Are we witnessing the birth of the United States of Europe?
There are uncanny similarities between the current round of wheeling and dealing and the founding of the United States of America. The Philadelphia Convention of 1787 represented America’s second try at continental union. In 1781, the 13 states had come together behind a treaty-constitution that broadly resembles present European arrangements. America’s first effort was the Articles of Confederation. Like the European Union treaties, it guaranteed each citizen’s right to move throughout the confederation and exercise all the economic privileges of home-staters. It also created a weak unicameral Congress and a judiciary for resolving inter-state disputes. But it did not grant the confederation independent powers of taxation, preventing it from guaranteeing the large war debts issued by each of the states. Because many states were in shaky financial condition, their bonds had dramatically depreciated in value, undermining the confidence of European investors in New World projects.
This was one of the problems motivating the movement “for a more perfect union.”
The Constitution of 1787 granted new powers to impose taxes and set up an analogue to the Bank of England. Once it came into effect, the federal government moved quickly to create a national bank and to pay the depreciated state debt. This ended the credit crisis and established the credibility of the infant republic in European financial markets.
But before all this could happen, the founders confronted a threshold problem: So long as they were living under the laws of the confederation, it would be impossible to get their new Constitution ratified. Like the current European Union treaties, the Articles of Confederation explicitly required unanimous consent to any revision of its terms, and it was perfectly obvious that no such consent would be forthcoming.
Rhode Island was the Britain of its time — this small trading state was unwilling to give up its sovereignty to the federal colossus. It refused to send delegates to the Philadelphia Convention, denouncing it as an illegal secessionist assembly, which is precisely what it turned out to be. After a summer of secret sessions, the Philadelphians went public with a document proclaiming that, despite the articles’ requirement of unanimous consent, the new Constitution would spring to life when only nine of the 13 states ratified.
Confronting this revolutionary change in the rules of the game, Rhode Island simply refused to play, as did North Carolina. When the first Congress met in 1789, there were 11 states in the union. The dissenting states caved under pressure — with Rhode Island entering in 1790 only when Congress began threatening to impose tariffs on its trade unless it abandoned the veto solemnly granted to it by the Articles of Confederation.
These embarrassing facts have long been forgotten, even by most serious students of the U.S. Constitution. But they put the current crisis in a new light.
The members of the new Eurozone treaty won’t bludgeon Britain into Rhode Island-style capitulation. But if British Prime Minister David Cameron stands firm, his veto will likely lead to the ultimate exclusion of his nation from the EU. The projected treaty will create a large bloc whose interests systematically diverge from other members, but which will depend on a steady flow of supportive decisions by EU institutions to maintain the Eurozone’s credibility.
Given these dynamics, Cameron is simply fooling himself if he really believes “that the EU institutions — the court, the commission — [would] work for all 27 nations” when this would compromise the euro bloc’s fundamental interests. When Britain tries to undermine ongoing support for the Eurozone, it will predictably provoke a constitutional crisis — in which the euro bloc will eject Britain to prevent its continuing acts of sabotage.
This is a time for some serious diplomacy from the Obama administration. The United States should help bridge the gap between the Continent and Britain’s divided coalition of conservatives and liberals, encouraging both sides to return to the bargaining table. If left unchecked, the current institutional dynamics will generate a United States of Continental Europe at an unacceptable price, gravely weakening the West for a very long time to come.
Bruce Ackerman is a professor of law and political science at Yale and the author of “We the People: Transformations.”