Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Lessons from America for the EU

In the wake of the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, I hope that the reason for my quoting the following passage from James Bryce‘s seminal The American Commonwealth is obvious.

This passage outlines, in part, what I envisage when I think of what the EU should be, even though it is talking of the United States of the late 19th century – and it is furthermore an essential lesson from history for the EU as whole (from the individual citizen to the highest of the political elites) to take on board. These words may well have been written well over a century ago, and America may well have changed substantially since they were first committed to paper (Bryce’s book was first published in 1888, after all) – but they still stand.

As I say, I hope the intention of this extended quotation is obvious. If not, I will of course try to elaborate soon. But, in short, I firmly believe that – despite its flaws – the constitution (small “C”) of the United States of America is still the best model for creating a true European union (small “U”).

That old bogeyman of “the United States of Europe” is still all too often based on a misunderstanding. Working together but independent, independent but united is not an impossible dream – it has been done before. The flaw of the European project has always been in attempting to create – artificially and on too short a timescale – something that in America evolved more organically. And not just in America – almost all countries with a history of more than a couple of hundred years were once divided, from Britain and France through Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Russia, China, Japan and on and on…

The same can be true for Europe – though I do not expect to see it in my lifetime or yours. Rome wasn’t built in a day – and the Treaty of Rome was never going to build a truly united Europe in a mere half century. It is high time that those with the power to influence the course of the European project came to realise that.

Anyway, on with the passage, from Volume I, Part I, Chapter II:

Some years ago the American Protestant Episcopal Church was occupied at its triennial convention in revising its liturgy. It was thought desirable to introduce among the short sentence prayers a prayer for the whole people; and an eminent New England divine proposed the words “O Lord, bless our nation.” Accepted one afternoon on the spur of the moment, the sentence was brought up next day for reconsideration, when so many objections were raised by the laity to the word “nation,” as importing too definite a recognition of national unity, that it was dropped, and instead there were adopted the words “O Lord, bless these United States.”

To Europeans who are struck by the patriotism and demonstrative national pride of their transatlantic visitors, this fear of admitting that the American people constitute a nation seems extraordinary. But it is only the expression on its sentimental side of the most striking and pervading characteristic of the political system of the country, the existence of a double government, a double allegiance, a double patriotism. America—I call it America (leaving out of sight South America, Canada, and Mexico), in order to avoid using at this stage the term United States—America is a commonwealth of commonwealths, a republic of republics, a state which, while one, is nevertheless composed of other states even more essential to its existence than it is to theirs.

This is a point of so much consequence, and so apt to be misapprehended by Europeans, that a few sentences may be given to it.

When within a large political community smaller communities are found existing, the relation of the smaller to the larger usually appears in one or other of the two following forms. One form is that of a league, in which a number of political bodies, be they monarchies or republics, are bound together so as to constitute for certain purposes, and especially for the purpose of common defence, a single body. The members of such a composite body or league are not individual men but communities. It exists only as an aggregate of communities, and will therefore vanish so soon as the communities which compose it separate themselves from one another. Moreover it deals with and acts upon these communities only. With the individual citizen it has nothing to do, no right of taxing him, or judging him, or making laws for him, for in all these matters it is to his own community that the allegiance of the citizen is due. A familiar instance of this form is to be found in the Germanic Confederation as it existed from 1815 till 1866. The Hanseatic League in mediæval Germany, the Swiss Confederation down till the present century, are other examples.

In the second form, the smaller communities are mere subdivisions of that greater one which we call the nation. They have been created, or at any rate they exist, for administrative purposes only. Such powers as they possess are powers delegated by the nation, and can be overridden by its will. The nation acts directly by its own officers, not merely on the communities, but upon every single citizen; and the nation, because it is independent of these communities, would continue to exist were they all to disappear. Examples of such minor communities may be found in the departments of modern France and the counties of modern England. Some of the English counties were at one time, like Kent or Dorset, independent kingdoms or tribal districts; some, like Bedfordshire, were artificial divisions from the first. All are now merely local administrative areas, the powers of whose local authorities have been delegated from the national government of England. The national government does not stand by virtue of them, does not need them. They might all be abolished or turned into wholly different communities without seriously affecting its structure.

The American federal republic corresponds to neither of these two forms, but may be said to stand between them. Its central or national government is not a mere league, for it does not wholly depend on the component communities which we call the states. It is itself a commonwealth as well as a union of commonwealths, because it claims directly the obedience of every citizen, and acts immediately upon him through its courts and executive officers. Still less are the minor communities, the states, mere subdivisions of the Union, mere creatures of the national government, like the counties of England or the departments of France. They have over their citizens an authority which is their own, and not delegated by the central government. They have not been called into being by that government. They—that is, the older ones among them—existed before it. They could exist without it.

The central or national government and the state governments may be compared to a large building and a set of smaller buildings standing on the same ground, yet distinct from each other. It is a combination sometimes seen where a great church has been erected over more ancient homes of worship. First the soil is covered by a number of small shrines and chapels, built at different times and in different styles of architecture, each complete in itself. Then over them and including them all in its spacious fabric there is reared a new pile with its own loftier roof, its own walls, which may perhaps rest on and incorporate the walls of the older shrines, its own internal plan.1 The identity of the earlier buildings has however not been obliterated; and if the later and larger structure were to disappear, a little repair would enable them to keep out wind and weather, and be again what they once were, distinct and separate edifices. So the American states are now all inside the Union, and have all become subordinate to it. Yet the Union is more than an aggregate of states, and the states are more than parts of the Union. It might be destroyed, and they, adding a few further attributes of power to those they now possess, might survive as independent self-governing communities.

This is the cause of that immense complexity which startles and at first bewilders the student of American institutions, a complexity which makes American history and current American politics so difficult to the European who finds in them phenomena to which his own experience supplies no parallel. There are two loyalties, two patriotisms; and the lesser patriotism, as the incident in the Episcopal convention shows, is jealous of the greater. There are two governments, covering the same ground, commanding, with equally direct authority, the obedience of the same citizen.

The casual reader of American political intelligence in European newspapers is not struck by this phenomenon, because state politics and state affairs generally are seldom noticed in Europe. Even the traveller who visits America does not realize its importance, because the things that meet his eye are superficially similar all over the continent, and that which Europeans call the machinery of government is in America conspicuous chiefly by its absence. But a due comprehension of this double organization is the first and indispensable step to the comprehension of American institutions: as the elaborate devices whereby the two systems of government are kept from clashing are the most curious subject of study which those institutions present.

8 Comments

  1. Thank you for this, great food for thought.

  2. Pingback: About That Constitution Thing

  3. I do not think the the United States are an appropriate example for the path Europe should take. I think the EU is and should be a ‘league’ as described in the text.

  4. The United States’ battle over their own constitution in the late 18th century is what one is reminded a bit.

  5. People’s minds change slowly. Sometimes they don’t even change at all, and the slow trickle of generations does the work instead. A shame for those of us who look ahead, with courage and wisdom, but finite time.

  6. Why do you want an United Europe?

    What is wrong with individual countries making their own laws?

    You seem kind of, oh, I don’t know… Totalitarian!!!!

  7. RZ – the current US? Nope, me neither. But the early stages of the federation, when the states all had far more independence and the federal government was far weaker and less important? There’s some merit to that. Not perfect, true, but still.

    Abdul-Rahim – yep, that was more what I was trying to get at. The US is a useful model for anyone trying to create a state-like apparatus from scratch (which is pretty much what the EU’s been doing, after all, even though it’s not a state). Not necessarily the final result in the US, but the path taken in America can help highlight some of the pitfalls.

    TheSpaniard – precisely. And that’s always been my biggest problem with the more enthusiastic European federalists, with their dreams of a superstate. The timescale’s simply never been realistic. They should be looking in terms of centuries, not decades – slow, natural progression is the only way to create the kind of shared sense of identity necessary.

    Kay – erm… How so, exactly? What I’m advocating is precisely that the individual countries still make their own laws, and for minimal centralisation of power. As for why I favour a United Europe, see here.

  8. Yes, the extract from “American Commonwealth” is indeed thought provoking, particularly when viewed within the context of the EU’s current “little local difficulty”.

    I am also delighted to see Nosemonkey making repeated references to timescale as a potentially seminal factor in assuaging many of more angst ridden responses to the general concept of “ever closer” European integration.

    This process is a journey and we (Europeans) are only just at the beginning of our travels, even more than 50 years on from the first tentative steps taken by the Rome Treaty. So to those of a wholly Europhile persuasion who are perennially motivated to utter “are we there yet?” one can only reply soothingly – “patience, patience”.