Rights and Risks in the European Union

by on May 2nd, 2004

The greatest fundamental difference between the constitution of the EU and the constitution of the USA is the notion of rights. Whereas the US Constitution addresses rights as natural states of freedom, which the government cannot strip from individuals, the EU Constitution regards rights as government services that must be granted to all citizens. The difference between these two points of view is staggering.

The United States defines the rights of its citizens as natural freedoms that all humans are born with, freedoms that must be protected from the government. This often-overlooked principle can be summed up fairly simply: The government does grant rights. People are born with them. The secondary assumption is that governments do have a hand in rights, namely in taking them away, and so the people must be protected from undue governmental interference.

Misunderstanding of the principle is fairly ubiquitous. This is best illustrated by the widely held belief that the US Bill of Rights grants citizens fundamental freedoms. In the eyes of the founding fathers, such an interpretation would be a heresy. The Bill of Rights doesn’t grant anything, it simply protects the pre-existing rights of individuals from government. An excellent example of this notion can be found in the first amendment to the US constitution.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Notice how the amendment does not say that the Congress or the Government –gives- the people the right to free speech, press, and peaceful assembly. Rather, it says that Congress cannot take the right away. The right is already assumed to exist, independent of any government power.

This fundamental perspective on human rights and liberties is what continues to make the US Constitution one of the most important and radically powerful documents in the history of the world. The US constitution is a document of protection, a doctrine preventing undue government control over the pre-existing rights of individuals. The idea that the Government can bestow rights, and by extension also remove them, is completely alien to the US Constitution, making it one of the most dramatic and dynamic pieces of democratic literature in history.

The Constitution of the European Union takes the opposite perspective. The EU Constitution regards rights as privileges that the government bestows upon its citizens, and which government must, by extension, control access to. Going a step further, the language of the EU constitution guarantees citizens a host of services and protections that, ironically, will require the EU to restrict individual liberties, exercise economic market control, and put the EU in the dangerous position of being legally responsible for what will soon become the West’s largest welfare state. All of this takes place during a time when most of Europe is struggling with double-digit unemployment, sapping the coffers of Europe to a dangerous level.

Unlike the United States, should the EU ever be in a position where it simply lacks the funds to provide certain government services, the EU will not be able to make bold spending cuts without serious political ramifications. Spending cuts may even require amending the EU constitution should the economic situation become direr.

This is the political price the EU will deal with for constructing a labyrinthine and often vague constitution. The US constitution in contrast addresses only a few key points, allowing member states to deal with minutia as long as a handful of federal precepts are met. The EU pays lip service to the sovereignty of individual states but has already set up a situation in which, to meet its constitutional precepts, member nations will have to sign away more and more control to the fledgling centralized European government.

The long-term viability of the EU is still in question, but it is certain the EU’s constitution will challenge the stability of the mega-state. It is unclear if the EU will be able to sustain itself in economic downturns, or whether the citizens of the EU will remain comfortable with the conflicting goals of guaranteeing liberty and requiring a massive welfare state under the control of a centralized government.

Damon Dimmick