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Parliaments in regional organisations. What are they good for (absolutely nothing)?

A growing number of regional organisations such as the EU, Mercosur or the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has set up representative assemblies, or regional parliaments, in an attempt to increase their own democratic legitimacy. As the public demands more political accountability, regional parliaments have taken shape in great variance as regards design, powers and performance.

So are they a proper response to the public’s outcry for political change? A recent conference at the European University Institute in Florence provided some answers.

Avoiding an overly Eurocentric approach, four regional organisations and their assemblies were being discussed (even though I managed to constantly bring up the European Parliament):


The case of the Mercosur parliament, located in Montevideo, is crystal-clear: Without the two biggest Mercosur members, Brazil, whose population just topped 200 million, and neighbours Argentina, getting along, regional integration is faltering. The current Argentine government has decided not to pay their MPs, which are elected directly by their electorate. Brazil was busy impeaching Dilma rather than focussing on much needed political, social and economic cooperation within the region. On top of that, the Mercosur parliament is paralysed by an internal dispute surrounding the suspension of Venezuela’s rotating presidency. The bloc agreed to revisit the issue in December, with no long-term solution in sight.

The Central American Parliament suffers from other deficiencies: Unlike its southern neighbour, PARLACEN has little to no political powers, making it a mere “debate club”. Sufficient funding is provided by its member states, though lacking real impact. Uncontrolled regional migration, a pressing issue PARLACEN was set up to tackle, is still being dealt with on an intergovernmental level – with little success.

In West Africa, the ECOWAS parliament is devouring public funds, some say up to 13 million USD per annum, excluding MP salaries. However, the institution with mostly representative responsibilities is still largely unknown throughout the multi-linguistic region. To be fair, it covers a great number of countries with inaccessible hinterlands, with Nigeria being the most populous by far. But the public should know where the money goes that funds the parliament that is supposed to represent them in all regional matters. Introducing proper cross nation political groups might be a step forward.

Last, the East African Community has equipped themselves with a remarkable institutional framework, including a truly supranational representative assembly. Armed with far-reaching legislative competencies, MPs engage in frivolous policy-making, primarily on matters of regional importance. The only problem: The member states never implement the bills the regional assembly has passed. Also, regional deputies are also members of their national parliaments, making it impossible not to vote according to national preferences.

Political land grabbing

It became obvious that there are two basic models for regional parliaments: First, assemblies with (very) limited or no real powers other than passing symbolic resolutions. And, second, supranational ones with greater legislative competencies whose bills no member ever implements.

Where does this leave us?

Maybe regional bodies should try to solve their lack of influence by engaging in “political land grabbing”, just as the EP has managed to become a relevant voice in areas in which the treaties doesn’t establish any legislative competency, e.g. foreign policy. Over the years, regional parliaments in Latin America and Africa could evolve into “voices of the people”, by, for example, providing solutions for social and housing issues in border regions.

Value for money

In the end, people will ask for the democratic value of their regional parliaments. Wasteful spending will not help those trying to build strong democratic and transparent (regional) institutions that hold national goverments accountable. After all, potent parliaments are capable of dealing with today’s global problems as well as reconnecting people with their politicians and representatives. They can become “development boosters”. Let’s democratise!

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