The democratic deficit of the G-20, the G-20 Speakers Forum, and a global parliamentary assembly

The democratic deficit of the G-20, the G-20 Speakers Forum, and a global parliamentary assembly

Andreas Bummel, 3. april 2013

Group photo at the G-20 Summit in Toronto in 2010

Group photo at the G-20 Summit in Toronto in 2010 (source: / Creative Commons)

The global financial crisis and the growing political and economic weight of developing countries from the South have led to the rise of the G-20 which has become one of the world's most important decision-making forums. Since 2008, the process has been steered by summits of the group's heads of state or government. The controversial nature of the process means that G-20 meetings are often accompanied by public protests.

In this statement the World Federalist Movement articulated fundamental criticism of the G-20, referring to lack of democratic accountability, questionable legality and legitimacy, structural deficiencies, and concerns over mandate and agenda.

Discontent with the G-20 process is no longer a matter confined to protesting citizens, civil society groups, think tanks or excluded governments. Even the parliaments of G-20 member states themselves, so it seems, are increasingly concerned as they are excluded from the G-20 process as well.

In 2010 the Senate of Canada for the first time hosted a "G20 Speakers Consultation" that brought together the presiding officers of the G-20's parliaments. After similar meetings in Seoul 2011 and Ryhad 2012, a fourth such meeting is currently taking place in Mexico City under the auspices of the Mexican Senate. In the official FAQ, the Mexican Senate provides some pretty remarkable reasons why they think that this new forum matters:

Parliamentary-level discussions on global issues need to take place so that parliamentary leaders from the G20 nations can play a more active role in making laws and strengthening parliamentary decision making in support of the most pressing issues on the global agenda.

and also:

Only by including G20 Parliaments in global decision-making and achieving consensus and agreement among parliamentary leaders, can governments genuinely follow through with the commitments that their leaders have made.

The reality of course is that hardly any parliament dares to oppose decisions taken at the level of a G-20 summit. Once a matter decided at a G-20 summit actually reaches a G-20 parliament, it is too late for parliamentarians to affect the outcome. So the idea now seems to be that parliaments need to organize early on to influence G-20 decision-making.

Othmar Karas from Austria who represents the European Parliament at the G-20 speakers consultations said that "parliaments must be involved in global decision-making and in strengthening the global financial system." Specifically, he suggests that the resolutions adopted by the speakers forum should subsequently be presented to the heads of state or government at the G-20 summits. 

From a pragmatic point of view, Mr Karas' suggestion might be a useful first step. But the goal should be much bolder. Speakers alone can hardly represent the full diversity of their parliaments and the G-20 parliamentarian consultation will not be taken seriously as a global forum. Representatives of the world's citizens need to be able to actively participate in the G-20 process and also in other global governance contexts. There is no credible reason why such parliamentary involvement should only be open to speakers from G-20 countries. An exclusive G-20 parliament is not the solution. Eventually, this development is strengthening the case for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly.

A UN Parliamentary Assembly would be able to overcome one of the key deficiencies of the UN: The principle of "sovereign equality of states" or "one state, one vote." It is no wonder that the governments of large economies prefer to bypass the UN in matters of economic and financial governance. After all, as I have pointed out in a previous comment, the small countries in the UN that only represent marginal portions of the world's GDP (and the world's population!) are easily able to outvote large states and to dominate proceedings. 

The distribution of seats (and thus votes) in a global parliamentary assembly could - and should - depart from the principle of equality of states and take factors such as population size into account as well. As a result, large countries would have more weight and small countries could still be included. Allowing delegations of such an assembly to play a meaningful part in G-20 deliberations would make the whole process more inclusive, transparent, representative and democratic.

At the moment, the heads of state and government of the G-20 don't even want to hear the resolutions passed by the G-20 Speakers Forum. This is a shame. But the pressure for democratizing global governance is clearly increasing.