Founding Fathers

The Delaware Indians called him wegh-wu-law-mo-end, the "man who tells the truth." That quality seems to have been as rare in 18th-century American politics as it is today. Which perhaps explains how Charles Thomson, an obscure Pennsylvanian with a reputation for blunt-spokenness, came to be secretary to the Colonial assemblies that eventually produced the United States Constitution of 1787, diligently recording everything he heard and saw. Years later a fellow Founding Father suggested he write a memoir. No, Thomson replied, "I ought not. For I shall contradict all histories of the great events and shew by my account of men, motives and measures that we are wholly indebted to providence for its successful issue."

As latter-day founding fathers gather in Brussels for their grandly named Convention on the Future of Europe, we would do well to keep in mind Thomson's humility--and his skepticism about history and human nature. They come to ponder weighty questions. What is Europe? Should its guiding vision be a "superstate" that counterbalances a hyperpowerful United States, as a dwindling cadre of so-called Euro- fanatics still believe? Or should it be a more traditional club of nation-states--favored by a growing phalanx of Euroskeptics--that comes together, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the issue? All agree that Europe suffers from a "deficit" of democracy. It must become more accountable to its people, less remote and autocratic, they say. But how: Should there be direct elections of a European president, a bicameral European legislature? And how should power be shared among members, so that not every nation in the growing community has a veto over others? As in America so long ago, all this is to be debated, agreed to--and enshrined in a constitution.

No wonder Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the French uber-meister of this continental extravaganza, evokes Philadelphia 1787, with all its historical resonance. European leaders compete to outdo one another in hyperbole. Europe is at "a crossroads," they trumpet, another "defining moment." Yet is it? Two hundred and some-odd years ago, on the less civilized side of the Atlantic, the rights of man were at issue: Locke, Hume and Montesquieu, not to mention Madison and Hamilton. Where is today's grand thematic? For the past 50 years, Europe has perfected its original raison d'etre: peace and ever-growing prosperity. In the past decade alone it has taken great leaps--union at Maastricht, the euro and, soon, expansion to the east, bringing the old 15 to 25 or 28. You might think the next era would be devoted to consolidation, to doing the myriad large and small things needed to make these ambitious steps work. Instead, Europeans seem to feel they need even more of what George Bush the elder once called the "vision thing."

Pardon postmodern Thomsons for scoffing. As the grand event kicks off this week--accelerating after the elections in France (April) and Germany (September) and continuing through the end of next year--a certain skepticism must be expected. From afar, most especially in Washington, the constitutional confabulations resemble nothing so much as another round of Eurodithering--the seemingly endless tweaking of the vast Eurocracy known as "Brussels." America wrestles with Evil while Europe frets over French farmers. What better proof of the continent's irrelevance in a new and dangerous world? If Europe can be likened to a car, said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw last week, "it does still seem to spend an awful lot of time in the garage."

It doesn't help that the affair begins in farce. Even as he dons the periwig of Philadelphia, Giscard d'Estaing haggles behind the scenes over his emoluments--how much he should be paid for his 11 days a month in dour Brussels, with what perks for himself and his entourage. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will be there, acting out as is his wont, along with his political ally Gianfranco Fini--a right-winger whose party emerged from the once banned Fascist movement of Benito Mussolini. Special interests are descending like ravens. The Party of European Socialists calls for "solidarity and social justice" for all. The European Women's Lobby seeks "parity democracy" and a "gender-balanced convention," which it transparently is not. And what a Babel: 113 delegates, plus reps from the 13 would-be members of Europe, holding forth in all 11 working languages of the Union. Pity the poor Finnish-to-Portuguese translator.

Questions, questions. When it comes to rethinking Europe, hardly any matter is too small or too large to be excluded. Heather Grabbe, research director of the Centre for European Reform in London, fears the agenda will be so wide-ranging as to lose focus. The danger, she says, is that the convention will end up debating abstract points of principle, rather than the concrete problems of an enlarged Europe. The existential question in Brussels, Grabbe suggests, is not what the European Union should be, but rather "what it should do."

And perhaps never in recent history has there been so little agreement as to what precisely that might be. Across Europe, rightist parties are gaining sway, deposing the lefties of old. Will the newcomers turn the clock back on Europe and the hallowed "ever-closer union"? No. But their interests and emphasis could shift, as is already becoming apparent in the continental balance of power. Once, France and Germany called the shots in the Union, with a federal Europe the goal. Now Italy under Berlusconi cleaves to Britain, favoring a Europe that is integrated economically but not necessarily politically, and it's likely to be joined by Spain, Ireland, Denmark and the generally more nationalist aspirants from eastern Europe. Was it only last week that Poland's President Aleksander Kwasniewski spoke for a "Europe of fatherlands"? Two centuries ago in America, that motto would have read: "Don't tread on me!"

What a change. Even France, which has long styled itself the architect of European union, now finds it's just another contractor--and doesn't have that much to say about the plans, either. Its old alliance with Germany has frayed; French intellectuals increasingly lament the country's loss of centeredness, as though the nation that once was la gloire had lost its way in the swamp of a cultural and political identity crisis. Gaullist President Jacques Chirac makes law and order the main theme of his re-election campaign, treating Europe as an afterthought. His opponent, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, talks of Europe's becoming an "economic, social and cultural power." But he's strangely silent on matters of unity or a European military--a revealing diffidence, given the clear and present danger posed by September 11. As French scholar Francois Heisbourg notes, folks who are scared want the protection of nation-states, not notional constructs. So when Armageddon flashed across Europe's screens last fall, the cameras didn't turn to the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, or to the EU foreign-policy czar Javier Solana. They turned to the presidents and prime ministers. "That fact in itself," says Heisbourg, "reveals how incomplete the construction of Europe really is."

Will a constitution make Europe whole? Only if its leaders share a common vision--and the will is there. Those who look to Philadelphia for inspiration would do well to remember the unifying concept enshrined in the preamble to America's founding document: "We the People." "We the Single Currency" doesn't quite cut it, nor does "We the Fatherlands." Europeans may indeed need a more perfect union, but neither good luck nor providence will bring it. It will take inspired work on what Europe already is, not noble rhetoric about what it ought to be. Anything less would be a sham.