The COVID-19 pandemic: multilateralism and parliaments

Article published at openDemocracy

20 April 2020

By Roberto Montella, Secretary General of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly

Roberto Montella articleWith each passing day, it is becoming clear that even with the actions we’re taking to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus through social distancing, the acute phase of this emergency is far from over. Indeed, every day of the pandemic marks a new grim milestone and as the virus continues to hit our countries and our people harder than the day before, we are starting to realize that even once the spread of COVID-19 is brought under control – whenever that will be – things will not go back to normal.

And the longer the emergency lasts, the deeper and more permanent the changes will be to all aspects of life.

Many of the tiles that compose our complex mosaic of modern society have already been affected. Our economic system is collapsing into an unprecedented recession, businesses are closing down, workers are being laid off, and it is not clear for how long governments will manage to grant welfare measures to the most vulnerable groups. Impact on labour will be dramatic.

Social life, in the way we have always known it, is also under threat: how long will it take for fear to go away, and for concerts, sporting events, political rallies to resume? Will we be scared of one another? Globalization itself may suffer severe mutations if, for instance, travel and production delocalization patterns have to adapt.

International relations will also be severely affected. The coronavirus crisis hit the world at a time when the international system and its balance of power were already showing increasing signs of weakness, with constantly rising tensions, shrinking trust, and a notable degree of international cooperation fatigue on important matters of mutual concern for States.

Unfortunately, the current pandemic is exacerbating such weaknesses. We are already receiving some early warnings: solidarity between nations is still too much of an exception rather than the rule, agreements on common challenges have been blocked (see for instance the migrants and refugee crisis), economic protectionism is on the rise and the sharing of medical research, now more important than ever, is embryonic. It is perhaps a paradox, but this is showing how a crisis largely due to the lack – or at least insufficiency – of international coordination, especially in its early stages, does not lead to higher coordination but rather tears countries apart. When we need more international cooperation, we are seriously at risk of losing it. Consequences would be unimaginable, history tells us, and there is no reason to assert that this time it would go any different unless we start, from now, to revert the trend.

It’s obvious, isn’t it?

A virus, be it COVID-19 today or another one tomorrow, does not know borders: it spreads around the world in the same way and it affects people in the same way. Race, ethnicity, language or religion, power or fame are as irrelevant to it as an administrative border. If this sounds obvious to you, why doesn’t it sound as obvious that a global problem requires a global answer? Why doesn’t it sound obvious that both short-term emergency responses and long-term strategic responses must be coordinated among States?

An entire branch of the theories of international relations studies cooperation and its avenues. On the one hand, modern doctrines, such as Neoliberalism and Institutionalism among others, note how international relations have developed into a cooperative system by essence. On the other, Realism believes international cooperation is a mere tool, to be used if needed, or to be ignored. Realists adopted the notion of States as rational egoists, with inter-state affairs necessitating a higher morality of state interests and survivability, which essentially means minimizing risks and maximizing benefits,[1] with fear, reputability and self-interest being the main drivers of state action.[2]

Where do we stand now? Are we really in a system that evolved into something bigger than States or not? We are probably somewhere in between, moving in that direction but over a very rocky terrain. In this path, coronavirus is a huge obstacle. Self-interest and short-term benefit against a cooperative system and long term benefits: this is the tension we are talking about here, and the role of multilateral organizations today is to avoid international relations sliding back to the “state of anarchy” where self-interest is the only guiding principle. International organizations have a duty to help countries work together and demonstrate that with shared decisions we will be better off against this invisible enemy, as well as others.

What do we need? Coordination of measures, global economic strategy, exchange of medical research, to name a few. If states act independently, we will not get out from this nightmare: this has to be very clear.

Multilateral trust and confidence

However, international organizations only function properly if States agree on their importance and provide them with the conditions to provide their added value. It should be made clear that today self-interest coincides with maintaining a strong international system. In this regard, Liberal-Institutionalists[1] agree on three pre-conditions to make the international system they have themselves conceptualized effective: 1) an effectively working international legal system where checks and balances are in place and treaties, conventions and agreements are fully implemented; 2) perfect information, which means full exchanges between countries; 3) zero transaction costs, which means that such exchanges are not subject to a price, be it financial or power-related.

An international organization should strive to ensure that these conditions are fulfilled. And to this end, I would add, a key tool is TRUST. We need to build CONFIDENCE and keep it alive. Solidarity measures are a first step towards this direction but much more is needed. The objective is not to send aid to each other, rather to adopt common solutions with a sense of joint ownership and shared responsibility. Joint positive decisions will create a virtuous circle generating more trust among States and more productive cooperation for the benefit of the whole international community.

On the other hand, it should also be emphasized that dysfunctional international bodies can also become detrimental and create a vortex of further problems, especially if they pose limits rather than proposing solutions. In this regard, European leaders – for instance – should engage in profound reflections on what is really needed to revive multilateralism, and remember that joint bad decisions, as well as joint inertia, which in the end is the same, can run the risk of a vicious circle from which it will be increasingly difficult to extract ourselves. Not a reason, however, to pursue nationalistic approaches; rather the contrary: a reason to invest in multilateralism even more.

The key importance of parliaments serving peoples

As the Secretary General of an international parliamentary organization, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), which brings together more than 320 parliamentarians from 57 countries “from Vancouver to Vladivostok” representing more than one billion people, I also see the desperate need of resuming the centrality of the role of parliaments in the decision-making processes of our countries. And this is the second main point I want to make in this article.

Why are parliaments important? First of all, parliamentarians are the direct and elected representatives of the people, and they ensure that all their voices – more than the one voice of the majority in government – are represented in institutions.

Second, they can, on this basis, propose legislation. Third, they exercise oversight control function on the government and on its ability to implement laws and international commitments. And why is parliamentary diplomacy important? Because it amplifies these three unique assets on the international stage.

Moreover, while international organizations bring together governments and their views, international parliamentary organizations like the OSCE PA, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly or the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe bring together much more than that and can offer a contribution that truly pictures the feelings and needs of all the peoples. They are an inestimable resource. Too often we forget that our job is not a high-class exercise between chancelleries and other palaces of power but has instead one only end-user: the people.

Parliamentarians across the globe are now striving to learn from each other and to coordinate on the best measures to propose and vote for in their respective homes. To this end, their national parliaments of course need to be fully operative and neither social distancing nor legitimate executive emergency powers should limit their activity. It is clear that the whole democratic system and rule-of-law based order of our countries are at risk, if parliamentary functions are under severe stress as in the current moment. During an emergency as much as in normal times, parliaments are a resource and are complementary to the governments. We must fight to preserve this.

This is also a lesson we can learn for the future. In fact, emergency measures implemented by certain governments, not only in the current extreme situation but also in some other crises of the last decade – see for instance the financial recession and the migrant and refugee crisis – ended up suspending some of the positive achievements reached by globalization: multilateralism was called into question, several countries resorted to trade wars, the fight for resources led to aggressive geopolitical maneuvers, borders were closed. In addition, fundamental freedoms were restricted, including the freedom of the media, though under the legitimate guise of combating the growing phenomenon of fake news.

Strong leadership has a capital P

All this has led to deep divisions within our societies and to fundamental contradictions between liberal global concepts and renewed nationalisms. The role of parliaments is to ensure that the necessary discussions do not destroy the cohesion within societies, and that the mentioned deficiencies are seen as a chance to prepare better for the next crisis by enhancing preparedness to exogenous shocks, allocating the right resources to certain sectors of society – read healthcare and labour – strengthening the fight against corruption and all sorts of waste, and not compromising on a number of agreed principles and values, not least the protection of the environment and of the most vulnerable groups in society.

However, to achieve all of this, we need strong leadership. The COVID-19 crisis is making it more evident than ever and is actually pulling out from under the carpet a long-hidden problem. It’s long overdue for our politics to get rid of the rusty patterns of the daily tittle-tattle and start thinking big and long-term. We need foresight and to restore politics with a capital P, politics as the noble art of the administration of the res publica. This includes the courage – with all its risks – of taking decisions and developing strategic views for the future for a world that is changing and needs new socio-economic, demographic, environmental approaches. Once again, a world that needs a revived and effective multilateral system to sustain it, though one that rejects the principle of the amicus-hostis and grounds its basis in the principle of joint ownership. Do we realize that all the challenges we are facing are all global challenges? It is not just COVID-19, but COVID-19 should, at least, open up our eyes.


Actually, there are many realities this pandemic should open our eyes to. Among these, and in more general terms, the fact that our priorities were no longer sustainable and that the frantic rush towards economic growth and productivity has only brought us to be dependent on them, without room for maneuver.

It would be a missed opportunity if we did not use this forced break to refocus our attention and our resources – both at domestic and international levels – where we also really need them, in spite of whatever our God Economy tells us. We have to recalibrate the very concept of ‘economy’, which should be a tool for the people, rather that the string-puller of the whole world. We should, in other words, put ourselves at the center and rediscover the power of genuine human relations and of the human family. Can this quarantine help us to think about it?

In conclusion, I want to launch an appeal to my colleagues in government institutions and international organizations, as well as to fellow citizens: believe in international cooperation. Don’t be dragged into the easier, and at first sight cheaper game to enter into blame games between countries. It is irrelevant where the virus came from or how many face masks one country is sending to the other. Much more is at stake, and it is our capacity to deal with global problems together.

We need one another and there is a lot of this situation from which we can learn for the future. Let us make the best use of the COVID-19 pandemic to press a reset button. This is not the first crisis of humanity and it won’t surely be the last one. So let’s be richer and more prepared for the next one.

[1] See Morgenthau

[2] See Al-Rodhan

[3] See Keohane



Nat Parry

Head of Communications and Press

Office: +45 33 37 80 55
Mobile: +45 60 10 81 77
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