Comment: It’s not just the EU that needs rethinking

If the events of 2011 have demonstrated anything, it's the ineffectiveness of our transnational institutions.

By Dr Matthew Ashton

The big global bodies that supposedly mediate and shape policy on our planet have largely failed to deal with any of the major problems currently facing us. Instead they seem to have agreed on a series of measures that are the equivalent of using a sticking plaster to treat a broken bone. Either that or they've completely sidestepped any decisions at all, simply putting off the tough choices for another day.

This is a significant issue as most of the problems the world faces are essentially international in nature. Major territorial disputes, climates change and the ongoing financial crisis are all too big for single countries to deal with on their own. Therefore it makes perfect sense that we require global transnational bodies to step up to the plate. However the ones currently in existence – the UN, the EU, the WTO and so on – seem to be doing a singularly bad job of this.

Partly this is because of their ineffective structures, but mostly because our leaders are pretty poor at looking beyond their national interests to the wider world, despite the fact that the two are often closely interlinked.

A good example is the EU. A significant portion of the UK's trade is within the single market, therefore it's in Britain's interest to see a swift recovery in the rest of Europe. However far too often members of the UK parliament seem to be locked into the mind-set that for us to win they have to lose.

Another important fact is that the global economy is already transnational. There are corporations out there whose income surpasses those of the GDPs of small countries. One of the reasons why the financial sector has managed to get away with so much over the past few years is that they've embraced globalisation with a vengeance and used it to extend their power in almost every area of our lives. National governments with the exceptions of the US and China simply don't have the power to stand up to them. The logic of collective action argues that in order to check and balance this baleful influence we need political instructions that can regulate them effectively.

Of course we've seen in the past what happens when transnational institutions fail to work. The Second World War happened despite the League of Nations being created to specifically prevent another global conflict. Most of the bodies I've mentioned above were set up after this disaster in the hope of preventing such an event from occurring again. By and large they've succeeded in ensuring our collective security for over half a century. However when it comes to issues of democracy, representation and justice they've been mostly ineffective, either allowing large countries to bully the weak or letting them opt out altogether when it suits them. The EU has so far proven too unwieldy to deal with the current economic crisis while many fear that expanding its powers will make it even more undemocratic.

This is the hub of the paradox. In order to work effectively, transnational institutions must be able to exercise influence which means handing them powers. Once they have these powers though how do you hold them in check? Who guards the guards?

Our current institutions have the dual problem of not being able to effectively use the powers they do have, and at the same time being woefully undemocratic. If the EU and the UN want to make it to the end of the 21st century they'll need to radically improve both their efficiency and accountability.

Of course some would like to see all transitional institutions abolished altogether, and the world returned to the era where the nation state was sovereign. I doubt this is possible now, even if we wanted it to happen. The nature and scope of the problems we're likely to face over the next few years will require us to work together as a planet otherwise we'll face ruin. Perhaps then necessity will succeed where reason has failed. After all, wasn't it Benjamin Franklin who commented: "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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