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Don't blame Ireland

June 25, 2008|James M. Banner Jr. | James M. Banner Jr., a historian in Washington, is a founder of the National History Center.

Europe's almost there but still doesn't get it.

Recently, for the second time in two years, the European Union's effort to create a Europe-wide constitution went down to defeat, this time at the hands of Irish voters. What's the problem, and what's Europe to do?

Don't blame the Irish, although they're being assailed for throwing a big monkey wrench into the gears of a supposedly well-greased ratification machine. Instead, blame the mess on the EU's panjandrums, who designed a process that invited failure. They wrote a constitutional treaty, the Lisbon Treaty, that's 300 pages long and thus couldn't be easily absorbed -- by anyone bothering to read it. And they set up a ratification process that almost taunted some ornery people to try to defeat it.

When the French and Dutch refused two years ago to ratify a real constitution -- that one was more than 500 pages -- the leaders of Europe decided to try another route to approval. They did so by embodying a slightly shorter text in a treaty and sending it off to the EU's 27 member nations for acceptance. Of those countries, 26 authorize their legislatures and chief executives to approve treaties.

Not Ireland. Unlike other European nations, 18 of which have so far ratified the treaty, that country's constitution requires a popular vote on treaties. So enter democracy, popular politics and a campaign to defeat the treaty. The result: A majority of 1% of the population of the EU nations decided that the Lisbon Treaty wasn't for them. Giving too much power to faraway bureaucrats; reducing the membership of the European Commission; authorizing an appointed, not elected, president; and imperiling their nation's freedom of action on many fronts were reasons given for their "no" votes.

The question now is how Europe should proceed to gain the constitution its leaders long have sought. They want, among other things, to establish a presidency for the European Union and a bureau of foreign affairs with a single minister of foreign affairs for the continent. Their purpose? More unified European postures on the world's stage and European figures who will represent the entire continent, not its individual nations. The United States supports these prospective developments.

But the challenge the treaty's proponents now face is a tough one: How to overcome two successive defeats.

Here's where American experience -- not often looked to by Europe -- comes in. One can raise serious questions about the workability of U.S. constitutional government. But one thing is beyond dispute: the genius of the Constitution's framers in figuring out a way to set the nation's newly constituted government in motion even without the unanimous agreement of all 13 original states.

The men who in 1787 wrote and sent to the states the Constitution -- a short, comprehensible one in comparison with the European treaty -- provided that their new constitutional regime would take effect once nine of the 13 states had ratified it. They figured that the acts of the new government, once in motion, would more or less force any laggard states to join up. They were right.

When nine states had ratified it in 1788, the framers' requirement was met. Legally, the Constitution was in effect. But Virginia and New York, large and powerful jurisdictions, were not among those nine states. Quickly, however, pressure built on them to sign on. As a result, even if narrowly, members of Virginia's ratifying convention voted their state's acceptance. New York then ratified too, but only because some members of its ratifying convention gave up their opposition out of fear that the Union would commence life without New York's participation.

That left North Carolina and Rhode Island -- the Irelands of their day -- to be stuck outside the constitutional system. Sure enough, those two states soon joined up. Unanimity was gained -- if not all at once.

Is this not the way out for Europe? Surely its leaders could agree that a European constitution -- whether a formal constitutional document or treaty -- would become effective if, say, 75% of the members ratified the document. Then the outliers -- countries such as Ireland -- would remain free to opt in or out. There's every reason to believe that they'd eventually join.

After two failures in a row, Europe needs a new approach. Of course, it could simply abandon trying to win a new constitution's acceptance. But it could also try the U.S. framers' method. And it might try cutting the document's length, mindful that a constitution is a frame, not a furnished house.

These may not be the only options left for Europe, but they're worth trying. They worked once. They're likely to work again.

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