When we consider national parliaments, we think of the domestic arena. However, there are rarely observed foreign dimensions to the work of national legislators. Philipp Bien, Meray Maddah and Thomas Malang argue that, through fora like the Inter-Parliamentary Union, national legislators have become an important group in international politics
1,600 parliamentarians from 140 countries in the desert. What sounds like a populist dream is, in fact, one way to enhance democracy. In March 2023, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) held its 146th Assembly in Manama, Bahrain. Its goal was to 'promote democratic governance, institutions and values […] and to respond to the needs and aspirations of the people'.
Our research group was invited to Manama to participate in the Assembly as scientific observers. In this capacity, we took part in public meetings, and engaged informally with Members of Parliaments (MPs), parliamentary administrators, and IPU personnel.
We found that parliamentarians perform different roles and democratic functions in the international realm, even if the full potential of multilateral parliamentary relations is not yet fulfilled. This means that international parliamentary activity should receive more analytical attention in the future.
Scholars and politicians have largely overlooked the role of agency of national legislatures in international relations
International fora of parliamentarians as part of international organisations like NATO or Mercosur, as well as standalone organisations, have been on the rise over recent decades. However, scholars and politicians have so far largely overlooked the role of agency of national legislatures in international relations.
Within the group of so-called international parliamentary institutions (IPIs), the IPU is the only organisation truly global in scope. Founded in 1889, today, it encompasses 179 member parliaments, and meets biannually for its assemblies. In March, 140 countries from all over the world sent delegations to Manama:
It is tempting to write off such events as mere 'parliamentary tourism'. But the Manama assembly was a tangible demonstration of inter-parliamentary cooperation and dialogue among representatives from diverse international backgrounds.
The delegations had a full agenda. In addition to general debate, the assembly included thematic meetings on security in the Sahel, and a panel discussion on climate oversight. During the IPU’s formal meetings, it was striking how all delegations acted as representatives of their state. Party positions and government-opposition divides were undetectable.
It was striking how all delegations acted as representatives of their state. Party positions and government-opposition divides were undetectable
Virtually all our conversation partners, whether MPs or staff members, conveyed to us that the 'bilaterals', where two delegations meet in an informal way, are a core aspect of IPU assemblies. In preparation for bilaterals, delegations would choose their target delegations strategically, based on interest or strategic importance. During formal meetings, coordination tends to revolve around the regional blocs, like in the UN. In bilaterals, by contrast, the evolving exchange patterns appear to be global.
The importance of these informal practices stands in contrast to the formal work at the IPU. While MPs put great effort into drafting and passing resolutions, the effect of these outcomes remains unclear. Granted, some parliaments might care about what happened at the IPU. Generally, however, transmission from national delegations to the respective parliamentary committees appears weak.
What are the research implications of the IPU and other multilateral parliamentary assemblies? From an IR perspective, one could observe well-known phenomena from IO scholarship like norm contestation or hegemonic power. Innovative empirical research on IOs and political communication research might be looking at how parliamentarians publicise their work at the IPU to their constituents. For example, we saw many delegates sharing selfie-videos during the sessions. Additionally, we should evaluate the potential to help reduce IOs' democratic deficit in normative terms, especially since parliaments from non-democratic regimes are present, too.
For comparative politics, it could be promising to analyse whether policy-based bilateral meetings or multilateral discussions around best practices lead to their international diffusion. It's not only democratic regimes that participate in the IPU. Potential diffusion effects, therefore, might be just as crucial for non-democratic regimes that might not favour the IPU's democracy promotion goal.
Research should also test whether IPI participation increases the potential for parliaments to control governments in international affairs. If that were the case, one could look for changes in control behaviour of MPs – particularly from opposition parties at the national level.
Our trip also generated some relevant takeaways for practitioners. For one thing, MPs are not exclusively and 'resolutely parochial', as the literature tends to portray them. The IPU contains true internationalists, passionate about their international work and convinced of its importance.
There is indeed some variation in how domestic parliaments deal with IPU outcomes. However, many parliaments seem to have no institutional mechanism with which to engage with it. Whether there are traces of IPU outcomes in domestic politics, therefore, often depends how far MPs push IPU outcomes on to the agendas of relevant national parliamentary committees.
Many national parliaments seem to have no institutional mechanism with which to engage with the outcomes of assemblies such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union
We asked MPs, informally, what convinces them of the IPU’s relevance, given that resolutions are non-binding. MPs and staff told us IPU outcomes can prove a useful addendum to government-led diplomacy, particularly when intergovernmental talks are gridlocked.
Our trip to Bahrain offered clear evidence that the IPU and, perhaps, other IPIs too, are more than toothless paper tigers. Most of the time, IPU outcome documents and resolutions might play only a minuscule role in domestic legislation. Yet the forum is much more than public deliberations and their outcomes.
Multilateral parliamentary exchange can take place through focused bilateral meetings, panel discussions, or committee debates. However it happens, such exchange can serve as a useful addition, and counterpart, to traditional intergovernmental fora. Our research suggests that assemblies such as the IPU might well prove a fruitful subject for new international relations research.