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21st Century Politics: The New Europe

James Skinner examines the entrails of the birth pains of a constitution. Can it ever work for such an expanded range of cultures and religions?

All citizens of the European Union with voting rights will have received advice from their respective governments, regardless of their residence on the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament in June 2004. Two other major events are due to take place in the Union next year, the expansion of the existing fifteen states by a further ten, and the drafting and approval of a new European Constitution. Quite a mouthful to swallow for us poor mortals who live in this magnificent part of the world. It’s all part of the democratic Monopoly™ game. Parliamentary elections are nothing new and are rather boring. The expansion itself is too complex to digest by the ordinary people. Most of it will be political infighting as to who gets what from the big funding pot. What is frightening though and will have a tremendous, albeit not yet recognisable impact for the future, is the introduction of a new European Constitution.

A lot has already been discussed and published in the media regarding the draft of the document. Some journalists have forecasted its doom even before the ink has dried. Others have envisaged a long drawn out battle between the superpowers, read between the lines, Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. So far the bickering as demonstrated at the latest meeting in Naples has been confined to the voting rights of individual states. We’re back to power sharing and again who has more or less control over European funding. Yet there is one sector of the draft that suddenly raised its ugly head over a luncheon break of the ‘Magnificent fifteen’, and that was whether or not to include ‘Christian roots’ as part of the Constitution. Once again, religion is in the limelight.

What is a Constitution anyway? According to the World Fact book, the majority of countries have some sort of a platform that allows their respective ruling bodies to exercise government under the framework of established law. Other than San Marino, that boasts some form of Constitution dating back to the 17th century and the United Kingdom that during Cromwell’s time tried to separate King and Parliament, the United States of America holds the record for the longest lasting Constitution in history. And so it should as the preamble clearly says: ‘We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, 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 of the United States of America.’ It was signed on the 17th of September 1787 and has stood as a pillar of democracy ever since. I t has been used as a basis for many of today’s established documents, particularly in Christian dominated countries. Yet those pioneering pilgrims of eighteenth century America, such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, never thought about the distant future and the eventual world clash that would take place between western constitutional rights and emerging Islamic Law known as the Sharia.

Islamic Law dates back to at least the seventh century and is therefore an old and well-established form of justice amongst Muslims. It has prevailed for centuries and its rules are based on the relationship between Man and God and Man and Creation. All Muslim states conform to these laws and for years justice has been imparted as per the rule of God interpreted through the Sharia. It is when emerging countries invoke the need for human rights, freedom of expression and in particular the practice of their religious beliefs that the confrontation begins. Looking through some of the scripts of many Constitutions around the world, the first one that comes to mind to highlight this controversy is that of Nigeria based on a new format introduced as recently as May 1999. In Chapter I, Part I, section 10 it states that ‘there will be no religion as a state religion’. Yet the Northern sector of the country abides by the Sharia law applying it to the hilt including all its consequences. The recent controversial break-up of the Miss World contest, whereby certain journalists were ‘condemned to death’ under the law for publishing Islamic profanities is a point in question. Where is the freedom of expression and religion, not to mention human rights under Nigeria’s Constitution?

Let’s move on to the Middle East, starting with Afghanistan. Once the Taliban were finally beaten and expelled, the interim occupying forces, that is the USA, went about organising a local government and preparing the draft of a Constitution for the Afghan people to be governed through free elections and democratic rule. Because the country is fundamentally Muslim this particular Constitution also abides by Islamic law. Does it include the prohibition of adultery under the penalty of death? Or does it allow its citizens the freedom of religious choice? What about equal women’s rights; a good one to tackle in any Constitution that will have to bow to the Sharia. And now we move on to Iraq. Apart from the present chaos, the USA is hell bent in going down the same path as Afghanistan that entails the formation of a local government and the establishment of a Constitution. Hold on; let’s freeze the frame for a second. Now that we’re talking about a ‘mixed’ Constitution, didn’t the Western World view Turkey as an example of Middle Eastern and European convivial existence based on their 1982 Constitution? Why then did a bunch of Islamic fundamentalists blast away at the Jews and the Brits in four recent suicide bombings?
But let’s return to the European Constitution. Before wrapping up the possible implications of the Sharia, there are also a series of real political problems that need addressing. Each European country has its own Constitution and each one is different. Spain, for example is going through a rather bad time because the Basque country and now the Catalans are seeking a dramatic change to the Spanish Magna Charta more or less, paving the way for complete regional autonomy. This could even mean the break up of Spain into several sovereign states. Would Belgium follow suit? Why couldn’t the United Kingdom divide up into different countries with Scotland taking the lead? So how would the European Constitution have to be drafted to accommodate all these possible future scenarios when the whole idea of Europe is to unite and not to divide?

Summing it all up, the European Union is faced with individual state rebellions and underlying Islamic militancy within the population, on the very eve of establishing its most important foundation. Laying down the rules of harmony based on a sound constitution that promotes human rights and above all, individual freedom within an established legal system is what our leaders should be advocating. Yet the coexistence of both nationalistic fervour and religious differences is still a difficult challenge for the gurus of Brussels to sort out. We are still a long way off!
© James Skinner. 2003

James Skinner is retired communications specialist, journalist and British Consul in Spain

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James Skinner has a dream Part One

NUCLEAR WAR in the 21st Century- Part Two
James Skinner has a dream about war & peace.

War and Peace Pt Three
James Skinner in the final part of his trilogy

Old Spain in a New Bottle Part One of this series
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World Migration - Part Two
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Previously by James:
Gadgets. From Pacman to Gameboy

Defining Modern Nationalism

Are Our Oceans Dying? Where's the Fish?


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