CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION
Bill of Right in Action
Summer 1993 (9:3 & 4)
Updated July 2000
The Legislative Branch
The European Community:
Cooperating Nations or Unified Superstate?
"If we lapse back into nation-first policies, Europe will become a third-rate power."
–Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission
While some Americans criticize our political system, many Europeans look to the United States as a model. A long history of efforts to unite Europe have resulted in the recent creation of the European Union (EU).
Throughout its history, Europe has often been torn apart by war. Twice in this century, warfare has devastated nearly every European country. Even today, Europe has not achieved absolute peace.
After the Second World War, Jean Monnet, a French businessman and diplomat, proposed that future wars could be avoided if European nations had closer economic ties. In 1951, France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Italy formed the European Coal and Steel Community. For the first time in peacetime history, a group of European nations agreed to cooperate in producing and marketing vital goods. In the words of Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister at the time, these economic ties would "make war not merely unthinkable but materially impossible."
Monnet, Schuman, and others dreamed that some day Europe might become politically unified like the United States. But they knew that the foundation for any political union had to begin with economic cooperation. So in 1957, the six members of the Coal and Steel Community proposed a Common Market where all trade barriers would eventually be abolished.
The Common Market treaty created the seeds for a unified European government. It empowered a Court of Justice to settle disputes among Common Market members. Although the treaty established a European Parliament, it was little more than a forum for debate. Actual legislative power remained in the hands of a council made up of each nation's foreign ministers. The Council of Ministers appointed a 17-member European Commission. This commission could propose and enforce laws applicable to all six member nations.
After 1957, six more European nations joined the Common Market: the United Kingdom, Denmark, Ireland, Greece, Portugal, and Spain. Together, the 12 Common Market countries formed the European Community (EC). Most European nations, including the former communist countries, either applied for EC membership or indicated an interest in doing so.
The Maastricht Treaty
In December 1991, the government leaders of all 12 European Community nations met in the Dutch town of Maastricht (MAHS-trick) to negotiate a new treaty of economic and political union.
Economically, their goal was to eliminate all trade barriers within the EC. Europeans, for example, would be able to buy an automobile anywhere within the EC and take it home without having to pay added taxes. In addition, the treaty envisioned a central bank and a single currency —the European Currency Unit or ECU. Farm products throughout the EC would continue to be protected by minimum prices and tariffs on cheaper foreign imports (something that the United States has opposed).
But it was the political side of the Maastricht Treaty that sparked the most controversy. It called for a "European Union" that came close to the ideal of a unified federal state like the United States. First, the treaty would establish a common European citizenship. Citizens from any EC country could travel, live, work, vote, and even run for political office anywhere within the European Community. Drivers would hold Euro drivers' licenses. College students could easily transfer credits between universities throughout the EC. A common police force would operate freely across old national borders. Taxation, however, would remain under the control of individual nations.
The European community would attempt to speak with one voice in international affairs. The treaty provided for a united European military force. Foreign policy decisions, however, would have to win the unanimous support of all 12 EC nations.
Under the Maastricht Treaty, the EC lawmaking system would change significantly. The European Commission would continue to propose legislation. And the council of 12 foreign ministers would retain the power to vote on proposed laws. But in response to charges that this system wouldn't represent ordinary people, provisions were added to the treaty to strengthen the European Parliament.
Directly elected by the citizens of EC nations, the European Parliament consists of 518 members. They represent political parties, such as Socialists and Christian Democrats, instead of member nations. Under the existing system, Parliament has few powers. The Maastricht Treaty would expand Parliament's legislative role, making EC lawmaking more responsive to ordinary people.
The most enthusiastic supporters of the Maastricht Treaty were France's President Francois Mitterrand and Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Going back centuries, France and Germany had fought many wars against one another. The willingness of these two historic foes to cooperate, persuaded other EC leaders at Maastricht to follow along.
The Danish Surprise
Early in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty was submitted to the 12 EC nations for ratification. It required unanimous approval. Die Zeit, a German newspaper, reminded its readers of Europe's bloody past. "Only the European union," the newspaper editorialized, "offers everyone protection against a repetition of history." Supporters hoped the treaty would give Europe the power to become a major player in the world order long dominated by the United States and Japan.
In June 1992, the masterminds of Maastricht were astonished when Danish voters rejected the treaty in a national referendum. One EC regulation banned the sale of a variety of Danish apple because of its small size. The voters in Denmark rebelled.
The Danish vote unleashed a torrent of criticism against the Maastricht Treaty. Some Europeans feared that the treaty would create "Eurocrats" —a new legion of bureaucrats who would regulate everything in sight. Others voiced unhappiness over the lack of democracy in the EC's political system. Citing the conflict in Yugoslavia, still others questioned whether Europe was ready to defend itself militarily, independent of NATO. British voices warned of a loss of national identity. They contended that the European Union would destroy national diversity.
EC leaders had to face a sobering realization: Europe might not be ready to unify. Nevertheless, they decided to press on for treaty ratification, hoping that the Danes would reconsider their rejection.
On September 20, 1992, French voters barely approved the Maastricht Treaty by a 51 percent majority. President Mitterrand said this was a "wise choice in favor of youth and renewal." But the closeness of the vote reflected growing disillusionment with the treaty's ambitious plans.
In November, Prime Minister John Major narrowly won a vote of confidence in the British Parliament over whether to proceed with ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. Major announced that he would not ask Parliament for final approval of the treaty unless Danish voters reversed their decision in a second referendum scheduled for the spring of 1993. Denmark endorsed the treaty, and the British followed suit with an endorsement by Parliament. After a long and arduous process, the Maastricht Treaty was ratified in late 1993.
The European Union (EU)
The Maastricht Treaty created the European Union (EU), which currently claims 15 European nations as members. Founded in November 1993, the EU states its chief goal as the enhancement of political, economic, and social cooperation. In January 1999, the EU announced that 11 member states had agreed to introduce the unit of common European currency — the euro — into circulation. In 1998, the Amsterdam Treaty marked yet another step towards full unification with its promise to allow EU citizens to work together more effectively in such areas as equality between men and women and immigration. The Amsterdam Treaty also granted increased the powers of the European Parliament.
Despite its success, the European Union remains essentially a group of independent nations that have agreed to cooperate, especially in the area of trade. The original vision of a United States of Europe, a single state with no internal borders, is yet to be realized.
For Discussion and Writing
- Why did leaders like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman propose closer economic ties among the nations of Europe in the early 1950s?
- Why do you think that the Maastricht Treaty faced such severe opposition?
For Further Information
European Union: The home page of the European Union.
Euroknow: A concise encyclopedia of terms related to the European Union and its history.
A C T I V I T Y
A North American Congress
Nearly every nation in the world today has some sort of legislative system that makes the laws for its own people. The Maastricht Treaty, however, points Europe in the direction of a legislative authority whose laws would apply to 400 million people living in all 12 nations of the European Community. Some political scientists argue that this could become a model for other regional lawmaking arrangements.
Assume that sometime in the future the United States, Canada, and Mexico have formed a North American Congress. The purpose of this Congress would be to pass laws beneficial to Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans alike. Form small groups to decide which legislative areas listed below should be assigned to the North American Congress and which should remain with the national legislatures of the three countries. Each group should be prepared to defend its choices before the rest of the class.
- working conditions
- minimum wage
- health care
- import tariffs
- consumer protection
- traffic and transportation
- military defense
For Further Discussion: What would be the advantages and disadvantages of having a North American Congress?