In theory, building a tall structure has no upper limit. Given a sufficiently large base resting on bedrock, the right materials and deep pockets, a skyscraper could literally reach the upper atmosphere and even beyond. This architectural fact was discovered millennia ago, but only came into its own in the period of Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals. Once the problem of supporting the outer walls was solved with ‘flying buttresses’ and other techniques, medieval builders were soon engaged a fierce and expensive competition to outdo one another. At Chartres, Reims, Cologne, Paris and countless other cities, civic leaders vied with one another in an expensive and lengthy contest with their neighbours to build taller and more elaborate cathedrals to demonstrate their faith, wealth, ingenuity and pride.
This enterprise, sometimes called the ‘Gothic imperative’ by historians, came to a sudden and dramatic halt in the French city of Beauvais. Visit today, and one learns that this rather strange structure was begun in 1225 by Bishop Milo of Nanteuil and financed by his family. Even as it is, the Cathedral of Saint Peter of Beauvais is regarded as a typical example of French Gothic – minus one important feature: its tower. Intended to be the tallest structure in the world at the time, the architects and craftsmen pushed this defining feature of the medieval Gothic church to an extraordinary 153 meters, the height of a modern fifty story skyscraper. Then, in 1573, having tested the technology of the time to its limits, the tower collapsed, and with it Beauvais’ hope of becoming the proud centre of dominance in stone and mortar of human endeavour. Cathedral construction in Europe continued, but with far less hubris and arrogance. Architects and their patrons across the continent were duly chastised, and literally “went back to the drawing boards.” The Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais remains unfinished to this day, a testament to the folly of over ambitious goals.
Now, many of Europe’s leaders seem obsessed with another ‘imperative’ – the construction of a federal state, what many refer to as the ‘United States of Europe’. Their rationale is persuasive. More than two dozen modern nations, joined in creating a ‘supernation’ with a central government, finance system, foreign policy and trade relations with the rest of the world, perhaps even an army, and a population of more than 500 million. A truly united Europe is an attractive and appealing prospect, the logical outcome of the dream of the European Union’s idealistic founders who wanted a continent united in peace and prosperity.
Since it appears to be the model, perhaps the ‘United States of America’ itself is worthy of closer examination in terms of its own path to unity and federation. How did it come about? What is the ‘glue’ that holds it together? And crucially, is it the model Europe should follow?
“Politics follows nationality wherever politics is free.” The view of American political scientist Michael Walzer. He points out that from Plato through Marx to the near present, all political thinkers have assumed “One people equals one nation.” He adds: “The only exception to this is the United States.”
Take a typical American street in an archetypal American Midwestern town, say, Lafayette, Indiana. Roberts Street in this very ordinary community is short, less than a half mile long. Perhaps forty homes line the leafy avenue, stretching from a small local factory at one end to a school at the other. When the first grade teacher at Linwood School, Mrs Goris, (Dutch) calls the roll of her six-year-olds, the names sound strange to the English ear: “Sietsma, Hockema, Van de Graaf, Dwyer, Korschatt, Buit, Wieringa, Kellogg, Niemansverdriet, Klaiber, Grey” and on.
This is the exception Walzer means. Each of the families these children represent can trace their American identity back no more than one or two – or, at a stretch – three generations. They are of Dutch, Irish, German, Italian, Czech, Scot and English descent. Indeed, many of their grandparents would struggle with the English the children readily use each day. Somehow, these disparate peoples – mostly European migrants – left behind their European identity, much of their culture, their ancient rivalries, and ultimately their language to become something new and different: Americans.
They are the product of the largest single voluntary peacetime migration in world history, and it took place largely in the 19th century. Within decades of their arrival – mostly through Ellis Island in New York Harbour – Chicago had more Poles than Warsaw, New Jersey more Italians than Milan, New York more Jews than Tele Viv, and Cincinnati more Germans than Cologne. Later they would be followed by wave after wave of Hispanics whose arrival would eventually make America the third largest Spanish-speaking country on Earth after only Mexico and Spain itself. The ‘melting pot’ was truly blending mankind’s many ‘flavours.’ It continues to this day – America is genuinely a ‘work in progress’, unfinished but with a clear trajectory, a ‘nation of nationalities.’ It justifies E pluribus unum, the Latin slogan that appears on everything from the Presidential seal to dollar bills, “Out of many, one.”
These immigrants were to make their new homes in a democratic republic, the first to be freely established since the ill-fated Roman endeavour two millennia before. Moreover, it was a federal republic, what the Merriam-Webster dictionary says is a nation –
formed by a compact between political units that surrender their individual sovereignty to a central authority but retain limited residuary powers of government
The founders of this new and revolutionary project, were very nervous, fearful even, of central government. Their carefully worded constitution for the thirteen original states made it clear that only those powers that the states specifically delegated were to be exercised by a central governing authority located in the new capital of Washington. This historically unique limitation on power was the defining characteristic of the new republic of the United States of America. For the next two centuries, indeed, to this day, it was to become the main focus for political turmoil and eventually, a bitter and costly civil war.
After all, the thirteen had only come together in the Philadelphia meeting in 1787, eleven years after the American Revolution that had separated all of them from the British Crown of George III. Their first years were not happy ones. As former colonies their rivalries and differing views about the future soon surfaced, and the nascent national government spent much of its time arbitrating their many disputes. Something had to be done. Their shared experience against the British, their isolation from Europe, their fear of another war with their former colonial master, their problematic relationship with the native American Indian tribes among them, and now the recognition that they needed to act in greater harmony – all provided the reasons behind the gathering in Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence itself had been signed. It was May of 1787.
These were all ‘transplanted’ Europeans. The infant Congress had asked each of the thirteen states to send representatives to the Pennsylvania. Fifty-five delegates, representing the four million citizens of the newly independent colonies, were to craft a new agreement or alter the existing one. That became the central question: “Do we fix the present government we have, set up in haste in the days and weeks after the Revolution, or do we create a new one?” Were they thirteen individual nations in need of a supra-national agency to do their bidding, or where they a country requiring a central government?
When the latter was agreed, their attention turned to a myriad of details focusing on how much power this new national institution was to have, and what was to be retained by the former colonies. Some argued that ‘States Rights’ should be enshrined in the document. Others wanted a stronger central government. The result was the Tenth Amendment, an attempt to disperse and weaken any attempt by future Presidents and Congresses to accumulate more and more power to themselves. As James Madison, an advocate of a new central government, wrote:
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal Government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State Governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace negotiation, and foreign commerce; the powers reserved to the several states will extend to all the objects, which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the state.
Incorporated into the famous Bill of Rights – itself a historic departure from any system of government in the past – the Amendment comprised a mere 28 words:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
The fundamental premise of a new federal government had now been agreed.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, arguments over states’ rights arose in the context of slavery. From the 1870s to the 1930s, economic issues shaped the debate. In the 1950s racial segregation and the civil rights movement renewed the issue of state power. Were the fears of the signers of that new constitution justified? Almost certainly. Few would today recognise the structure of the government they fashioned or had in mind, one in which in Lincoln’s memorable words was to be “for the people, by the people and of the people.”
When an American President can threaten lawsuits and withdrawal of federal aid to local schools that refuse to let transgender pupils use toilets matching their gender identity; when the FBI can steadily expand its jurisdiction over a wider and wider range of crimes, all at the expense of local law enforcement agencies; when the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Congress exceeded its power to regulate interstate commerce when it extended federal minimum wage and overtime standards to state and local governments; when Presidents and Republican and Democrat lawmakers in Washington push for even more federal regulations, laws that would pre-empt state statutes, especially state laws that attempt to regulate financial corporations and other types of business – then it is clear that the 250 year old battle by state governors, state legislatures, local mayors, city and county councils to cling to their ‘reserved powers’, has lost ground, and continues to do so. Even the effort to reverse the trend by one of America’s most popular presidents, former California governor, Ronald Reagan, failed, prompting him to remark: “The most alarming words in our language are: ‘I’m from your federal government and I am here to help.’”
Americans wrestled then, and continue to this very day, with the ‘dual sovereignty’ concept behind the thinking of the framers of the country’s constitution. Remarkably, much of the heated language in the recent debate in Britain about the future course of the European Union would be recognised by those early American statesmen. Substitute ‘Brussels’ for Washington and ‘State’s Rights’ for national sovereignty, ‘federal government’ for the European Commission, and you have an uncanny yet almost identical echo of the phrases any historian of the American experience would immediately recognise. Moreover, the vote to leave by more than half of the participating British electorate gives real meaning to Professor Walzer’s observation that “Politics follows nationality wherever politics is free.” Walzer’s prescient views are contemporary and clearly have relevance today. But he comes as the latest in a long line of scholars and political philosophers who have tried to unravel the complex knot we know as ‘nationality.’ Many of them were Europeans, for whom understanding nationality essentially meant fathoming the reasons behind the most puzzling conundrum in Europe’s long history – why so many wars?
Indeed, it largely goes unremarked that Europe has been a uniquely dangerous place in modern times. The conflicts that have involved European nations over the last two centuries alone total nearly 150, from the hideous World Wars which began in Europe and then engulfed the entire planet, to countless smaller and forgotten civil confrontations and uprisings. The unmistakeable conclusion? Europeans have often resorted to violence to resolve many of their differences, behaviour that contrasts sharply with their self-image as the seat of modern civilisation and culture. Sadly, they continue into our own day.
“We were not allowed to go into this room.” Marie-Helene Von Mach is showing the BBC’s Allan Little the Belgian country house where she had a modest role in the founding of the European Union. “I was only twenty, and a typist for all of these important people.” The building is Chateau de Val Duchesse, which in the summer of 1956 was where Marie-Helene reported at eight o’clock each morning. She was sworn to secrecy about the goings-on inside this former priory, built in 1780.
The “important people” can be compared to those fifty-five American patriots who gathered in Philadelphia in the 18th century. And the Chateau was the equivalent of Independence Hall, except for one fact: only a handful of selected government officials and senior civil servants knew what was happening within the walls of Val Duchesse. Allan Little takes up the story:
This is where they wrote the Treaty of Rome. Its driving force was Paul-Henri Spaak, the Belgian foreign minister who would go on to become secretary general of Nato. Like most Europeans of his generation, Spaak had lived his entire life in the shadow of war: twice in 30 years, conflict between France and Germany had led to a global conflagration that had now left Europe in ruins. The six nations (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) that gathered at Val Duchesse that summer had something in common: they had seen democracy and individual liberty swept away by dictatorship; national sovereignty swept away by invasion, military defeat and foreign occupation. The leaders of all six had lost faith in national sovereignty; they wanted to build a new kind of political Europe.
Intent on creating a United States of Europe, Spaak and his dedicated colleagues worked almost entirely behind the walls of the Chateau. Only a handful of high-ranking politicians in the participating countries had any idea what was going on. Allan Little again:
Marie-Helene and the others had to sign contracts which banned them from talking about their work, even to their families. There was little reference to public opinion; the political elites laboured on in splendid isolation.
What Marie-Helene was typing, and re-typing, were drafts of the Treaty of Rome, Europe’s equivalent of the American Constitution. But there was no public debate, and certainly no media coverage, meaning that the European Community we know today, and that Britain has voted to leave, could be seen as an elitist, ‘top-down’ endeavour that, once agreed by the six nations, would be presented to their people as a fait accompli, suggesting a kind of intellectual arrogance that Americans find baffling. Why? As Little notes: “From the beginning they struck a tone that dogs the European project to this day: they worked largely in secret…”
In contrast, the delegates from the thirteen colonies who began their work in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787, were very well informed about the voters’ views on their assignment. When the early and soon-to-be replaced Congress resolved to set up the constitutional convention in the February of that year, the act became a major news story.
In his Selling of the Constitutional Convention, American historian John K. Alexander closely follows the news coverage the Congressional resolution provoked. More than half of the young nation’s nearly sixty newspapers quoted the entire resolution, and soon their readers and columnists took up what was to become a heated debate. Rivalries and fears were played out, and the shortcomings where one state accused another became front page news. Rhode Island, for example, was seen as a hotbed of anti-federalist intrigue. But overwhelmingly, the press supported a stronger central government, with one writer arguing that without robust federal institutions, tyranny, anarchy or worse – the complete failure of the American experiment – would result. The delegates at Philadelphia were listening.
Political legitimacy derives from openness, surely a truism in the affairs of a nation, or, in this case, a group of nations, whether American or European. In creating any supra national institution, from the United Nations to the World Bank to the International Court of Justice, there is much to overcome. Above all is nationalism, the almost unexplainable feeling of loyalty we have to the place where we were born, simply because we were born there. But it is far from that simple. Long before Paul-Henri Spaak and his colleagues began their mission, determined to unify Europe for all time, a distinguished 19th century French philosopher made it clear that neither race, religion, geography, nor even a community of interests were sufficient to create a nation.
A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things which, properly speaking, are really one and the same constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is the past, the other is the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received. Man does not improvise. The nation, like the individual, is the outcome of a long past of efforts, sacrifices, and devotions. Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate: our ancestors have made us what we are. A heroic past with great men and glory (I mean true glory) is the social capital upon which the national idea rests. These are the essential conditions of being a people: having common glories in the past and a will to continue them in the present; having made great things together and wishing to make them again. One loves in proportion to the sacrifices that one has committed and the troubles that one has suffered.
Ernest Renan, writing in 1882. From Brittany, Renan was one of France’s leading scholars and historians. In the same treatise, he prophetically added: “Nations are not eternal. They have a beginning and they will have an end. A European confederation will probably replace them.”
Indeed, now a ‘confederation’ is building, much of its foundation in place, the edifice climbs higher and higher. The architects of a united Europe seem confident of success, as confident as those medieval artisans of Beauvais. The stunted Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais remains today a reminder of what can go wrong with the best of plans. Indeed, it might be visible from the top floor of the Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels, and even from the offices of Jean-Claude Junker, the President. He’s on that floor.