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Constitutional Differences

December 19, 2011

In early 2002, a European Convention was formed to draw up the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (commonly called the European Constitution).  The European Union was going through two major changes during this period:

  1. Integration:  The countries were agreeing to cede more and greater powers to the EU.  The biggest symbol of this increased integration was when 11 countries ended using their own national currencies and adopted the euro in 1999.
  2. Enlargement:  The end of the Cold War allowed the European Union to rapidly expand.  In the forty years since the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, only six countries had joined what is now the EU.  Between 1995 and 2007, the EU would admit 15 European countries.

With the EU changing so rapidly, many thought that it was time to create a constitution that would prepare Europe for the 21st century.

Since the beginning of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, the European Union and its forerunners have been established or modified by treaties.  A treaty is essentially a contract between the member states, agreeing that they would cede certain powers to the European Union.  This is fundamentally different than a constitution, which is a contract between a government and its citizens.  In addition, while United States Constitution is fairly short and flexible, European treaties tend to be long and complicated in order to ensure that the signing states do not unintentionally give power to the European Union.

The European Convention did not do a very good job creating a simple constitution that was a clearly defined contract between the EU and its citizens.  For instance, the European Constitution was over 300 pages long in its final form (the original US Constitution was four pages long), and written in a way that made it hard for anyone who was not an expert on the EU to understand.  In addition, while the Constitution would make the EU more democratic, such as strengthening the elected European Parliament, the member states still jealously guarded their powers.  For example, suggestions that the EU would now have a president elected by all EU citizens were scrapped in favor or a president who would be chosen by the leaders of the member states.


Source: BBC News

In October 2004, the European Constitution was signed by the 25 member states (ten countries had joined the EU in May of that year) and the ratification process began.  The biggest down fall to the European Constitution was that like the treaties before it, all of the member states would need to ratify the Constitution according to their own national laws.  For the US Constitution, only nine of the 13 states needed to ratify it and the Constitution would become the basic law of the land.  Had the European Union been able to apply that threshold for its constitution, the European Constitution would have survived.  In the end, the Constitution was ratified by 18 of the 25 member states, including by national referendums in Spain and Luxembourg.

However, referendums in France in May 2005 and the Netherlands in June 2005 failed, bringing the ratification process to an end.  Besides its complexity, many voters were opposed to the Constitution for two reasons. The first is that they were fearful that the EU would become very powerful compared to the member states. Just like how states guard their powers in the United States, voters did not want to see, in their eyes, an unelected government in Brussels create an “United States of Europe.”  The second problem was that just like in the US, all politics are local, and many voters, especially in France, voted against the constitution because they were unhappy with the French President, Jacques Chirac.  Even had the process continued, the Constitution would have had to survive four more referendums, including in the notoriously eurosceptic United Kingdom, where voters were even more concerned about a “European superstate.”

French posters for and against the European Constitution

With the Constitution dead, European leaders began the process of writing the Reform Treaty (commonly known as the Treaty of Lisbon), which contained many of the less controversial aspects of the European Constitution in order for the EU to function with 27 or more members.  Again, all member states (now 27) had to ratify the treaty.  The Lisbon Treaty was signed in December 2007.  Ratification was not without its controversies, as Ireland was forced to hold a second referendum, after Irish voters had voted down the treaty the first time.  The treaty formally adopted on December 1, 2009.

For more information on the One State, One World series, please visit  This episode of One State One World is produced in partnership of WFIU Public Radio and the EU Center at Indiana University with support from the European Union.

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