E.U. Constitution

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(HOST) Could the city of Brussels, home of the European Union, someday be the cradle of a new liberty? Commentator Allen Gilbert thinks there’s a good chance.

(GILBERT) Ever wonder what it must have been like to be present at a momentous event, such as the drafting of the U.S. Constitution? Did people sense that something incredibly important was afoot?

Probably not. It’s only with the hindsight of history that many events rise to the significance that they come to deserve.

Right now, we have an opportunity to sense what our constitutional convention looked like to the rest of the world.

The European Union is drafting a constitution to govern its 455 million citizens, spread among 25 member countries. Haven’t heard the news? That’s probably how people reacted when the U.S. constitution was being drafted.

But just as the U.S. constitution turned out to have huge ramifications, I think that the E.U. constitution might be incredibly important as well. Indeed, some observers think that the real democratic energy needed to nurture dynamic societies no longer rests in the United States, but in Europe.

The European constitution commits the E.U. to “strive for peace, justice, and solidarity throughout the world.” It defines as fundamental rights not just usual protections such as freedom of religion, expression, assembly, and the right to a fair trial. The Europeans are also committed to education as a fundamental right, to work as a fundamental right, to social security as a fundamental right, to environmental and consumer protection as a fundamental right — and even to health care as a fundamental right.

I think that a good many of us Americans would dismiss the notion of consumer protection as a fundamental right, and I think that we would shake our heads at the assertion of health care as a fundamental right. But reacting so is a critical admission: We’re not there yet. We’re not ready, as a country, to tackle the difficult issues that the Europeans have identified. In the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a chance to declare education a fundamental right. Social security? President Bush wants to privatize a portion of this government program. And health care? We can’t agree on an operational concept such as a single entity that makes payments, let alone on a commitment that every citizen deserves decent medical care.

A headline in a recent Washington Post article about the new E.U. constitution stated simply, “America, Wake Up to the European Dream.” Had anyone in Europe even noticed what we were up to in 1789, my guess is the headline then might have read “Europe, Wake Up to the American Dream.” But Europeans would have been dismissive and disbelieving, no doubt. As history shows, they were in for a surprise. A nascent union of states that dreamed bigger than any country had yet dreamed became the marvel of the world in 150 years.

Only time will tell if the energy of nation-building has shifted to Europe. But meanwhile, take advantage of the chance to see the united states of Europe being born, complete with the writing of a brand new constitution.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.

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