Thank you, Vaclav Klaus. You may have forever altered the future of the free world this week.
Vaclav who? If you are not a European citizen, you may not be aware of Vaclav’s role in the global community, or of his action this past Tuesday that transformed it. Nevertheless, he may well have transformed the future of global democracy.
Vaclav Klaus is the President of the Czech Republic in central Europe. No, not Vaclav Havel, the prize winning playwright who helped topple the Soviet Union and served as the Czech Republic’s founding President. this Vaclav is a self-professed skeptic of the European Union (EU), someone who has repeatedly criticized the entity as an infringement on national sovereignty.
And yet, last week, he signed the treaty that allowed the EU to take its next great step towards the creation of a United States of Europe. And with that step, the European model of democracy took a great step forward as a viable alternative to American style democracy.
America: The Original Model
American readers, of course, may be unaware that there are any alternatives to American democracy at all. The American Constitution is the oldest such document on earth, born in the strife of an eighteenth century revolt for independence and forged through subsequent centuries of external war and domestic conflict. It establishes the governing structure of the most economically and politically powerful nation of earth, managing to do so in less than 8,000 words.
In its original form, America’s Constitution called for white male citizens to directly elect delegates to a federal House of Representatives, and to elect the Electors who would choose the President in an Electoral College. It called called for state governments to appoint delegates to a federal Senate, and required the President and Senators to collaborate on making lifetime appointments to a federal Supreme Court.
America’s Constitution also included a mechanism that empowered citizens to change it in response to evolving circumstances. The ink on the document was still fresh when an initial set of ten amendments, dedicated to guaranteeing a Bill of Rights to all citizens, was passed into law. And subsequent amendments ended slavery, extended voting rights to women and African Americans, and provided for the direct election of most elected officials.
The European Union: Democracy 2.0
There is another model of democracy, though, a parliamentary style system that is rooted in the ancient British system of government. In medieval Britain, merchants and tradesmen appointed representatives to a House of Commons. But feudal land barons also appointed representatives to a House of Lords, and the royal family personally ruled over significant areas of society as well. Because there was no single Constitutional document that described how the system should work, occasional disagreements erupted into full-scale wars, such as the one that ended when Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell relieved King Charles of his head.
After the Second World War, Jean Monnet and others proposed the development of a United States of Europe to ensure that the continent’s nations would never again destroy each other. The process began slowly, with France, Italy, West Germany, and the Benelux nations joining a European Coal and Steel Community to support their industrial infrastructure. Then a broader Common Market was created with the Treaty of Rome in 1957, and a common currency was launched with the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992. The EU finally reached full maturity with Klaus’ endorsement of the Treaty of Lisbon last week.
The EU model of democracy is a much different entity than the American version, one that preserves the unique national identities of nations like France and Germany in ways that would be inconceivable to quarreling American border states like New York and New Jersey. Although there are direct elections of representatives to the European Parliament, significant power and authority remains in the hands of the unelected European Central Bank, the Council of Ministers of the member nations, a European Council of heads of state, and the national parliaments of each member state.
A Complicated Puzzle
Americans, of course, may shake their heads in puzzlement over this European model of democracy. How can the European Central Bank serve as a state institution if many members of the EU do not utilize its Euro currency? Why is it necessary to have both a Council of Ministers AND a European Council of Heads of State? And who holds the power to establish legislation when interests diverge: the national parliaments or the European Parliament?
Only time will tell whether the streamlined American model of democracy or its more complex European rival will prove more adaptable to the needs of future generations. With a single stroke of Vaclav Klaus’ pen, though, the Europeans positioned themselves to offer a viable alternative to Uncle Sam’s version.