234 Inspired by the culture of Europe

On 1 June 2005, the people of the Netherlands are being asked to vote Yes or No in a referendum on the proposed constitution of the European Union. The document claims that it is inspired by the culture of Europe, but the tone and quality of the text belies this. Schwartz sends the Framers back to the drawing board with a copy of the Constitution of the United States as a model for a new draft.

“We the People of Europe, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the European Union.” What a pleasure it would be to be able to vote Yes to a constitution whose preamble began with a sentence as noble as that of the Constitution of the United States (1787). Instead, the document on which we are being asked to vote on June 1st begins with a sentence of 941 words that spills over the preamble, which ends with a colon, into Article I. The text is a formalistic listing of names and functions – the 25 heads of state are listed TWICE – and a mishmash of provisos, justifications and explanations. It attempts rather haplessly to give a place to ideals of humanity, community, solidarity, government and legality; to rights based on universal values, European traditions, the constitutional state and national pride; to political and administrative correctness and other excellent causes, which tumble over each other.

Worthy sentiments, worthless writing. But who, you will ask, says we should judge this piece of legalese in literary terms? Well, the constitution itself does. The first of the values to which the preamble appeals is European culture. Those 25 heads of state, we read, are “DRAWING INSPIRATION from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe…” Surely one of the most valuable of these traditions – to culture, religion and humanism alike – is good writing. To lay claim to those ideals in language that betrays them robs the constitution of the sincerity it badly needs.

Looking past this self-defeating inconsistency in search of the paragraph in which the Union pays concrete recognition to its first source of inspiration, I found it with some difficulty, in a non-committal section of the constitution entitled “AREAS WHERE THE UNION MAY TAKE SUPPORTING, COORDINATING OR COMPLEMENTARY ACTION.” Article III-280 deals with culture. It is a curious piece of work, tottering precariously between “respecting … national and regional diversity,” bringing the [undefined] common cultural heritage to the fore,” while expressing aversion to any “any harmonisation of the laws and regulations of the Member States.”

As a two-time loser in the lottery for European funding, I could not read the impossibly broad aims of this section without recalling that the present annual contribution per head of the European population to culture is the grand total of 7 cents. (32 million euros divided by the 450 million of us.) Respect, indeed.

When a few days ago I asked the Dutch representative to the Constitutional Convention, Hans van Mierlo, about the cultural paragraph, he showed surprise that there was one. If he ever knew about it, he had since forgotten. So much for bringing to the fore.

Applauding as I do a more perfect Union and caring as I do about the cultural traditions of Europe, I’m afraid I see no way of giving my vote to this half-baked constitution. If the Union takes seriously its own ideals, which I share, a defeat will lead to a new version, better thought out, better written and with more esteem for the culture that is the basis of it all.


¬© Gary Schwartz 2005. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dabgblad, 21 May 2005.

26 October 2019: The Dutch and later the French voted against the constitution. I am sorry to say that the defeat did not, as I confidently predicted, lead to a better-written revision. Europe just muddled through without a constitution, and I would not know what difference it would have made had it been adopted fourteen years ago.

Discussion on the European constitution has finally broken out in the Netherlands. The document is a hash of existing conventions and treaties, with some new administrative rules and a bit of streamlining, covered with a semi-liberal sauce. The defense of the constitution by the Dutch government is full of false starts, red herrings, half-truths, appeals to gut feeling and strawman counter-arguments. Now that public opinion is turning against the constitution, the government has begun whining that the opposition is marred by false starts, red herrings, half-truths, appeals to gut feeling and strawman counter-arguments. They’re both right. Democracy in action, I suppose, but still distasteful. It hurts me to vote against the constitution. I admire the European ideal; I realize that the position of the Netherlands in the Union will be affected by a No; and that adopting the constitution would marginally improve the democratic quality of the European Union. But a marginal improvement is not what we need. What we need, as the Union is moving beyond its economic function to a political one, is a shake-up of the entire concept, with more real democracy.

I have not been able to find the official English text of the Constitution (which is actually a treaty) on Internet. It does not seem to be present on the website of the European Union. Something called The CIDEL project gives a lot of information, but I have no idea what the status is of this material. The Dutch government offers a well-made website devoted to the document (http://www.grondweteuropa.nl/), but even there you cannot scroll through it from start to finish.

On the news today, it was announced that our Christian Democrat Minister of Culture, Education and Science, Maria van der Hoeven, is going to organize a departmental hearing in the fall on Creationism versus Evolution. What is this country coming to?

I am very pleased to report that the board of CODART has appointed an excellent new director to succeed me on July 1st. She is Dr. Gerdien Verschoor, former cultural attaché of the Netherlands embassy in Warsaw and curator at Museum de Fundatie in Heino and Zwolle. See http://www.codart.nl/news/72/.

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