The EU Constitution: The Cart before the Horse?

“I never feel so European as when I am in a cathedral” (Robert Shuman)

While the signing of the EU Constitution in Rome in 2004 was hailed as a “new beginning” by the Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Galkenende, who at the time presided over the EU Council, there were, and there still are, ominous disturbing signs that by ignoring the “old beginnings” the cart was placed before the horse once again, as had already happened with Italian unification.

On Friday, October 29th 2004, twenty-five heads of state comprising the then European Union put their signatures to the proposed EU constitution in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome, Italy. Other signatories were three candidate states: Bulgaria, Rumania and Turkey. Two of them have since entered the Union. The Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Galkenende hailed the event as “a new beginning.”

To be sure, the “old” beginning hark back almost half a century to 1957 when the Treaty of Rome was signed in the very same August Room where the EU Constitution was signed. That treaty established a permanent alliance among six founding European nations. Those were the days of De Gaulle, De Gasperi, Eidenauer, Churchill, Shuman, Monet: the visionary founding fathers of a United Europe. One has to wonder why inexplicably, one hardly ever hears of them anymore. It’s as if they had been relegated to the generation of the old Europeans of the “old beginnings,” a sort of passè generation superseded by the generation of “new beginnings,” born after 1950.

The drafting of this important document by the Constitutional Convention, headed by Gisgard D’Estaing, began in 2001 and took two years of debates, negotiations and compromises, not to mention fierce disagreements of various kinds, the most notorious perhaps revolving around the issue of the mentioning of Christianity or whether or not the document ought to have any reference to a deity, something present in some 90% of constitutions around the world. The focus was particularly on whether or not to include a reference to Christianity, which many knowledgeable Europeans, even the atheists among them, consider not only a sine qua non for understanding the European cultural identity, but the cement needed to hold together disparate countries with disparate languages and mores.

As it happened, the acrimonies continued till the last minute before the planned signing. The secularist liberal politicians would not compromise on this issue reasoning that a strict separation of Church and State had to be honored thus insuring “laicitè,” or secularism. This, in turn, insures that each individual’s civil rights, including the right to worship and practice the religion of his/her choice, or not to practice any religion at all, are honored. Paradoxically, they were asking that people be anti-clerical to protect Christianity from itself. The specter of the Inquisition and past religious wars was duly resurrected, never mind the more glaring failed experiment of the Soviet Union, a State without religion, underpinned by a political ideology called Marxism with all the trappings of a secular ideological fundamentalism, not to speak of Nazism.

In any case, this fierce opposition to the reference to Christianity in the EU Constitution effectively derailed its planned signing on 13 December 2003. It seemed that Iris, the goddess of discord had made her appearance on Mount Olympus on such a day throwning her famed apple on the banquet table. This was an embarrassment for the presidency of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi at the EU Council of Nations. The Irish presidency which followed also failed to produce a signing.

The Dutch presidency succeeded however. It managed to settle the issue of proportional voting and insure that the signing took place in Rome, exactly forty seven years after the beginning of the new entity called the European Union. Thus the concluding ceremony of the Constitutional convention in Rome resembled its beginning in Brussels, when the mythical Europa was invoked by Gisgard D’Estaing.

Indeed, Santayana was on target when he said that people change their gods but hardly their way of worshipping them. So the event begs the question: was it a genuine success or a Pyrrhic victory of sort? Let’s analyze those still fresh events in the light of the past events of Italian unification. There is a forgotten lesson there that I believe will return to haunt the European Union; for while Marx might have been wrong on many aspects of his social philosophy, he was right in one particular aspect: those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it, even if, as Santayana also reminds us, the second time it may come about more as a farce than as a tragedy.

In 1870 Rome was snatched away from Pope Pius IX and became the capital of a united Italy. A latecomer to the community of European nations, since 1861 it had proclaimed itself a liberal constitutional monarchy under Victor Emanuel II. The architects of this new polity were Count Benso di Cavour, Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. This was indeed a new Rome with a fresh “new beginning” epitomized in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s famed novel Il Gattopardo. It was not the first Rome of the ancient Roman Empire, or the Medieval Holy Roman Empire aping it; nor the second one of the Renaissance King Popes who governed the whole of central Italy, the so called Papal State, but the third Rome: the capital of a new liberal secular nation intent on claiming its rightful place among the nations of Europe, colonialism and all.

Sixty short years later, the king of Italy was proclaimed Emperor of Italy, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Libya by none other than the strong man of Italy, Benito Mussolini, holding the bridles of power as a sort of omnipotent Roman consul who, to better obfuscate and mystify matters, had resurrected the Machiavellian myth of the direct genetic line of the Italian people to the Romans. Mussolini strutted about on the world’s stage calling the Mediterranean “mare nostro.” The reality is that 90% or more of the genes in present day Italians are not Roman. In present day Italians there are genes that belong to Arabs, Normans, Longobards, Visigoths, Fenicians, Greeks, French, Austrians, Spaniards, Celts, you name it and they are there. So the national anthem which proclaims that “Italy has woken up and dunned on her head the helmet of Scipio,” to finally evict the invading foreigners as Scipio had done with Hannibal, rather than a Machiavellian political reality is a caricature, a sort of “the impossible dream” of simple-minded racist nationalists and imperialists: the Petains, and the Mussolinis and the Hitlers and the Bossis and their descendants.

This was so because the foreigners now lived inside the very genes of the people who had invaded Italy after the fall of the Roman Empire. The pure Roman race as well as the pure Aryan race were chimeras pure and simple, an historical fraud perpetrated on the people; for Italians were now one of the most bastardized races of Europe, and all the better for it. But despite the bastardization, people somehow managed to live together in harmony because they could be inspired by certain ideals rooted in universal experiences such as the Roman Empire and the Catholic (the word means universal) Church. Dante’s De Monarchia reflects that reality and proposes it as an ideal. No more in 1861. This new modern nation was now bent on aping the imperialism of the other nations of Europe and donning the tight jacket of a secular centralized nationalism contemptuous of regional differences, an experience to which she was not well-accustomed.

Alessandro Manzoni, the devout Catholic and the greatest literary figure of the 19th century, had fervently hoped, with Beethoven, that Napoleon would restore those larger trans-national, cosmopolitan, European universal values, but they were both to be greatly disappointed. What was still at work, despite the proclaimed ideals of the French Revolution, was good old nationalism coupled with good old imperialism; a greater France masked as Pan Europeanism. Manzoni, however, despite his great reservations about Napoleon, saw no contradiction between being a good Catholic and being a good liberal and accepted a seat in the newly minted Italian Senate of the new nation. But he was the exception which few followed; for, to make matters worse, the Pope had retreated to the Vatican palaces as a sort of prisoner excommunicating all those who supported what he considered a usurping national secular State. So in the Pope’s eyes, the pious Manzoni was also a bad Catholic. Paradoxically, it was Mussolini who some sixty years later, while conquering Ethiopia a la Caesar, ignoring the protests of a feckless League of Nations, came to an accommodation with the Church by making the Vatican an independent State. The anti-clericalism of many liberal Italians was not diminished however and persists even today. It is an ancient grudge apparent in Rome more than other Italian cities and partly explains the strength of the Communist party in Italy.

By 1930, with the establishment of Vatican City, one could have said “all is well that ends well” as far as relations between Church and State were concerned. The Italian State was legitimized in the eyes of the Church and Italians could once again be patriotic and religious at the same time. But the demarcation between the secular and the sacred were still blurry. The Italian Constitution continued to declare Italy a Catholic country till recently when that proclamation was abrogated. Religion was taught once a week in public schools. Moreover, the proclamation of freedom of religion would have to wait for the Vatican II Council thirty some years later.

Indeed, there was a snake in this heavenly garden called the New Liberal Italy. It was hinted at by the Prince of Salina in the above mentioned novel when he tells his nephew Tancredi, who has been fighting with General Garibaldi for Italy’s political unification: “We need to change everything so that it all remains the same.” What did the prince mean by that enigmatic statement? Simply that what would happen in Sicily and most of Southern Italy, as far as ordinary people were concerned, is that one King (Ferdinand II of the Bourbon) would be substituted with another (Victor Emmanuel II of the Savoy), and things would return to normal. As it happened, things worsened. Rather than bringing unity and harmony and some kind of social justice to Southern Italy, Italian unification exacerbated the socio-political plight of Southern Italy; the industrial North was privileged at the expense of the agricultural South, giving rise to banditry for a while, so that by the turn of the 20th century millions of Southern Italians were forced to emigrate to the Americas or to Australia.

It is not an accident that 90% of Italian-Americans have grandparents who emigrated from Southern Italy. It was the very political architect of Italian unification who put it best with his famous dictum: “Now that we have made Italy, we need to make the Italians,” which is to say, the cart had misguidedly been put before the horse. Italy had been designed and built, and now the people were asked to simply accept the design of a few elitist politicians who thought that they knew better than them. So much for liberalism and democracy. Most of the one thousand patriots, the so called Red Shirts, who liberated Sicily in 1859 were university students, intellectuals and professionals, the elites of their society; this was hardly what one might call a populist movement. The people were merely asked to vote on the annexation or on the Constitution imposed on them.

So the Prince of Salinas was correct in his cynical statement: we must change everything so that nothing will change. As it happened, what was constructed after the unification was a “little bourgeoisie Italy” composed of merchants bent on accumulating wealth, blissfully neglectful of the universal ideals of both the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church, of Humanism and the Renaissance, not to speak of cultural patrimony, values and cultural identity. They felt little allegiance toward the new Northern King (who did not visit Southern Italy till 1900 prompting the famous Neapolitan song “Come back to Sorrento” a thinly veiled allusion to his neglect of the South). And so the unity of Commerce and a Central Italian Bank, without the consent of the governed, did not hold water for very long, and the experiment with democracy ended abruptly sixty short years after unification with the advent of Fascism and the strongman Mussolini. After the Second World War Italy was proclaimed a Republic and became one of the original founders of the European Union.

What are the insights to be derived from this brief and schematic overview of the history of Italian unification—insights which may prove useful to the present day architect of European unification? The first insight could be this: a cultural identity of disparate people with disparate mores and even disparate languages (which reflect their culture and therefore are to be jealously preserved) cannot be imposed from the top down by elitist leaders, philosopher-kings with esoteric ideas. It has to come from the bottom up, democratically. Before drafting a Constitution one needs to listen carefully to the people and determine which are the universal common values that can function as a sort of cultural cement of their political union. Then one needs to obtain their consent. Not to do so and proceed with the formation of a united Europe without determining what does it mean to be a European is to put the cart before the horse.

Shuman and his generation were very aware of the necessity of a common cultural patrimony; that the cement for a unified Europe needs to be cultural, not racial, not nationalistic even if it be that of a hyper-nation. It needs to recognize cultural heritages such democracy, science, Greco-Roman civilization, Germanic concepts of freedom, Christianity (which when authentic is always universal and trans-cultural), the synthesis of Greco-Roman civilization and Christianity which is Christian Humanism and the Renaissance. A Central Bank and the promise of prosperity, or Machiavellian concepts of Realpolitik, or universal soccer games on Sunday simply will not do. Even a common language could not prevent a civil war in the US. That civil war proves that it is dangerous to put ideals in a Constitution which are not meant to be honored. The people will not stand for it forever, for as Lincoln put it: one can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but one cannot fool all the people all the time.

Were one to glance at the very first article of the EU Constitution one would read these words: Inspired by the will of its citizens and the European States, to build a common future, this Constitution establishes the European Union... So the second insight to be derived from the mistakes of Italian unification is this: that unless those first words of the EU Constitution are really meant and honored in the future, then that common future will be built on sand and one is perpetrating a great fraud on one’s people.

One notices in that first article that the will of its citizens is declared the original inspiration; the will of the people takes precedence, as it ought in any democracy worthy of its name, over the will of its elitist aristocratic leaders, and the will of its member States. Assuming that the people have already been listened to, the member States need to let people ratify the polity that they have created in their name. A Constitution is not a treaty among States but a social compact among the people. Those people have a past as well as a future and that past needs to be known and respected before forging a viable future. A car without a rear-view mirror may eventually end up in a ravine. The French, the Dutch and the Irish, voted down the Constitution in a referendum.

To switch metaphor again: to make Europe first and the Europeans later, is to put the cart before the horse. That cart and its horse may too end up in a ravine. The twenty-five head of states present in Rome pledged to ratify the Constitution within two years; eleven of the twenty five pledged a referendum among their people, which is all well and good, but there are ominous signs that those may be empty promises. There is talk now of bypassing referendums and leave the ratification to the individual states’ congresses. Even more ominously the very word Constitution has been dropped and the old one Treaty has been resurrected. The racist and fascistic Italian Lega for one seems to be balking at the idea of a referendum. Silvio Berlusconi, the then PM now back in power went on record saying that “We shall commit ourselves to ensuring that Italy ratifies the new treaty without delay.” What is ominous in those words is that Berlusconi refers to the Constitution as “a treaty among States.”

But a Constitution is more than a legally binding treaty to insure prosperity, greater commerce and movement of goods among nations. It is also a document that ought to inspire the people to create a greater more meaningful union aiming not at goods but at the Good, the Beautiful, the True. It takes more than a bank to inspire people. Romano Prodi, the ex PM who then presided over the EU Commission, reveals that he has a better notion than a Berlusconi of what a constitution is all about when he declared that “The new Constitution goes beyond existing treaties. It has an innovative content of the social rights…and new social clauses.” Indeed, to ignore the will of the people will mean that the cynical politicians will have to deal with the wrath of the people later on. The people in their rage may bring down the whole structure called European Union, once they realize that it is being constructed without their consent.

Finally, let us take a brief imaginary look at the symbolism and the semiotic signs present at the very signing of the Constitution on 29 October 2004. In the first place one ought to note the silence of the people. That is a powerful sign in itself. There were neither demonstrations, nor festivities among the people at this august event; an event overshadowed by the Borroso/Buttiglione crisis in the EU Parliament. Could it be that Iris, the goddess of discord was there, invisible perhaps, but there nonetheless to continue the mischief she initiated on December 13th 2003? There were other disturbing signs. Those who are familiar with Rome know that piazza Campidoglio was the ancient citadel, the core of Imperial Rome, the first Rome that is. There is an equestrian statue in the middle of the piazza portraying the anomaly of a philosopher-Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. But the architecture of the buildings surrounding the square belongs to the second Rome, the Renaissance Rome of the Popes. The square was in fact designed by none other than Michelangelo. The heads of states must have passed silently by that statue of Marcus Aurelius and then climbed the scalone Michelangelo in order to enter the great hall of Sala degli Orazi e Curiazi, another throw back to ancient Rome. But here too, that “sala” is more Renaissance then ancient.

Another irony: the Constitution, which makes no reference to Christianity, was actually signed under the prominent bronze statue of a Pope in full regalia and wearing his tiara. And who pray was this Pope? None other than Innocent X, the last Pope of the Catholic counter-reformation. He is the one who wrote a bull of condemnation against the treaties of Westfalia in 1648 which, after thirty years of religious wars, declared the end of the so called “Sacred Roman Empire” and authorized religious freedom in Europe. Pope John-Paul II who had declared religious freedom as part of the Church Constitution in the 20th century was not as much as consulted or even mentioned at the ceremony; as if he lived on another planet somewhere. And for obvious reasons: he is the one who had been insisting that Christianity be acknowledged in the EU Constitution as one of the pillars of Western Civilization while honoring and keeping separation of Church and State and religious freedom. He was ignored and the EU Constitution was signed in his face, so to speak, under the auspices of the goddess Europa and the goddess Iris (perhaps represented by Buttiglione, the rejected minister of Barroso’s EU Commission) and the vigilant watch of a reactionary Pope who condemned religious freedom in the 17th century. Dante must be turning in his grave in Ravenna at the sight of those strange ironies of history.

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