Europe Already Has a Working Constitution

French and Dutch voters have solidly rejected the European constitution, also known as the 2004 Treaty of Rome. As a result, a wave of anxiety has swept European governments and media.

What’s all the fuss about? Europe has had a constitution since 1951, and the 2004 Treaty of Rome contained only marginal changes in it. So the treaty’s defeat will make little difference in European affairs, not to mention European history.

To call the defeated document a constitution was only symbolic. It offered much less than the earlier treaties that produced today’s European Union (EU). In fact, the constitution failed in part because it just didn’t matter. French and Dutch voters could slap down their governments with nothing to lose.

The European Union is a customs union with extras. It is far short of the constitutional unity of the United States, but vastly more integrated and permanent than NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, Mexico and the United States. Goods and labor move freely in the EU, and the euro currency is governed by a European board, beyond direct national control. An EU supreme court sometimes does battle with national courts.

Some obstacles to trade remain within the ostensibly united EU. After the 1990s heyday of unguarded borders, the EU’s 2004 expansion to eastern Europe has resurrected old barriers, such as western European members blocking immigration from poorer eastern European members.

The 2004 constitution started with broader ambitions. Its early proponents called their talks a constitutional convention rather than treaty negotiations, to herald a major transfer of national powers to the European Union. The 25 member countries immediately reclaimed their powers and diluted the constitution almost beyond recognition. No one bothered to stop calling it a constitution. European political elites convinced themselves that their treaty was more important than it was. Their constituents saw otherwise.

The EU already has a constitutional system grounded in four key treaties of the past half-century – more, if one counts the treaties that expanded the EU’s membership from the original six countries to 25. Those treaties have collectivized some national sovereignty, especially in economic and financial affairs. Any of those treaties deserves to be called a constitution before the 2004 treaty does.

Soon after the World War II, France and Germany established a dramatic reconciliation in the European Coal and Steel Community.Ê Founded with four other countries in 1951, it created a joint administration, parliament and supreme court, institutions that govern the EU to this day. The next few years brought Europe closest to political unity.

Threats from Stalin’s Soviet Union pushed six countries to sign up for a unified army in the 1952 European Defense Community. Five of them ratified it. The French parliament finally said no in 1954, unwilling to dissolve the French army in the same stroke as it rearmed the Germans. The project collapsed, and with it negotiations for a United States of Europe.

The same countries quickly regrouped themselves into an economic block, the European Economic Community or Common Market, whose 1957 Treaty of Rome forms the core of today’s European Union. After decades of ups and downs, the Common Market got a boost from the 1986 Single European Act, which eased the free movement of goods and labor.Ê The most recent innovations came in the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, which invented a common currency and created the European Union to coordinate foreign policy and immigration as well as economics.

By comparison, the EU’s last decade has produced little innovation and excessive expectations. The years since 1996 have resembled a constant constitutional convention, producing three bland treaties in a span of seven years. The treaties of Amsterdam (1997) and Nice (2001) and Rome (2004) pale in comparison to the greatÊ accomplishments of earlier eras.

The 2004 constitution addressed matters of mostly secondary importance. It neglected the EU’s more intractable problems – especially expensive agricultural subsidies and institutional inefficiencies and cronyism.

Though the modest treaty changes were helpful, they did not match the inflated propaganda drives that accompanied them. Every few years, politicians have cited a new treaty to make false claims of breakthroughs in European integration. The post-referendum sense of crisis is just as empty as the alleged triumphs since Amsterdam.

In short, very little was at stake in the recent French and Dutch referenda. The EU has long had a constitutional basis. The EU’s chief successes in unifying European economies date back to the 1960s and are secure. Its serious problems go largely ignored, while European politicians across the board debase their credibility in claiming importance for treaty after constitutional treaty. French and Dutch voters called their bluff.

Jeffrey Vanke is an associate professor of history at Kaplan University, which provides online education, and a writer for the History News Service.