Why global accountability matters

Richard Laming

By Richard Laming

This article is a response to the paper “In the name of the people”, by Titus Alexander, chair of Charter 99. You can read the original paper at In the Name of the People.

Dear Titus

I have read with interest your paper on the Global Accountability Project. There are some areas where I disagree with your analysis, which I will outline, and there are some ways I think you could make your argument stronger, too. But before I go any further, I want to say that I think that the whole initiative is excellent and important and I am sure that members of Federal Union will want to do things to help.

I think that a focus on the accountability of global institutions helps in three different ways:

– Greater accountability for global institutions is in itself an advance in the way in which the world is governed

– A higher profile for the issues being dealt with by those global institutions will increase the profile too of the extent to which people in different parts of the world have interests in common

– The drawbacks of intergovernmental institutions will become more apparent as the difficulties of holding them to account become clearer

Delivering only one of these would be a good thing; a project that can readily deal with three of them is definitely a good idea.

Next, my disagreements. My fear is that you do not talk enough about the building blocks of federal democracy. Federal structures do not emerge fully-formed.

Nor do they arise as a result of evolution. Evolution is a process that works by the natural selection of random changes. It thus permits and can even reward short-term compromises that lead down blind alleys. I am not confident that will give us federalism.

Creationists in the United States have a theory of what they call “intelligent design”. I think that is my view of how federalism develops.

Things happen in stages, for sure, but there is a guiding principle (or set of guiding principles) that is needed to ensure that each step is an improvement upon the last rather than a distraction from it. It would help if you could do more to place the idea of improving international governance in a myriad small ways in the tradition of federalist developments of the past. I think you can, and I think you should.

I also have some thoughts on what some of the next stages might be, but they can wait for another time: GAP is more than enough to be getting on with, I’m sure.

Here are some other thoughts on pages 13 to 15 of your paper, in no particular order.

I don’t think it is useful to describe the EU as “as remote from its citizens as it ever was”. Algeria was once part of the EU, so it can’t have been too relevant in those days. The popular discontent that has grown in recent years is a result of the single market programme: European laws have suddenly started to affect people’s daily lives in a way and on a scale that had never happened before. There is a price to be paid for living in a federation (smaller than the benefits, of course, but nevertheless federalism does not come free).

The ECSC had a parliamentary assembly right from the outset. It was the federalists who demanded that it should be directly elected and accumulate more power. (It was the federalists who coined the term “democratic deficit”, even.)

NATO is a confederation with few, if any, federal elements, so I’m not sure its possession of an assembly means much. The key decision-makers in NATO are each accountable (if at all) separately, in national political arenas.

I agree that free elections are not a sufficient condition for democracy, but they are assuredly a necessary condition. Putting pressure on national governments and campaigning with like-minded people in other parts of the world using the internet is not an alternative to casting votes. Your paper sometimes gives the impression that it might be.

But that’s enough negativity for one e-mail. I am much more interested in the good things that are contained in your project. That’s how I want to conclude.

My brother-in-law plays golf. He tells me that on each shot you have to hit the ball from the place where it landed last time. If it is in a rather awkward spot, you can’t just pick it up and place it down again somewhere easier. As with golf, so with governance. We may not like the state of the world, or the state of public opinion, but one has to play the ball where it lies.

There seem to be some people in the world federalist movement who are tired of the rules of golf. (I feel quite strongly about this because we have exactly the same argument over the future of Europe, too.) Rather than going up the fairway to the green on each of 18 holes, there are people hoping (and even expecting, if not demanding) to hit the ball in and out of each of the 18 holes in one single shot. The rest of us meanwhile are content if each stroke gets a little nearer the green.

This article was written by Richard Laming, a member of the Executive Committee of Federal Union. He can be contacted at richard@richardlaming.com. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. First published 15 August 2002.

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