Newsletter 23/2012 - Guest Commentator

Michael Ehrke
Director of Regional Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Office, Belgrade, Serbia

International cooperation gives parliament additional resource that could be deployed for benefit of a country

In the political and legal thinking of the 19th century state diplomacy and parliaments were two completely separate worlds. While parliaments had to take care of national legislation, foreign affairs were monopolized by the executive authority. Representatives of states abroad were ambassadors, nominated officials, and not elected members of parliaments. Even in parliamentary democracies members of parliament had to keep hands off the foreign affairs in order not to disturb the governments’ efforts. The principle of non-intervention in internal affairs of states by other states was mirrored by the principle of non-intervention of parliamentarians in external affairs.

Nevertheless, members of parliament were often able to informally influence foreign relations by “privately” building relations with colleagues in other countries, either complementing or opposing the government’s strategy. In case of interrupted diplomatic relations, individual parliamentarians could maintain communication lines via contacts to their peers in the officially hostile country. Beyond these informal and private “foreign policy” of individual parliamentarians, in the late 19th century formal international organizations of parliamentarians emerged. The first of them was the Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU) founded in 1889, which became the predecessor of the League of Nations (1920-1946).

Today, in a globalised world, the old separation of diplomacy and internal affairs should have become obsolete. On the one hand, a growing share of politically relevant decisions is made at the supra-state level. In the member states of the European Union, for example, almost 80 percent of the decisions of national parliaments are pre-decided by decisions of the European institutions. On the other hand, most international organizations, from the United Nations (UN) to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), are still dominated by official government diplomacy. The great exception is the European Union, which since 1952 has its own parliament, as the only directly elected supra-state body in the world, but which despite much progress made between 1952 and today still lacks some of the powers national parliaments have. In several policy areas, the European parliament has only the right to be listened to and no authority to decide; it cannot initiate legislation (a prerogative of the Commission) and it does not elect the European government. It is this often deplored “democracy deficit” of the European Union which makes international parliamentary cooperation at the Union level and beyond so important.

The main aim of international parliamentary cooperation is to bring back to parliamentary influence those policy areas “lost” to the democratically not fully legitimized supra-state level. One of the most important European institutions in this context is COSAC, the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union, which is composed of six members of each national parliament and of the European parliament who meet biannually in order to evaluate the Union’s activities.

But there are much more international parliamentary organizations, as the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). And “below” this organized level of “parliamentary diplomacy” there is still a very wide field for individual members of parliaments as well as for the political party “families” to shape foreign relations. Because of their special ties to politicians in other countries, based on the belonging to the same party family, they can mitigate conflicts, bring local grievances to the international public or convince parliament colleagues in other countries to adopt certain common policies.

In South East Europe, international parliamentary cooperation is at least as important as in the member states of the European Union. Some of the region’s countries are already member states, while others want to become members in the near future, but all of them are already highly “europeanized” in most policy areas. Nevertheless, the policies of the European Union are often of highest concern for the whole region.

One could add: The European integration of the region is too important to be left only to national governments. Fortunately, the region is already part of different supra-national cooperation structures most of them having its own “parliamentary arm”. So the COSAC in the European Union is mirrored by the regional COSAP, the Conference of the Parliamentary Committees on European Integration/Affairs of the States Participating in the Stabilization and Association Process in South East Europe, which is the parliamentary branch of the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP). The regional parliamentary cooperation can complement government policies and facilitate the implementation of governments’ strategies. But it also can oppose governments or force them to take a more pro-active approach.

There are two reasons why regional parliamentary cooperation can be even more important than in the European Union itself. First, less than 20 years ago a part of the region was involved in ethnic wars. Therefore, mutual reconciliation remains one of the most urgent tasks, and national governments often are not the best protagonists of reconciliation. Second, the regional parliaments often lack the necessary resources (staff, space, expertise) they need to fulfil their tasks. International cooperation gives parliaments an additional resource which they can deploy to help or to oppose their governments.

Michael Ehrke has been representative of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Belgrade, Serbia, since 2008. Before that, he performed duties of representative of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Budapest, Hungary (2003-‘08), and in Tokyo, Japan (1992-‘98), researcher at the Institute for development research, Friedrich-Bert-Stiftung, Bonn, Germany (1987-’92), researcher at the Institute for Latin-American Studies in Hamburg, Germany (1982-’87), researcher at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, México D. F. (1980-’81). A German national, Ehrke holds a PhD in social and political sciences from the University of Hannover, Germany.


Michael Ehrke, Director of Regional Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Office, Belgrade, Serbia (Photo: courtesy of Mr. Ehrke)

Michael Ehrke, Director of Regional Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Office, Belgrade, Serbia (Photo: courtesy of Mr. Ehrke)