Forming a Less Perfect Union

Posted: Jun 25, 2004 12:00 AM

LONDON -- History will certainly record the moment. A group of upper-class white men, having sequestered themselves for days, emerged to declare they'd hammered out a constitution that would eventually create a more perfect union.

Philadelphia, 1787? No. Brussels, 2004.

The leaders of 25 European nations agreed to a constitution there on June 18. But in Europe, nothing comes easily.

For instance, if you assume the American constitutional process started with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, it took us 11 years to achieve a United States. Here, they've already been trying, and failing, to craft a United States of Europe since the Treaty of Rome in 1957. That's 47 years and counting.

Back in the 18th century, we started with a bald statement that all men were endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Here, they argued over whether to even mention God in the constitution.

God lost out, mostly because of French opposition. Even the Germans wanted Him in there. So if you want to call them "Godless French," please feel free.

But churches here can stay open, if only because this constitution is a long way from official. Way back when, we had to get 13 former colonies to agree to give up a handful of their newly-won freedoms to a federal government. And, despite what recent Supreme Court rulings might lead one to believe, our Constitution was pretty clear about what powers it did, and did not, assign to the federal government.

Europe's new constitution is exactly the opposite. It runs to 300 pages, and even the leaders who voted for it don't exactly agree on what it says.

"I don't think there is consensus in Europe for some federal superstate,? British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced. ?That has gone as an idea." Blair served as the leader of "new" Europe during this constitutional process, working hard to keep certain powers (the right to tax, control of foreign policy) in the hands of individual governments instead of moving them to Brussels.

Not surprisingly, "old" European leaders disagreed. Prime Minister Jacques Chirac of France insists the constitution would create "a federation of states, but also of peoples." And Belgium's leader called the constitution, "the capstone of a federal European state."

Perhaps the most uplifting thing to see, from an American perspective, is the acceptance of the idea of an "old" and "new" Europe. That concept was mocked in the American press when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld first mentioned it. Today, it's used without irony by British newspapers to describe Europe's voting blocks.

Or maybe "voting" isn't the correct word. After all, a key difference between our Constitution and theirs is that ours moved the United States toward democracy. Of course, it took a while for our republic to get everyone involved, but the framers clearly intended to involve "we the people" in the government. That's why they started with that phrase.

The European system, on the other hand, seems to be set up to be not just undemocratic, but almost anti-democratic. They've already got a president who's not chosen by voters, but instead by a vote of their leaders. When those leaders can't agree on a nominee, they just table the discussion "for another day," as Ireland's Europe Minister put it.

Even more surprising, only eight of the 25 European Union members plan to hold referendums on the new constitution. More will undoubtedly follow, but in some nations, the leaders will surrender some of the people's sovereignty to a federal government in Brussels without the people's permission. This could never happen in the United States.

Democratic Britain, of course, is one of the eight planning a vote. Blair has promised a referendum sometime between now and the end of 2006. Later seems more likely, since polls show if the ballot were held today, the constitution would be voted down.

So, no matter what happens, a United States of Europe is anything but just around the corner. And that's all right.

After all, we've had our Constitution for more than 200 years and we're still "perfecting" it. In recent years, courts found a right to privacy and decided to allow a seemingly unconstitutional campaign finance reform bill. Still, our constitution has held up because it was pretty good to start with.

Maybe Europe's headed in the opposite direction. Because this constitution is so bad, maybe 200 years from now they'll have whittled it down to a pretty good one. Too bad today's upper-class white men won't be around to celebrate.