Democracy Beyond the Nation-State

Democracy Beyond the Nation-State

It was a little more than 150 years ago that the transition from the feudal order to the democratic nation-state was debated in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt during the German Revolution. Today we have to begin a debate on the transition from the nation-state to a transnational and cosmopolitan democracy. This transition will not happen on its own. If the idea of a transnational democracy is to achieve political shape and power, a new political subject will have to be brought into being: the transnational party of global citizens.

But how can transnational parties engage themselves in the so-called internal affairs of so-called other countries? This question applies most immediately to Europe. Imagine that the European Union (EU) itself applied for membership in the European Union. The response is obvious: it would be rejected. For the European Union does not meet the democratic requirements for membership. This story can be given a further twist: imagine that a few weeks after this rejection, all the member states of the EU are notified that the EU unfortunately has to cancel their membership. Why so? Because France, Germany, Britain, and all the others no longer live up to the membership requirements. As members, they don’t deserve to be members: more and more decisions are taken autonomously by the Union, not democratically determined but merely executed by the member states.

This is a perfect example of the dilemma of democracy in the age of globalization. Although in the context of democratically constituted national politics, even the refusal to make decisions requires an appearance of legitimacy, far-reaching decisions that lack any sort of democratic legitimacy are commonly made in the apparently non-political transnational context.

Crucial questions are raised by Europe’s experience with mad-cow disease and again by financial crises like those of Asia today: Who can set binding norms for nation-states while bypassing their political processes? And how can he/she/they legitimately do this? Or to put it another way: can there be some kind of transnational procedural legitimation?

Some political theorists answer yes, and they discuss a variety of models that would break up the spatial paradigm of parliamentary democracy in a transnational manner. How can this be done? Let us ask concretely: why has there never been a European referendum about introducing the Euro? This would have raised the level of Europe’s politics by creating a European public to address a truly European theme.

Introducing the Euro and then sounding the retreat to the old nation-state, as many Europeans are doing now, jeopardizes the whole experiment. Turning back the clock to national democracy is sheer illusion. There will be no more democracy in Europe—unless it is a transnationally enhanced democracy. Especially after monetary union has been achieved, Europe must be strengthened with new political ideas and instituti...