The e-Parliament was dreamt up by two people: Nicholas Dunlop, a former Secretary-General of the legislators' network Parliamentarians for Global Action; and William Ury, co-author of the world's bestselling book on negotiation, "Getting to Yes", and Director of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard University.
In early 2001, they took a walk along England's White Cliffs of Dover and talked about globalisation. They were reflecting on the fact that while business, news, citizen movements and many other sectors of society were going global, democracy was still confined to the national level. Indeed, democratic parliaments continue to operate inside their national "box" in much the same way, and using much the same procedures, as they did a century ago.
As a result, when they are legislating on an issue, they have no easy way to find out how the same issue has been dealt with in other parliaments around the world. A great many opportunities for legislators to learn from the experience of their colleagues elsewhere were being lost. Meanwhile, our international institutions have weak democratic legitimacy, and lack the resources to solve global problems that no national government can solve on its own such as climate change, poverty or war.
See Time magazine article about Ury and Dunlop from 2004
Over a cup of tea in a country pub appropriately called The Hope Inn, Dunlop and Ury were suddenly struck by the thought that the Internet had created the opportunity to build a new kind of democratic global institution. By linking up into a global forum the Members of Parliament and Congress that we have already elected, creating an online "voting" system and a loose committee structure through which they could meet face-to-face and work on issues of shared interest, it would be possible to create a kind of virtual, informal world parliament -- an e-Parliament.
Such a body would have no formal powers; the power of decision would remain in the national parliaments. But because its members would be national legislators, the e-Parliament could have a valuable input into national decision-making. Good policy ideas could be passed from one country to another, championed in different parliaments by groups of legislators who had been part of e-Parliament discussions.
In the process, perhaps the seed could be planted for the first genuinely democratic world institution which would serve as a parallel global problem-solving body, alongside the intergovernmental talks, a body which would be transparent, inclusive and flexible. In time, the e-Parliament could perhaps develop an international "parliamentary oversight" capacity to help make our existing international institutions more democratically accountable.
In the next few months, they convened a small group of legislators in Venice, followed by another meeting in the Canary Islands, to begin designing how the e-Parliament would work. Many of the MPs who took part in the early design process are still in Parliament and still actively involved, including Mani Shankar Aiyar MP of India, Cyd Ho of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, Graham Watson MEP of the UK, Anders Wijkman MEP of Sweden and Kimmo Kikjunen MP and Sirpa Pietikäinen MEP of Finland.
Those early meetings were followed by three years of work which included a pilot project on energy policy and the development of the e-Parliament website with the help of the major US consultancy Booz Allen and the leading Indian IT company Cognizant.
From its beginnings with a small group of visionary legislators, the e-Parliament has built a database with the contact information for over 18,000 of the world's 25,000 democratic national legislators. It has launched an ongoing series of face-to-face Parliamentary hearings and roundtables. At hearings, groups of legislators meet to hear expert presentations on specific issues before considering concrete action that they can take in their home parliaments. When ideas generate particular interest at the hearings, we develop policy toolkits and organise roundtable discussions to help advance the ideas. At roundtables, legislators meet with other stakeholders (members of the business, NGO and academic communities for example) to consider how specific policies can be implemented.
While the intention in the future is for the e-Parliament to focus on a wide range of issues, the e-Parliament Council has decided to concentrate at first on two crucial areas: climate change and the spread of democracy around the world. With the cutting-edge work it is now doing, there is every reason to believe that the e-parliament idea can fulfil its early promise and play a key role in protecting the planet for future generations.
Nicholas Dunlop still works for the e-Parliament as its first secretary-general. William Ury, director of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard University, is a member of the e-Parliament Council.