012), co-edited Practices of Inter-Parliamentary Coordination in International Politics. The European Union and Beyond (ECPR Press, 2013) and a special issue for the European Law Journal (2017) on ‘We the people(s) of Europe: Polity-making and democracy in the EU’.