The Idea of a World Parliament

The Idea of a World Parliament

Cosmopolitan utopian concepts have a long history and are certain to generate widespread fascination. What institution could do more justice to the world citizen than a world parliament? However, this idea seems far-fetched against the backdrop of recent events such as the British vote for the Brexit: if Europeans, whose cultural interconnectedness is frequently invoked these days, withdraw from supranational structures, how could a parliament even be possible a by far more unequal, heterogeneous global society?

The assertion that the most serious problems today are global in nature and require joint management is certainly undisputed. These include for example climate change and financial market regulation, but also serious poverty and hunger, war and violence as well as political exclusion and the persecution of particular groups. These phenomena are not restricted to particular states or world regions but rather globally shared responsibility – if only because social action in one part has massive consequences for another part of the world. As both the causes and distribution of the burdens of certain problem sets are marked by severe inequality, there are also urgent questions of justice that arise at the global level. There is also certainly no doubt that the undemocratic condition and legitimacy deficits of global governance institutions and political processes are a cause for concern beyond the limits of the national state.

This is why for some, setting up a world parliament in addition to the existing UN institutions is a decisive next step with a view to more democratic and inclusive politics on a global level, in particular as the legal requirements for this are already in place. The World Parliament is, from this perspective, the logical consequence of the success of democracy, which is irreversible as a concept and has become ever more widespread in practice. In the 21st century, thoughts are turning to innovative forms of parliament and representation. For example, one proposal is to no longer determine constituencies by geography, which can lead to a disproportional representation of the global population, but rather to assemble them thematically. In addition, the digital age offers numerous options for e-democracy at the global level.

If one looks at the existing institutions and processes in the global governance system empirically, it appears that these structures only lend themselves to self-democratisation to a limited extent. This is not only due to the ongoing primacy of the nation state in decision-making but also to the power imbalances within this system. Moreover, one can doubt the normative quality of the UN system on a very fundamental level, e.g. by questioning its potential to become a better problem-solver as well as a more legitimate institution. Good reasons for this argument are found as far back as Immanuel Kant: faced with the complexity of global processes, doubts are raised concerning the ability of democracy to control matters at this level; rather a global political system always runs the risk of being dominated by the executive and therefore becoming a despotism – even if it were equipped with a world parliament. Secondly, democracy should not be thought of as a unique, neutral concept or even as a specific institutional arrangement. Rather it is a contested term – just consider the variety of actually existing democratic systems as well as their cultural and historic natures. This plurality of democratic systems and practices should be reflected at the global level and not end through the final, institutional selection of one form of democracy.

If a world parliament were to perpetuate the existing inequality in the world or to instiutionalise the dominance of some over others, the world parliament would become a dystopia. However, one question remains: do we have enough good alternatives to reject the concept of a world parliament – or is it still the least worst option for democratising global politics?

This article is part of IFAIR’s cooperation with the Diplomatic Magazine and was published in Decembers’s issue under Ausgabe 12/2016.