World Forum for Democracy

Strasbourg, 8 October 2012

One size fits all? Democracy and globalization

Speech by Keith Whitmore, President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe


Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me indeed to participate in this debate on behalf of the assembly which represents the local and regional dimension of democracy – or, as we like to say, the level closest to the citizen. Even in this time of overall disillusionment with democratic institutions, local mayors still enjoy the highest level of public trust, according to public opinion polls, and local and regional councillors are still best positioned to represent the immediate interests of residents of their communities and regions.

Having said that, today I would like to look at the more global situation of representative democracy, and I would like to begin by trying to answer the question asked in the theme of this debate: is democracy moving, under the influence of globalisation, to a one-size-fits-all solution?

To me, the answer is clearly “no”. In fact, globalisation, which seeks to erase national borders and integrate global processes, is paradoxically unleashing a force to counter itself, counterweight to uniformity: growing diversity of our societies. A globalised world means more opportunities for people of different cultures and ethnic origin to communicate, travel, live and work around the globe. Globalisation means the international movement of capital AND of labour, and we are witnessing today, for example, more and more foreigners setting up shop in Europe. Just to give you an idea, the city of Frankfurt reports that 52 per cent of all new business start-ups are enterprises of migrants. They certainly have their specific interests to be represented and defended, and today, it is not surprising to anyone, for example, that the mayor of Rotterdam, [Mr Ahmed Aboutaleb,] is of Moroccan descent; that more than 20 European countries give non-EU foreigners the right to vote in local elections; and that there is an increasing number of councils of foreign residents attached to municipal and regional councils in Europe.

In other words, our societies are becoming increasingly multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious and multilingual – due to globalisation. This in turn means more diverse and complex interests represented in our societies, and more diverse groups defending them.

There have always been, and there will always be different interests and groups of interests in any society, which accounts for diversity of the existing systems of representative democracy today. Over centuries, democracy has been crafted to represent and defend these various interests at the level of nation-States, at the level of regions, and at the level of local communities. However, the problem with democracy today is that people just don’t feel that their interests are represented any more, let alone defended. There is a feeling that political representation became a class of its own, with its own “rules of the game”, and increasingly detached from the realities of the high street.

This growing gap means that the two main components of the representative system – citizens, the bearers of interests, and democratic institutions of representation – become disconnected, and citizens can no longer influence decision-making in those institutions. The same goes for human rights protection, when individual bearers of rights do not feel they have genuine access to mechanisms for protecting these rights. Can you blame them when it takes the European Court of Human Rights on average six years to decide on a case?

A side effect of this gap, this detachment of political representation from the electorate is a lack of transparency and ever-weaker citizen control over what is going on within this “thing in itself”. This state of affairs presents excellent opportunities for corruption. Europeans consider corruption to be one of the main challenges to our society today, which it is: corruption undermines the rule of law and therefore prevents us from delivering on the key promises of democracy – those of social justice and equality in a broad sense of equal participation, equal treatment and equal opportunities.

Another problem is that globalisation is erasing the clear boundaries of entities and domains where citizen interests can be effectively defended. With globalisation, nation-States are disappearing, and the cause and effect of action can be located on two different sides of the planet. This means in practical terms that those defending your interests may not necessarily be in your locality, country or even continent. As a local elected representative, how can you effectively defend, for example, the interests of fair trade businesses in your community that are trampled by a transnational with headquarters half way around the globe? As a national parliamentarian, do you have influence over competences delegated to the European level? And as a member of the European Parliament, can you really veto a decision by non-elected civil servants in the European Commission?

So, citizens are naturally looking for other forms of representation and other ways of defending their interests. Global social networks present one opportunity for it, civil society and social movements another. As a result, we have citizen participation increasing outside the established institutions of governance, as citizens are seeking to bear influence on those traditional institutions through direct democracy, thus by-passing the detached “representative class”. Ways need to be found to channel this citizen energy into creating a new model of participatory democracy, which will ideally combine both direct and traditional representative elements.

A framework for citizen participation, providing direct access to institutions of power through consultations, exchanges and feedback, and involving all residents – minorities, foreigners, migrants – would be one crucial component of a new model. Another would be a framework geared towards harmonising relations and leveling off interests of different cultural groups, to make sure that they conform to the same shared values and remain within the agreed boundaries of the acceptable – for example, in relation to women’s rights. This would require extensive intercultural policies and intercultural dialogue between community groups.

I am convinced that this participatory model should be tested, applied and take root first and foremost in our local and regional communities, which represent the most direct interaction both between citizens and public authorities and between cultural groups, and where this interaction produces the most concrete and tangible results for community residents.

Secondly, because globalisation blurs the boundaries of responsibilities in defending people’s interests and rights, we need to revise the system of governance which would underpin the participatory model. A system of multi-level governance is fit for this purpose, based on equal partnership and shared responsibilities of different government levels within clearly defined remits of competences.

I am convinced that a participatory democratic model and a multi-level governance system would be a sufficiently flexible response to the complexity of citizens’ needs in an era of globalisation and diversity, both filling in the gap of the current democratic deficit through direct representation of public interests and allocating clear responsibilities for public action. Local and regional authorities are crucial stakeholders in building this new framework.

Thank you.