I haven’t looked at Newsweek since its disgraceful number commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but at an airport the other day I spied the December 12 issue, its cover advertising a piece titled “Why We Need Europe” by Simon Schama, and I couldn’t resist.
Schama – the British-born, Cambridge-educated historian who’s lived in the U.S. since 1980 and now teaches at Columbia – proved to have written an ardent defense of the European Union.
Now, I’m not an EU fan, and I view with pleasure the fact that it now appears to have one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel. The first thing that comes to mind when I think about the EU is a sentence I’ve seen several times on a poster in the Copenhagen airport: “The European Union has created a set of rights to ensure air passengers are treated fairly.”
The first time I glimpsed that sentence, as I breezed past the poster, I stopped and went back to make sure I’d read it correctly. Yep, I had. “The European Union has created a set of rights…”
The word that threw me for a loop, of course, was created. The idea of the EU “creating” rights seemed – well, somehow wrong, and more than a little unsettling. As an American, I grew up with a different notion of rights, to wit:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….
“Unalienable rights” – innate rights, natural rights, rights that can’t be created or uncreated by any man or woman. The distinction between Thomas Jefferson’s and the EU’s way of thinking about rights may seem like a distinction without a difference, but the difference is real, and meaningful. It’s all about the way in which the people conceive of their relationship to those who govern them, and vice-versa. In the American view, governments don’t exist to create rights but to secure them.
I don’t think it’s insignificant that while the opening and closing passages of the Declaration of Independence rise to the level of poetry, the many different, and quite long, founding documents of the EU are, from beginning to end, exemplary specimens of technocratic prose. Consider, for example, the first sentence of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights: “The peoples of Europe, in creating an ever closer union among them, are resolved to share a peaceful future based on common values.”
Ouch. But not to worry! Check out this, from a news story that ran early last year but that I only became aware of the other day:
The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) wants the EU’s human rights charter recast as an 80-minute-long epic poem, accompanied by music, dance and “multi-media elements.”
“The FRA intends to launch a negotiated procedure for the creation and implementation of an artistic concept for the presentation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in Poems,” reads the agency tender issued this month.
Has an invitation to write a poem ever been written in such unpoetic prose? Alas, there actually turned out to be an EU official who actually recognized these plans as “a frivolous waste of time and money” and put the kibosh on the whole ridiculous endeavor.
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