Friday, May 27, 2005

European constitutions

As the political elite of Europe collectively scratch their heads and wonder how to inspire a disinterested electorate about the wonders of the European Constitution, it’s a good time to look back to Europe’s first ever written constitution, created in Poland on 3 May 1791.

“The public happiness of the community lies in the private happiness of individual subjects… All citizens are born equal and have equal rights".

Those words are taken from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, written in 1776. But, if he had written those lines today then his lawyers would probably receive notice that he was going to be sued for infringement of copyright.

These words were actually written by a Polish bishop two hundred years before Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

British historians like to point to Westminster as the Mother of Parliaments. But the oldest democracy in European history took root in 15th and 16th century Poland. The Polish equivalent of the English Habeas Corpus was proclaimed in 1430. All the monarch’s powers were transferred to the Polish parliament in 1505 – long before the Glorious Revolution in England, one hundred and fifty years later.

Poland elected its own kings in those days – the electorate being made up of the landed gentry. Poland at that time was a multiethnic state and the most democratic in the world – bar none.

Much of this progress was based on the philosophical work of the Bishop to Poznan in Poland, Wawrzyniec Goslicki. It was he who penned the words about equality of man that would later so inspire Thomas Jefferson.

Goslicki was the radical catholic philosopher who wrote those lines in his 1568 tract, De Optimo Senatore. When this was translated into English as The Accomplished Senator in 1588, Queen Elizabeth of England had a red haired, flaming fit and immediately had it banned.

This is not surprising. A document that proclaims, “All men are equal” would not be to her taste at all. The Common Man for her was useful for fighting wars and exploring far off countries and bringing her back things like potatoes and tobacco. But they were not equal to Her at all.

Other parts of Goslicki’s treatise got her even more outraged. For instance, he says: "Kings are created not for themselves but for the good of their subjects".

Blimey! This was radical stuff, and if Goslicki had been an Englishman then he would - if Queen Elizabeth had been in a good mood that day - have found himself doing a bout of solitary in the Tower of London. If she had been in a bad mood then his head would have been propped up on a spike outside the Tower.

But Queen Elizabeth was not alone in her dislike of this sort of talk about equality and the duties of the monarch to her subjects. Eventually, the Polish bishop, like Galileo, was excommunicated by Rome for his ‘sins’.

Meanwhile, back in Poland, the forces that were driving these democratic reforms were unstoppable. By the late 1700s, the growing middle classes and the peasantry wanted some of the action, too. This process culminated in the drawing up of what would become the Polish May 3rd Constitution of 1791.

Jan Matejko’s famous painting tells the story of this revolutionary event. Supporters of the constitution, particularly the emerging middle classes who stood to gain from the document as it officially recognized their rights to owning property, crowded the chamber of the parliament and the public galleries. And much of the sprit of bishop Goslicki’s words, about equality and all that stuff, would be enshrined in the Constitution.

When it was formerly passed thorough parliament it became – after the American Constitution of 1787 - only the second ever to be proclaimed in the world, and the first in Europe.

Unfortunately, this was the swan song of multiethnic, Polish democracy. A few years later, the three competing Imperial powers of Russia, Prussia and Austria carved up the state and Poland stopped existing for over one hundred years.

Poland has had three constitutions since then, the last being ratified in 1997.

The primary function of a constitution is to lay out the limits of power the state has over the individual. But the European Union constitution doesn’t appear to do that at all. It’s about 250 pages long and is full of ‘eurospeak’, with words which normal people don’t understand at all, and most care about even less.

And that’s the problem for the Euro political elites today. France will be holds its referendum about the document this weekend, and if opinion polls are to be believed, then the French are all set to vote a resounding ‘Non, merci’!

This would be a disaster for the French elite. The document is the product of the work of that old French aristocrat and former President himself, Valerie Giscard d'Estaing. The constitution, and the old EU in general, is very much a French project. Since Poland and the others joined last year, however, much of western Europe feels that it is loosing control of that project. Political leaders can’t seem to make people in those countries care about that.

You get the feeling that if the French do vote against the constitution, as seems likely, then there will be a lot of British and Polish politicians who will be mightily relieved.

The purpose of the constitutional treaty was - apart from necessary rule changes now the EU has grown from 15 to 25 members - to connect a free-floating political elite with the voters. It has tried to manufacture a consensus of values in Europe from the ivory towers in Brussels. The Ideas about Europe – its expansion eastwards and further political integration between its members has not come from the societies and people that make the Union, but from the elite itself. Consequently, the project of making the people of the EU feel more involved in the project has been doomed to failure from the start.

If the EU wants to inspire the people of the EU then it has to come up with an inspiring constitution that has roots in Europe, and not just in Brussels. The Polish Constitution of the 3 May 1791 was such a document, expressing as it did the aspirations of sections of Polish society.

Even the French voter might have even said: “Oui, monsieur” to that one!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for representing for Poland, and for expanding my knowledge of how freedom loving, complex, advanced (yet still somewhat backward) Poland is. I think your blog is going to be in heavy rotation on my favorites.

Your blog fulfills a need for Central Europe news (in English) that The Economist and BBC do not fill.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the partition of Poland was the direct result of fear that the Polish ideas would spread to other countries.

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