The Long View 2002-03-01: The European Constitutional Convention

Just today I read an article featuring a prediction about the future of the EU by Emmanuel Todd, a prominent French anthropologist. Todd is known for his work on Anglo-American exceptionalism, particularly in how families are viewed differently in England, Denmark, Brittany, the Netherlands, and parts of Norway.

However, despite how interesting Todd's work on families is, the reason I mention him here is Todd's [correct] prediction in 1976 that the USSR would fall, based on failing demographics.

Todd is now predicting the same thing for the EU. I am not a Euroskeptic; indeed I rather prefer not sticking my nose into other people's business. Thus I take no sides in the political travails of the EU. I am simply interested that Todd was correct once before on a similar matter.

I do note that futures other than mere collapse may be possible for the EU and its member states. John always had a keen eye for historical analogy, and to that let me add a physical analogy. The fragmentation of Europe into nation-states took a great deal of energy; energy that Western Civilization now seems to lack. Without conscious effort to maintain the system created by the Peace of Westphalia, it is likely to relax back into the ground state.

That ground state is Empire.



The European Constitutional Convention

Yesterday, a convention opened in Brussels that is supposed to make recommendations for restructuring the European Union, in preparation for the expansion of the EU from 15 to 24 members. At any rate, that's the party line. The Convention was not called for the explicit purpose of writing a constitution, and its spokesmen say they have no intention of creating a "European Superstate," whatever that might be. Nonetheless, though the very term "constitution" is missing from the official title of the assembly, the press has decided to call it the Constitutional Convention. They have also decided to compare it to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, which drafted the current federal constitution of the United States, and to find that the European Convention compares badly.

Certainly there is some chance the whole thing could crash and burn. The public debate in America on the Constitution of 1787 was open and the choices were clear. The Constitution had to be ratified by specially convened conventions in each state, so that the proposed Constitution would not fall prey to the interests of local elites. However, the Convention that wrote the draft was closed. The members thought, probably correctly, that they could not make compromises if they had to deal with public reaction to their daily debates. The European Constitutional Convention, in contrast, was called precisely because the European publics are tired of secret conclaves of diplomats and bureaucrats creating plans that fundamentally alter the way the publics' countries are governed. So, the Convention is to be televised, webcast, and otherwise open to inspection. The Convention will make decisions by "consensus," not by taking votes. Moreover, a Civil Society Forum will parallel the proceedings. There the EU's NGOs and other Usual Suspects can criticize the Convention's proceedings and offer proposals of their own. We have all heard the old witticism that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. This structure could easily produce a kangaroo.

Maybe, but not necessarily. For one thing, the Brussels Convention does not suffer from the bloat that characterizes today's international conferences. There will be just 105 delegates, in contrast to the 55 in the Philadelphia Convention (who, incidentally, represented a country with fewer people than live in Paris today). More important, the Brussels Convention simply is not trying to do the same thing that the Philadelphia Convention did. The Founding Fathers met just from May 25 to September 15 of 1787, while the talk will go on at Brussels for a year. That is more the scale of an ecumenical council than of a deliberative conference.

What we are looking at here is a difference of historical periods. The Philadelphia Convention was an exercise in Enlightenment Neoclassicism, perhaps the last moment such a thing could have been done, even in America. The National Assembly in Paris just two years later was already on the other side of the historical watershed, the first great expression of political Romanticism. The Brussels Convention of 2002-2003 may provide the signature to a new era.

It is sometimes said that the European Union is an attempt to revive the Roman Empire. Sometimes even the architects of the EU said that, but they were wrong. What the EU resembles, and probably will resemble even more if the Brussels Convention does not fail, is the Holy Roman Empire. The Empire can be dated, according to taste, to the crowning of Charlemagne as Emperor of the West in 800, or, more correctly, to the accession of Otto I to the title of "Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation" in 962. A confederal structure, the Empire waxed and waned over the course of almost 1000 years. It mostly waned after the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 created the Western system of sovereign states. At the behest of Napoleon, the Empire broke up into its constituent parts in 1806, with the last emperor abdicating to the slightly less exalted position of King-Emperor of Austria-Hungary.

The Empire reached maturity only with the promulgation of its constitution, the Golden Bull, in 1356. Americans usually think that they invented federalism, the separation of powers and checks-and-balances. Americans even think they invented the idea of a written constitution. A quick look at the Golden Bull will show otherwise. The Empire had a multilobed legislature, extreme deference to the sovereignty of its constituent states, and a court system with ample authority to gum up the works. The Empire looked, in fact, like nothing so much as the current EU, with the difference that it could, sometimes, function as a great power.

The Western nation-state system grew out of the fragmentation of the Empire. In the 21st century, the fragments are falling back together. Even if the Convention is successful, its work will be provisional. Eventually the US, as the other half of the West, is going to have to associate with the system somehow. The American president could perhaps be ceremonial head of state. This would give the EU a measure of diplomatic and military heft it would otherwise lack. It would reassuure the smaller states that they are still states among other states and not mere provinces. It would also act as a restraint on the American executive. No one on either side of the Atlantic is likely to suggest such a thing this year, however.

Certainly not me.


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