Europe Vs. US: Toward More (Im)Perfect Unions?
Macron’s victory really is a positive signal for the European Union’s future — especially viewed in context against the American union.
- Macron’s victory is a massive decision against righ-wing populism.
- The current governments in Poland and Hungary are probably outside of the democratic frame of reference.
- The EU has grown in membership and in contrast to the US has adjusted governance to new circumstances.
- Macron’s victory could serve as an incentive to approach the European project with new vigor.
In reading the commentaries by many pundits, one might get the impression that the French electorate just dealt a severe blow to the European Union. Instead, they are trying their best to make light of the passionately pro-European Emmanuel Macron becoming President of France.
These pundits warn that this is not the time for a “victory lap.” They remind us that the European Union is still deeply unpopular in many countries, with their peoples bemoaning the loss of nation-state sovereignty. And, they complain, the EU still does not know what type of union it really wants to be.
There is some truth to all of that. But what is stunning is that it completely ignores the positive signal-setting that derives from the outcome of the French elections.
True, this is not a time for complacency, but this is surely a time for hope. There is, after all, a difference between mindless triumphalism and renewed optimism.
The US vs. Europe perspective
What do the numbers behind Macron’s win really tell us? Many observers note that voter participation in the runoff was extremely low by French standards. Some 33.4% of eligible voters did not vote for either candidate (24.7% of voters abstained, 8.7% of voters handed in a blank ballot).
In the United States, such voter participation of 66.6% would be celebrated as a victory for democracy as it would be the highest since the elections of 1900!
While the overall vote tally shows that Macron won two-thirds of the votes cast for one of the two candidates, even in counting the blank ballots, he still won a very comfortable 58% compared to Le Pen’s 30%.
While the electoral system in the United States is not majority-based and even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote last November (yet lost the U.S. presidency), she only received 48.2% of the vote compared to Trump’s 46.1%.
Finally, Emmanuel Macron won 105 of 107 of France’s so-called Departments. In comparison, Hillary Clinton won only 205 congressional districts, compared to 230 where Donald Trump had the majority.
Preacher doesn’t practice
However we look at these numbers and however divided France might be, Macron’s victory is a massive decision against right-wing populism. Meanwhile, the United States – which has long pointed to Europe’s shortcomings — is deeply divided, with a strong trend favoring a closed society.
That is not to say that Europeans may now sit on their hands, simply enjoying Macron’s victory.
But the preamble of the U.S. Constitution should serve as a reminder to the people of Europe as they develop a new basis for their community of peoples.
In this preamble, the Founding Fathers of the United States spoke of the pursuit of “a more perfect union” leaving no doubt that such union is an aspiration and never quite perfect.
Poland and Hungary offbase, but U.S. too!
It is true that the current governments in Poland and Hungary are probably outside of the democratic frame of reference woven by the core of the European Union.
But nearly 230 years after adoption of the U.S. Constitution, the basic understandings of freedom and democracy in states such as Alabama and New York might just be as far apart from each other as those in Hungary and Germany.
African-Americans still disadvantaged
In fact, the United States had to fight a Civil War to abolish slavery. Even that bloody event did not end discrimination.
Preventing African-Americans from exercising their right to vote continued predominantly in the country’s Southern states. This voter suppression was so egregious that it required an additional constitutional amendment, the 24th (1964), and a federal law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to make sure that all Americans were treated equally at the voting booth.
Section 5 of that law provided that covered jurisdictions needed to get pre-clearance from the federal government before implementing any changes to their election laws.
Distrust was so deep that this provision affected nine states in their entirety (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) until a deeply divided Supreme Court decided by a vote of 5-4 in 2013 that the formula that determined the need for such federal pre-clearance was unconstitutional.
Within hours of the Court’s decision, legislators in Texas and Mississippi announced that they would propose voter ID laws that – in practice – had the sole purpose of suppressing the votes of minorities. Some of these laws have since been tested and rejected in the courts, but the struggle continues.
US: A second-class democracy
It is hard to imagine a more fundamental conflict in a nation than a deep disagreement over the right to vote. So yes, the current governments in Poland and Hungary are testing the boundaries of the European Union’s system of values, but the union is young, maturing and – while ambitious – not designed to be a nation state like the United States.
As for the age-old question of sovereignty versus union and the unhappiness by some Europeans with the loss of nation-state accountability, a look across the Atlantic – once again – serves as a memorable lesson.
During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, where the country’s founders drafted the framework of a single country made up of the 13 British colonies on the American mainland, the question of “states’ rights” was a central point of contention.
How much power should the federal government have and how much power should the 13 states retain. The result of these deliberations was a complicated and – in today’s world – convoluted and outmoded compromise.
Debate surrounding states’ rights
The question of states’ rights was not resolved by adopting the Articles of the Constitution. History would show that this adoption was only the beginning of an endless debate and matter of ongoing political division.
In modern American history, Republicans were proponents of states’ rights. Naturally conservative, they felt that federal powers were largely too liberal at the executive, legislative or judicial level.
From abortion to school prayers, Republicans argued that the overpowering liberal mindset of the federal branches violated the rights of the very conservative constituencies of states they represented. Hence, they fought to usurp federal power wherever possible.
This was all turned on its head on November 8, 2016. The victory of Donald Trump and Republican majorities in the House and Senate meant that for the first time, the most conservative forces of the Republican Party would be in charge of the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of U.S. government.
Democrats, on the other hand, who had once touted and promoted federal power because it tilted towards the more urban and liberal elements in U.S. society, quickly changed tactics.
A work in progress
Understanding the awesome power of the federal government, liberal states such as New York and California stood up to pronounce that they would fight the extremist policies of an ultra-right federal U.S. government.
Large cities declared themselves sanctuaries, instructing their police forces not to cooperate with federal immigration law enforcement officers in their efforts to round up and deport illegal immigrants.
This ongoing conflict in the United States, nearly 230 years after adoption of the Constitution, puts things in perspective for Europeans. Their union, however defined, will never be perfect as no union is and it will always remain a work in progress.
But Europeans have shown far more adaptability to new political developments than the U.S. which operates from within the straightjacket of a political system that has remained virtually unchanged since the Constitution was officially adopted in June 1788.
EU more dynamic than US
By contrast, the evolution of the European Union has been far more dynamic. From the Treaty of Paris (1951) to the Treaties of Rome (1957) to the Treaty merging the three Communities (1965) to the adoption of the Single European Act (1986) to the Maastricht Treaty (1992) to the signing and subsequent voter rejection of a Constitution of Europe (2004 and 2005) to the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, the European Union has shown the courage to constantly reinvent itself.
Membership grew from the original six countries to 28 until the British electorate made the painful decision in 2016 to leave the EU.
Despite political disagreements over governance structure, the EU has shown flexibility. Change is constant and as the EU has grown in membership, it – in contrast to the U.S. Constitution – has constantly adjusted governance structure to these new circumstances.
Undoubtedly, the current framework is imperfect and more work is needed.
Approaching the project with new vigor
The single market, the free movement of people and labor, a common external trade policy and an imperfect, but influential political voice in international affairs have greatly benefited the People of Europe.
At the same time, the European Union as well as the effects of globalization and technological progress have also created special challenges for large swaths of the middle classes in most member states.
These challenges must be addressed, both at the national and the community level. But in keeping with the humility of the goal that the U.S. constitutional preamble set for itself, Europe should seek answers to these challenges knowing full well that they will not be perfect.
Mr. Macron’s victory by itself is not a game changer, but it could serve as an incentive to approach the European project with new vigor.
Without adopting the overbearing mentality of “American Exceptionalism,” Europeans should be proud of their exceptional accomplishments and shed all fear in making the union work better – never perfect – for everybody.