TCS Daily

Europe's Man for All Seasons

By Benedikt Koehler - September 30, 2004 12:00 AM

"We, the people," the opening line of the preamble of the US constitution, is one of the world's best known political sound bites. These three words instantly project the Founding Fathers' aspiration; the Constitution should speak the voice of the people. The authors of the US Constitution want readers to buy in.

Throughout the European Union moves have gathered pace in recent months to put the prospective EU constitution to popular votes in referenda. Europhiles and euroskeptics alike realize that the fate of a constitution is not settled by ratification in national parliaments. Political success depends on winning hearts and minds.

America's Founding Fathers were a colourful cast of characters. The jurists who drafted the EU Constitution are of unimpeachable standing, but few of them are household names. It is a sign of the times that now Europeans are searching for guiding lights in the constitutional debate, and recent months have seen new editions of the works of Benjamin Constant.

Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) grew up in Lausanne but left Switzerland to seek a bigger stage. Like most people growing up around Lake Geneva, Constant was comfortable speaking both French and German. Culture shock was not in his vocabulary. At various times of his life he made his home in Braunschweig and in Brussels, in Paris and in London. Unless, that is, he did not happen to be back in Coppet on Lake Geneva. Constant's real home was Europe.

Constant lived through the French Revolution and its progress from euphoria to turmoil, from terror to authoritarianism. Thomas Jefferson, who was in Paris in 1789 and knew a thing or two about drafting constitutions, quipped that French revolutionaries seemed more preoccupied with books than with people. Benjamin Constant was an exception to this rule. During the French Revolution he was close to the Girondins, but survived the Revolution and won the respect of Napoleon. He survived Napoleon, too, and won the respect of King Louis Philippe. What made Constant indispensable was his expertise in the issue facing Europeans now: how to shape a constitution.

Objections against taxes sparked the French Revolution. For Constant the purpose of a constitution is to protect citizens against interference by authorities. That is why taxes and public debt are so important to a body politic. With every tax governments interfere in citizens' lives and restrict their liberty. It would be tempting to speculate what Constant would have to say about moves to relax the Maastricht Treaty's debt ceilings and discussions to harmonize taxes in the EU.

Debt and taxes amount to the same thing, a transfer of buying power from citizens to governments. The two issues are inseparable. Benjamin Constant was far ahead of his time in arguing that property rights are the best guarantee against government intrusion, and that international trade makes a more lasting contribution to international security than even the best equipped army.

Constant was an untiring writer. His main work, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Government, has appeared in a new English edition. But for anyone on a tighter time budget there is a recent German Constant reader, Die liberale Demokratie ( Ein Benjmain-Constant-Brevier, Ott Verlag). One would wish every MEP had a copy.


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