European Affairs

The wisdom of the old French proverb "A toute chose malheur est bon" (in anything bad, there is something good) should lead us to take advantage of the difficult circumstances we have just experienced to meditate on two useful subjects: the quality of constitutional systems in Europe and the United States; and the need to re-examine the limits of democracy in the most advanced democracies themselves. Rather than approaching these questions by criticizing the existing systems, it would perhaps be more productive to reflect on what can be improved.

The indisputable quality of the American Constitution, drafted in 1787 by the Founding Fathers under the influence of the European philosophers of the time, and the technical difficulty of changing anything in this bible, should not prevent American leaders from reflecting on how to ensure that a political system which requires $3 billion for a presidential election, and relies on local electoral technicalities which lead to misinterpretation of many voters' intentions - if not fraud - does not evolve into a caricature of itself.

On the European side, the EU Member States had agreed before the Nice Summit not to call their efforts to agree on institutional reform "constitutional." In doing so, their stated goal was to allow for at least a minimum of progress in reforming a decision-making process in Brussels that threatened to become totally inoperable after the EU is enlarged to include up to 13 new members, mostly in Central and Eastern Europe.

But it is difficult to deny that what Europe needs is a new common constitutional system. Despite some improvements to the present system in Nice, it is simply unacceptable, for instance, to postpone necessary decisions on the number of Commissioners, and how many each country should ultimately have, until the Commission can no longer function.

For those who spend their lives at the interface between European and American affairs, it has been ironic to see such events happening simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic. America's great democracy seemed to be reduced to holes in Palm Beach ballots, scrutinized by local electoral officials in a difficult attempt to deduce voters' intentions at the time they punched, or tried to punch, the holes by machine.

Under a similar crossfire of spotlights and TV cameras, the work of the European heads of government gathered in Nice seemed also to have been reduced to the scale of a view through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. The picture was one of the smallest states - some with a population smaller than that of a large capital city - fighting to the death to maintain their voting rights against pressure from Germany, Britain and France, with populations of 76 million, 60 million and 56 million respectively.

Nevertheless, politicians from both the large and the small states agreed not to jeopardize their own national prerogatives by establishing a more significant direct democratic system at the European level. Meanwhile, the euro kept suffering, and Wall Street was in trouble. Just to show that, when they have their say with their wallets, the peoples of the free world, on both sides of the Ocean, understand what is - or rather is not - going on. And know what to expect.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number I in the Winter of 2001.