Andreas Gross: UN Parliamentary Assembly would be "globalization of the Strasbourg model"

Andreas Gross: UN Parliamentary Assembly would be "globalization of the Strasbourg model"

Brian Coughlan, 28. October 2012

In this second interview for the UNPA campaign’s blog I talk to Andreas Gross, a Member of Parliament from Switzerland and Chair of the Socialist Group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, who recently participated in the "World Forum for Democracy" in Strasbourg which was organised by the Council of Europe.

As a step towards global democracy, Andreas Gross advocates "a globalization of the Strasbourg model" (Image: CoE)

After a stint as a professional journalist, Andreas obtained a degree in political science, and co-founded the "Workshop for Direct Democracy" in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1988. He was elected to the Municipal Council of the city of Zurich in 1986, and then to the National Council in 1991. He was one of the key persons who fought for Switzerland to join the United Nations and is an internationally recognized expert on direct democracy. In June 2003, he was appointed Special Rapporteur on the political situation in Chechnya for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which he first joined in January 1995. Andreas Gross is a long-time supporter of the Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly and a member of its Parliamentary Advisory Group.

Among other things, we talked about his contribution to, and impressions from, the "World Forum for Democracy", the Arab Spring, the role of religion, and, of course, the question of a UN Parliamentary Assembly.


Audio transcript of the interview

I’m talking today to Andreas Gross a Swiss politician and creative thinker on the subject of democracy, both global and local, welcome to the UNPA podcast, Andreas.


Early this October, the Council of Europe convened a "World Forum for Democracy" in Strasbourg that brought together an interesting mix of officials, both public figures and politicians; some activists as well. You spoke at the panel about democracy and globalization, and one of the questions at that panel was whether today's institutions of democratic representation are equipped to meet the new challenges of globalization. Can you perhaps summarize that discussion for us? What changes do you think are necessary, in particular at the world level?

First of all it is impossible to summarize the debate because there were about 1200 people from about 60, 70 countries. The most important point was that the Eurocentric way of looking to democracy was broken though by all the representatives of the new Arab spring revolutionary countries, many Egyptians, Tunisian, Moroccans and others from the Northern shore of Africa. They really showed that we have to be open to other ways of organizing democracy; the main point was that democracy should be a universal value because it is the only way of protecting dignity – basing, grounding, so to say, the political order on the dignity of the human being; but how you do it, that might be very different and also the relation to religion might be different and this was in fact the biggest achievement of this forum, so to say.

My personal contribution to a workshop of three hours was that democracy is in a crisis because it cannot realize it’s promises anymore with today’s institutions and that we need to trans-nationalize democracy in the sense that first you need a real European democracy and that means basing the European Union on a citizens-based constitution and a double-chambered parliament and direct democratic elements where citizens are also able to get involved between the elections. I also mentioned that we should organize on a world regional level in this way - also Latin-America, Asia, and Africa; and as representatives of those who represent the continent, so to say, that would be a way of organizing a Parliamentary Assembly of the United Nations. This is an idea which is quite familiar to the Council of Europe because the Council of Europe has a Parliamentary Assembly. Many people say that if the Council of Europe would not have neither the court nor the parliamentary assembly, that they would not exist anymore, because – only the ministers, the ambassadors – they would not make the organization alive and this is exactly what we have in the UN because the UN is only a diplomatic governmental organization without any parliament, not to mention citizens representation, and that’s why this has to be done in the next 20 years.

So, I guess, from your perspective the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe had a critical role to play at the European level and I guess you think that a similar assembly at the UN level could also support democratization?

We have to distinguish, at the European level, between the European Union, which is really a transnational or supranational organization where you have Brussels and Strasbourg as law-making institutions, and the Council of Europe which is only an intergovernmental organization - but with 47 states, the EU until now has only 27 states - but it has a Parliamentary Assembly and the Parliamentary Assembly is the engine of the Council of Europe and in this way, for the European Parliamentarians in the Parliamentary Assembly who are all national MPs - for them it is not so difficult to understand why we need a UN Parliamentary Assembly, that was the point I wanted to make: It is a kind of globalization of the Strasbourg model.

There is another dimension additionally also because the Council of Europe’s dual point is, as I said, the court based on the European Convention on Human Rights and that was another idea I also mentioned: a way to globalize democracy is that we should think about the global convention of human rights and then with a notion of human rights which integrates culture, health and safe environment rights and that every citizen, every human being all over the world, has some basic rights which are protected by a court, so to say, and this could be an element added to the UN, as well as the UNPA has to be added to the UN, which is today only an intergovernmental body unable to really live up to the expectations many people have all over the world.

At the forum religion and the discussion of religion came to the fore and I guess this is because EU politicians are for the most part very secular oriented whereas many of the actors in the Arab spring are explicitly religious. So this is an interesting dichotomy, right, this is an interesting tension. How’d you think we resolve that at a global level?

This is a difficult, a very difficult question and I’m not yet a specialist, the discussion has just started, but we should not make, we should not underestimate, so to say, the sensibility of these people for where religion has another importance in their daily lives, and which is very important, when you come out of a dictatorship where the dictator did not allow you to live up to your religious identity and then you make a revolution and get over this dictator then you want to live up for heaven's sake what was never allowed 30 years ago and this we have to understand.

This does not mean that you base your state on religion but you upgrade, so to say, the religion – when you compare it with our reality where religion is much, much, more or less privatized – but when you look carefully, you see that the state is not based on religion but it has an absolutely biased relation to the Christian religion where the Christians get much tax payer's money, also the churches and non-Christians churches do not get tax payers money. We also have a bias there which is hidden, so to say, by the secular discourse, that’s why we have to be a little bit more self-critical and on the other hand we have to be a little bit more open to those who have another relation, a more intense relation, and want to show this intense relation. Of course, the question is how they will treat other religions. In Tunisia, for instance, where 98% of the people are Muslims, nevertheless, how they respect the Jews and the Christians, which might be a small minority, but they still exist, so that will be a good debate for the future, nobody has already made his case, so to say, and we have to be a little bit more open and less aggressive. In the French public sphere you have always the term Islamistic for people who have the same relation to Islam that many Catholics in Germany have to Catholicism but they don’t use adjectives which are close to violence and fundamentalistic people and there you see how the language is already important not to establish a wrong view of the problem.

That was a genuinely interesting answer and perspective on that very difficult subject as you say. Three years ago you presented a report on UN reform to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Your report and a resolution later adopted by the assembly supported the creation of a "parliamentary element in the structure of the UN General Assembly". At the time you pointed out that many governments are still reluctant to embrace such a proposal. Why do think is this the case?

That’s a difficult question because I don’t really know all the governments enough. You know, one of the points I also made in this report was that when the 47 countries of the Council of Europe would really work together, they would have the majority in the Security Council because it is not only the Brits and the French, but also the Russians are members - but they never think about doing this because the Russians see themselves as a superpower equal to the United States - and the French and the Brits, they share their veto power privileges in the Security Council and do not want to share this power with other Europeans who do not belong to the permanent members of the Security Council. So this shows that the togetherness, the commonness, of the Council of Europe is only limited to some, especially human rights elements - they don’t understand themselves as a common global actor, so to say. That’s what we have to push to change and I think today I have the feeling that the need to globalize democracy - and that we could build on the experience of how the CoE europeanized, so to say, the democracy in Europe - is even more familiar than three years ago when I made the last report, that is why I’m thinking about making a new motion which tries to do what I mentioned before as a medium step, so to say: encourage and look what happens in Latin-America or in Africa when it comes to the world regional transnational parliamentary organizations parallel to the Council of Europe and then taking these world regional or continental parliamentary structures as the base for the UN Parliamentary Assembly. And I also have the feeling that those who are in the Inter-Parliamentary Union and see the IPU as the only parliamentary partner of the UN – and that’s why three years ago we had a lot of problems when they tried to water down a little bit my resolution – these people are not so present anymore and I think there is more openness to a parallel, parliamentary building, not as a competition with the IPU but as a 2nd way of doing it with the IPU.

I've got one last question for you Andreas and that has to do with the work you've done on direct democracy. I think you've kind of answered this question but you might want to expand on that. Isn't there something of an ideological clash between direct democracy and the kind of more distant representative democracy envisaged in a UN Parliamentary Assembly? Or at least that was a thought I’d had seeing some of the work you’d done before. How do you reconcile that clash, or is there even a clash?

I don’t think so, I don’t think that it’s a clash, because when you really take direct democracy and parliamentary democracy seriously or immediately, that means that we envisage law-making bodies. That means in the nation state you have a parliament and you have to share the power with the citizens in a way that also between the elections to the parliament the citizens have something to say - not in plebiscite but in referendums where he can organize or provoke any decision on any law or any constitutional change and this you can also think about constituting such a structure or such a politic on the European level but when it comes to the continental, other continental level, where the integration process is not yet as far as the on the European level with the EU or when you go to the global level, then the Parliamentary Assembly of the UN has not a direct law-making function, but it brings the voice of the people as an additional element to the governmental discourse. Because, when you observe diplomats how they discuss and when you observe parliamentarians and how they discuss there is a huge difference in the openness and the directness and in the way parliamentarians voice problems in the interests of the people even when they don’t have the power directly to make a law. In this sense I would not see any contradiction or any tension between direct democracy and indirect democracy, parliamentary democracy, when it comes to the global level. Because, perhaps in 100 years you could also envisage global referendums but this is not for our generation to envisage. It would be already a huge progress when we could establish parliamentarians on the global, on the UN level, as partners of the diplomats and kill the hegemony – or you can even say the monopole of the diplomats or the governments – when it comes to the UN. We have to strengthen the UN also by increasing the legitimacy and that’s the reason why we need to bring parliamentarians in, as well as transforming the structures that they represent really the world, and not only those who won the second world war 70 years ago.

Yeah, absolutely agree! OK, Andreas thank you very much, that’s all I had.

Thank you, all the best, thank you bye, bye!

Thanks, bye!