Commentary

Europe’s New Constitution: Philadelphia It Is Not

Inspired by the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, European Union leaders have been meeting in Brussels to write a constitution that would provide a basis for the creation of a federal Europe. Amid much hyperbole about the blissful future of a united Europe, the former French president, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, head of the Convention on the Future of Europe, recently revealed the first draft of the European constitution. Regrettably, there is little resemblance between the Brussels document and the one produced in Philadelphia 216 years ago.

The American Constitution is permeated by the ideas of the Enlightenment and steeped in the desire to be free of foreign and domestic despotism. The EU constitution, in contrast, is written in largely impenetrable legalese and constitutes a politically correct proclamation of bureaucratic folly immersed in the European Left’s post-Cold War ideological confusion.

Unlike the clear, direct language of the U.S. Constitution, which carefully enumerates (thereby limiting) the powers of the government, the division of powers between governments, and the general rights of the governed, the EU constitution teems with concessions to special interests, thereby making a mockery of the term “limited powers.”

American constitutional rights are “negative,” that is, they protect Americans from infringement upon their life, liberty, and property. Conversely, the EU constitution is filled with “positive” rights for Europeans that can only be guaranteed by limiting the freedoms of other Europeans. As Hans Werner Sinn, director of the Munich-based Institute for Economic Research, notes: “The document ignores the free-market economy. There is not a word about the protection of property and no commitment to free enterprise and the division of labor.”

But the EU constitution does vow to protect “social justice,” “full employment,” “solidarity,” “equal opportunity,” “cultural diversity,” and “equality between the sexes.” It claims to desire “sustainable development,” “mutual respect between peoples,” and the eradication of poverty.

Of course, such abstract concepts are notoriously difficult to define. For example, dozens of philosophers have been debating the meaning of social justice since John Rawls famously popularized that phrase in 1974. In different hands, social justice can mean anything from full-scale income redistribution to the complete absence of taxation.

The introduction of such divisive concepts is a recipe for eternal political strife. Already, 1,500 amendments have been tabled to clarify the draft language. But a lack of clarity may be the drafters’ goal. In practice, constant confusion will enable the EU bureaucracy to increase its powers inexorably.

The murky language concerning the division of powers illustrates such centralization-by-stealth. The EU has exclusive authority in certain areas, such as common commercial and monetary policy. But there are also areas of shared authority, such as agriculture, social policy, and “economic and social cohesion” between the EU and its member states. In Giscard’s Europe, national economic policies will be “coordinated” (read: harmonized and centralized) and the division of power in the areas of employment, education, and culture will be subject to “supportive action.”

Because there is little popular appetite for a greater centralization of power in Brussels, the drive for the European super-state will continue through the bureaucratic back door. Whenever a dispute occurs over the interpretation of a particular article, Brussels will be called upon to clarify the matter. It isn’t much of a stretch to assume that the unelected Eurocrats will rule in favor of greater central authority.

Underlying the whole debate about the division of powers is the most elastic and misleading of EU-favored terms - “loyalty.” According to the EU constitution, the member states are subject to a principle of “loyal cooperation.” Translated from the Euro-speak, member states will be required to tow the Brussels line on just about anything, or else they will be labeled “disloyal.” Already, French President Jacques Chirac has threatened two EU hopefuls, Bulgaria and Romania, with rejection for supporting U.S. foreign policy in defiance of the EU’s twin political propellers, France and Germany. It appears that within the EU, at least, disagreement is synonymous with disloyalty.

Unfortunately for EU citizens, Giscard et al. overlooked the strength of Philadelphia-style constitutionalism: the primacy of fundamental principle over short-term political advantage. As the commentator Martin Wolf reminds us, “Principle must govern Europe’s internal arrangement. Where common policies are not essential, there is no need to try to create them.” However, the new EU constitution preaches federalism while practicing centralized social democracy. A wealth of evidence accumulated since the Philadelphia Convention suggests this will prove an unwise strategy.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute and Marian L. Tupy is assistant director of Cato’s Project on Global Economic Liberty.