Don Robinson: For nations, finding common cause always difficult

Last modified: Wednesday, August 28, 2013

ASHFIELD — When Egypt’s fragile experiment with constitutional democracy exploded into a bloodbath last week, it was a reminder of how difficult it is to establish a new order in lands torn by sectarian and class conflict.

Is South Africa safely launched, where the Constitution establishes 11 distinct languages as official? How about Ireland and Northern Ireland, or the broken pieces of the former Yugoslavia?

Many governments in modern times have sought to establish federal unions. Even when groups of people are radically different, they are drawn to this option. It is easy to see why. If we hang together, outsiders are less likely to “divide and conquer” us. Because we trade freely with one another, we can concentrate our energies and resources on what we do best.

The trick is to establish a workable division of authority between the central government and regional authorities. It is easy enough in theory to assign foreign relations, national defense and international commerce to the central government and entrust the rest to local governments. It’s a lot harder in practice.

The U.S. imagines itself the very model of constitutional stability, but we should remember our own founding. Our failure to create a viable constitutional union in 1787 led to a brutal civil war which did not end until an estimated 750,000 men had died. The framers imagined that they could have both liberty and racial bondage, but the original sin of slavery kept upsetting the applecart.

Finally John Brown’s raid and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book led people north and south to conclude that this awful difference in moral conviction and social arrangements had to be resolved, one way or the other. We had either to accept slavery or to eradicate it. We could not manage the difference by compromises.

Europe is working toward forming a union of nations. Emerging from the ashes of World War II, the nations of Europe began seriously to explore ways to live together without resort to armed combat. In the early 1950s, the so-called Inner Six nations (Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) formed the European Coal and Steel Community.

The next step was to have been a European Defence Community, intended in part as a basis for West German re-armament. It was to have been accompanied by a European Political Community, to provide democratic control over the new European army. These efforts stalled in 1954 when the French parliament refused to ratify them.

Meanwhile the drive to expand the project by including other nations made fitful progress. In 1960 French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed a proposal to add the UK, Denmark, Finland and Norway; he saw Britain’s candidacy as part of an American scheme to dominate Europe. When Georges Pompidou replaced De Gaulle, the drive to expand was renewed. Norwegian opposition prevailed in two referendums (1972 and 1994), but the other three joined. Democratic transitions in central and eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union led to further expansion. By 1990, the European Union included 28 nations.

In its early years, the European community was an elite project, an arrangement between governments. It is now committed to a more democratic governing structure. It has a bicameral legislature based in Strasbourg and Brussels, which includes a “lower house” of delegates elected every five years in their home countries and an “upper house” of members appointed by the governments of member nations. Legislation and budgets must pass both chambers. The executive is the European Commission located in Brussels. It implements and administers policy, negotiates treaties, and submits legislative proposals.

A council, consisting of the several heads of state, provides guidance. There is also a high court, which sits in Luxembourg, and a Central Bank, headquartered in Germany.

The effort to construct a union of European nations, frustrating and incomplete as it is, has produced substantial results. In 1950, a forerunner of the EU adopted a bill of human rights and established a court where citizens may bring cases if they believe that a member nation has violated fundamental human rights.

In 1985, 22 members of the EU plus four non-member states (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) agreed to abolish passport controls between their jurisdictions. In 1992, the EU established a Common Foreign and Security Policy, enabling their foreign minister to articulate a European policy toward places like Syria, Palestine and Egypt. At the turn of the century 17 states established a common currency, the euro. In 2012 the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for advancing “peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” How can such an ungainly apparatus work? Is it capable of regulating a continental economy, reigning in the debt-prone south while persuading the north to grant assistance on terms acceptable to other nations? Extremist politicians in all of the constituent nations love to fish in these troubled waters. Can the center hold?

Nations struggling to form unions often make glaring headlines. Three-quarters of a million people died in our Civil War out of a population of 31 million. That’s about 2 percent. So far in Egypt, about 900 people died in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, and about a thousand more so far in clashes between the regime’s security forces and supporters of Mohammad Morsi.

That’s too many, but only about 0.002 percent of the Egyptian population. In Syria, the bloodshed has been far worse; the UN estimates that more than 100,000 have died there.

We tend to be impatient with Europe’s floundering and appalled by turmoil in the Middle East. We cannot help wishing they could make a smoother transition to democracy.

But as we judge others, we should bear in mind our own history, remembering how long it took us to get it right — if indeed we have it right now.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at


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