TCS Daily

What Constitutional Crisis?

By Robert Fike - December 19, 2003 12:00 AM

The European Union's attempt to manufacture an impossible consensus on an incomprehensible constitution came to a predictable sputtering halt last week. The various peoples of Europe would have breathed a deep sigh of relief had they not been yawning as their leaders busied themselves with an exercise more akin to an exchange of incompetent sleight-of-hand tricks than statecraft.


"Watch me pull a voting system out of my hat!"


"You're not fooling me, Berlusconi, there's something up your sleeve!" 


The representatives of the 15 current and 10 future member states of the EU, embroiled in the desperate final stages of fashioning (when not resisting) an ingeniously opaque enabling document designed to unleash a pseudo-nation on an unsuspecting continent, suddenly acknowledged the futility of the effort at this juncture and went their separate ways to ponder What Comes Next.


But even less attention was paid to the failed summit's post-mortem than its actual demise ever attracted, what with Saddam Hussein getting so wonderfully arrested and all, thereby ensuring that much of the column inches in many newspapers and much of the minutes of the television news broadcasts that could have been filled with ongoing, thorough analysis of the stalemate was replaced by photographs of the Arab Stalin looking like a member of ZZ Top.   


Nevertheless, had Hussein stayed in his hole undiscovered, still chillin' out with his hot dogs, Belgian chocolate, and 7-UP, it's doubtful that Europeans would have had much of a public debate over what should be in an EU constitution or if an EU constitution is even needed in the first place. And who could blame them for their indifference? The proposed constitution was moribund from its inception, and they knew it. 


The European identity, for want of a better term, is one defined by location and varying degrees of interdependence, not one born of a shared and natural polity. People are European in the same way that Africans are Africans and Asians are Asians. The essential character of their relationship to each other is not changed by the fact that Europeans just happen to be able to work in and trade freely with EU member states.


Europeans are not European in the same way that Americans are Americans: Americans are citizens of a single, distinct nation, and have been from the moment we started to steal the place fair and square from the natives. No summit or charter will alter the reality of the European identity, even though the EU constitution was clearly intended (but seldom admitted) to lay the foundation for a superstate somehow capable of exerting sufficient influence to challenge the United States as a global force.


It's as though Europe's governments are entering into a process of merger and acquisition in a bid to compete with American Foreign Policy, Inc. But as a purely economic entity, today's EU, operating without the supposed benefit of a constitution, is already immensely successful. Tomorrow's enlarged EU, with an expanded pool of affordable labor and resources but still no constitution, will be even more so.


Nevertheless, despite the initial setback, the desire amongst the would-be European Founding Fathers to have a Philadelphia Miracle of their own will impel them back to negotiations in a matter of months. In time, Europeans might be asked - if they're lucky enough to be asked - to accept a constitution they really, really want about as much as they really, really wanted their single currency. (Of the 12 eurozone countries, only France and Ireland adopted the euro through referendum. The rest had it foisted upon them without popular consent.)


When they're asked, they should be reminded of why the United States entered into the constitution their leaders so obviously seek to emulate or perhaps even surpass. Indeed, the US Constitution works spectacularly well, and it's altogether reasonable for others to take inspiration from it. But they should not look to how the US Constitution ensures security and prosperity today, they should look to how that constitution brought security and prosperity to the US of 1789, when it took effect.


They should notice two crucial factors (one could rightly point out others) present in the States at that moment missing in today's Europe: one underdeveloped nation desperate for effective government - if anything, the EU has an excess of over-effective government at every level - and common bonds amongst the people arising from factors stronger than commerce and geography.


Firstly, the US of 1789 had a GDP of approximately $4.5 billion, in today's money, and a population of just under 4 million, all dispersed over a vast area overwhelmingly unimproved by roads and canals, and had been governed by a loose affiliation of states with erratic and unchecked legislatures that had proven incapable of attending to the new nation's deficiencies, such as inadequate infrastructure, unreliable schemes for honoring and enforcing contracts, a knackered military that was laughable by the standards of that Era of Empires, and public finances in a gruesome condition that would have earned a visit from an eighteenth century IMF. Suffice it to say, before the Constitution came into force, the US was hardly poised for future greatness. The US adopted its constitution because its existence depended on it. The fact that the US would become the hyperpower that the EU envies was an unforeseeable consequence of the new federal government, and not a motivation for its creation and adoption.


In stark contrast, the enlarged, 25-nation EU of 2004 will have a GDP of approximately $10 trillion and a population of around 450 million - with a healthy portion of the incoming population from the former entrant nations being reassuringly far from retirement age. The EU needn't try to upstage the US as a hegemonic governing unit with numbers such as those. Regardless of whatever shortcomings the EU may have in terms of its infrastructure, military capacities, or legislatures (and those shortcomings are legion), the Europe of today is a far cry from the US of 1789 or even the Europe of 1989. The assertion that Europe needs a constitution to ensure its security and prosperity ignores the fact that the EU has grown and thrived without a ceremonious, massive, all-encompassing fundamental law plopped atop its already overburdened member states - indeed, its member states have thrived in spite of the directives and regulations constantly burped out by eurocrat hair-splitters.


Secondly, many of the EU constitution's drafters said they had studied The Federalist Papers to see how their American counterparts did what they themselves intended to accomplish. But I suspect they purposefully skimmed over No. 2, by John Jay:


"...Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people - a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence."


Now, does that sound like Europe to you?


Those who seek to consolidate and centralize authority in the EU have been shopping around euphemistic phrases like "pooled sovereignty" to assuage fears over their attempted power grab(s). Semantics cannot obscure the harsh fact that the governing arrangement envisioned by the EU constitution's proponents necessarily entails a further erosion of what little state sovereignty EU members still enjoy. The US Constitution was brave enough to be clear and honest on this and all other matters, whereas the EU constitution was as clear and honest as the 335 pages of fudge on which it was written.


Europe has a perfectly fine common market. Saddling that market with a mystifying pretension of artificial superpower status would only ruin a good thing. Perhaps that's why when asked (before the fertilizer hit the ventilation device in Brussels) about the possibility of the proceedings going pear-shaped and the constitutional convention yielding nothing, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's almost accidental candor was especially revealing: "I am not saying it doesn't matter but life would go on."


Europe's leaders would be well advised to let their peoples reject a constitution they don't need and, yes, let life go on.


But that's assuming agreement upon a final draft of a constitution will ever be reached. And that's a huge assumption.

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