Why U.S. History Holds a Lesson for Europe


Dec 19, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on December 19, 2003.

The collapse of the European Union's efforts to agree on a constitution raises several issues that America struggled with more than 200 years ago.

Like Europe today, America in 1787 was a collection of independent states forced by their geography and economies into an ever-closer union. The 13 states along the eastern seaboard of the present-day U.S. were united under the Articles of Confederation in a loose union headed by a federal government so weak that it was unable to manage the economy or provide for the common security.

The U.S. Congress called a convention in 1787 to propose amendments to the U.S. Articles of Confederation to create a stronger and more effective government. This was not all that different from the task given to the European constitutional convention under the leadership of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, former French president.

The delegates in old Philadelphia went further than their charge and wrote a new constitution, tossing the Articles on to the junk heap of history. As in Brussels in December, the vital issue dividing the delegates was the distribution of voting power among the states. Small states wanted to preserve the Articles, which gave each state one vote. Larger states opposed this.

The “Great Compromise”, which created the two chambers of Congress, broke the deadlock: One house—the Senate—provides equal strength to each state. The other—the House of Representatives—is based on population.

In the Electoral College, which elects the president, each state has a vote that combines its numbers in the Senate and the House. The Great Compromise also provided a method for counting slaves, an issue that was to dog the U.S. until it was resolved by the Civil War.

Like all compromises, this one was bound to garner opposition; and ratification by the states was in serious doubt. But a group known as the federalists—led by James Madison, a future U.S. president—controlled the convention. Under Madison's leadership, the American delegates decided that the U.S. constitution would come into force after just nine of the 13 states ratified it.

A broad coalition known as the anti-federalists claimed that the nine-of-13 provision usurped the powers of the states.

Madison successfully dismissed the anti-federalists' argument, ridiculing what he called “the absurdity of subjecting the fate of 12 states to the perverseness or corruption of a 13th”. The provision had the desired effect: it forced reluctant states such as Virginia and New York to agree to ratification and it forced the laggards, North Carolina and Rhode Island, into agreement after the new constitution had gone into force without them.

The federalists were also suspicious of existing power structures in the states, which they felt would oppose consolidation of federal power. Rather than allow the legislature in each state to decide on ratification, the Philadelphia constitution called for conventions to be elected in each state to decide the issue.

In this way, the federalists sought to reach over the entrenched legislatures to the people. As Alexander Hamilton, a leading federalist, put it: “The people (are the) original fountain of all legitimate authority.” This infuriated anti-federalists such as Patrick Henry, who said: “My political curiosity leads me to ask . . . who authorised them to speak in the language of 'We the People', instead of 'We the States'?”

All these old American struggles appear to be back on the table in modern Europe. What kind of a “Great Compromise” can be fashioned so that European unity can be fostered? Does the new constitution need a method of ratification that forces states to face the “in or out” choice that the nine-of-13 provision did? Do the growing calls for popular referendums in most European states provide an alternative that could sidestep the seemingly impossible disputes among the powers- that-be in the EU's intergovernmental conference process?

The ratification of the U.S. constitution in the 18th century set in motion a process of transferring power from the individual states to the federal government. The next few years will tell whether Europe stands on the brink of a similar process in the 21st century. This is, of course, what Eurosceptics fear most.

James Thomson is president and chief executive officer of the RAND Corporation of the U.S. and chairman of the board of RAND Europe.

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