Commentary

US-EU: The Constitutional Divide

All written constitutions are products of their time. They reflect a specific political culture, the strength of different political interests, and the particular historical concerns of the authors themselves. As President Bush, sworn to defend a constitution written over 200 years ago, meets in Washington with EU leaders finalizing a constitution of their own, the respective documents reflect the differences between American and European political cultures.

The American Constitution is a product of the 18th century Enlightenment. Its overriding concern is the relationship between individual freedom and coercive government power. Hence, the government’s powers are delegated, enumerated, and thus limited. The authority that government enjoys is derived from the people, who can, in theory, reclaim that authority.

In contrast, the recently drafted EU constitution is a product of 20th century welfare-state socialism. The official goal was to design a simpler, more efficient, more democratic Europe that is “closer to its citizens.” However, the goal was never seriously pursued and, consequently, never achieved. As a result, the new constitution will have serious negative implications for liberal parliamentary democracy and the principles of self-government.

The EU constitution makes European government more, not less, remote from the citizenry. The EU’s operations are expanded, not streamlined, and its bureaucracy is made more complex, not simpler. There are no cuts to the EU’s 97,000 pages of accumulated laws and regulations. The EU’s powers are supposedly limited in this document but there is an escape clause in case the Brussels-based bureaucracy ever feels boxed in by popular sentiment. The decisions in Brussels are final and EU laws supersede laws made by national parliaments.

The EU constitution ignores the delineation of government powers for both ideological and practical reasons. Ideologically, the federalist European Left views government as the initiator of action, which is why it favors a government uninhibited by individual freedom. By contrast, most Americans view government as a facilitator of actions initiated by private individuals. That is why individualism is incompatible with the welfare state and that is why it is rejected by European elites as alien to the European political system.

In practical terms, the drafters of the EU constitution made a conscious decision to leave the exact parameters of federal government power as ambiguous as possible. This is in order to provide for the expansion of EU power held centrally in Brussels. If the EU is ever to approximate the stature of the United States in international affairs and global economics, the Brussels-led reasoning goes, centralized decision-making must increase. Hence, the pessimism of those seeking to overturn the EU’s longstanding “democratic deficit.”

The EU constitution is also full of dangerously vague, politically correct phraseology, including references to “sustainable development,” “solidarity between generations,” and “the social market economy.” Moreover, the EU constitution is also preoccupied with the codification of welfare entitlements, i.e., redistributive claims that individuals and/or groups make against one another. For example, some of the provisions in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, such as the right to a job, can only be guaranteed through the transfer of vast resources from some citizens to others.

When the original Charter was signed, it was considered a non-binding statement of intent. That is why the British, whose political system most closely resembles the American, were willing to consent to it. The EU constitution makes the Charter provisions compulsory in the manner of the American Bill of Rights. However, the two are fundamentally different. With the exception of the 7th Amendment, which provides Americans with the right to a trial by jury, the Bill of Rights stipulates only those rights individuals possess vis-à-vis the state. It says nothing about entitlements that some people may receive at others’ expense.

The formal adoption of the EU constitution will result in one of two possible outcomes. Either the constitutional welfare provisions will be discretely ignored, because of their prohibitive cost and negative effect on European economic growth, or their enforcement will lead to even greater central government regulation of European social and economic life.

In the former outcome, the entire EU constitution will be devalued by overtly broken promises. The latter outcome will relegate the European economy to permanent second-class socio-economic status and thus postpone, perhaps indefinitely, the European dream of eventually rivaling American financial wealth, cultural influence, and political power.

Alain Lamassoure, a French delegate to the EU Constitutional Convention, states, “Our work compares favorably with that of the Philadelphia Convention.” On the contrary, the EU’s technocratic social engineers confused their overly elaborate constitutional designs with the simple yet enlightened principles that anchor the American Constitution and underpin the very success that the EU exists to emulate.

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