(Apologies for the number of Wikipedia links, but this topic requires a certain amount of context.)
In September 1786, a group of delegates from five of the newly-independent American states met in the city of Annapolis, Maryland, in what was then called a ‘Meeting of Commissioners to Remedy Defects of the Federal Government’. To history, it became known as the Annapolis Convention. As the contemporary name suggests, the purpose of the meeting was to examine, discuss and propose changes to the Articles of Confederation which had formed the constitutional basis for the association among the thirteen states since their de facto independence from Great Britain in 1781.
The Articles had been created as part of the somewhat ad hoc arrangements that the thirteen British colonies had started to make as the conflict with Great Britain intensified and the need for coordination and a common front among the colonies became apparent. Under the Articles, the governing body of the colonies was the Continental Congress, in which each colony was represented, and which managed affairs of mutual interest, decided on resolutions and decisions of policy – such as the Olive Branch Petition, the Declaration of Causes and, most famously, the Declaration of Independence itself – and, once war broke out, directed the war effort and international diplomacy.
However, even during the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress was hardly a model of decisiveness or efficiency (the Continental Army under George Washington frequently had to go for months without money or supplies) and the end of the hostilities did not improve things. Under the Articles, Congress – now formally referred to as “the United States in Congress assembled” – had only limited competences, mostly over military and foreign political matters, and it lacked powers to enforce decisions even on those. Thus, even when the necessary quorum of the representatives of nine states could be gathered together, the Confederation continually found it impossible to raise the promised money from the States to service its foreign debts and meet its obligations to, in particular, the veterans of the Continental Army; its ‘Continental dollar‘ currency plunged catastrophically in value almost as soon as it was issued; and disagreements and competing economic agendas among the member states effectively made it impossible to negotiate otherwise desperately needed treaties and trade agreements with Great Britain and other European nations.
Many realised that if the defects in the system were not remedied, not only would it be harmful to the prosperity and security of the thirteen states, it could endanger the very existence of their young union and put them at the mercy of the Great Powers. As the future “Father of the Constitution” James Madison wrote of his concerns in a 1785 letter to James Monroe:
I conceive it to be of great importance that the defects of the fœderal system should be amended, not only because such amendments will make it better answer the purpose for which it was instituted, but because I apprehend danger to its very existence from a continuance of defects which expose a part if not the whole of the empire to severe distress. The suffering part, even when the minor part, can not long respect a Government which is too feeble to protect their interest; But when the suffering part come to be the major part, and they despair of seeing a protecting energy given to the General Government, from what motives is their allegiance to be any longer expected. [Letter to James Monroe, Aug. 7th, 1785]
Out of these fears over the future of the ‘American project’, as it were, the Annapolis Convention was convened and attended by, in addition to John Madison, several other prominent Founding Fathers such as Edmund Randolph, Alexander Hamilton and John Dickinson. While the Annapolis Convention did not itself make any decisions due to the low number of states represented (only five states had sent commissioners), it was significant in that it published a very significant report that identified the major shortcomings of the Articles and called for another convention to be held in Philadelphia the following year. And at this much more famous Philadelphia Convention, the Articles of Confederation were finally resigned to the dustbin of history and replaced with the Constitution that established the ‘real’ United States of America, and which still essentially forms the basis of the American federal system to this day (although with a number of amendments and 220 years’ worth of Supreme Court interpretation).
So far, so good. But why are we talking about this, again?
The European Union is in my view presently in a situation that (while there are of course numerous differences) is at least analogous to that of the United States under the Articles of Confederation. Much like the Confederation, the EU consists of a number of member states bound together in a political system that more than anything has grown organically over the years, as much in response to specific problems as according to a general vision or plan, but which has also been severely limited by a chronic reluctance on the part of those same member states who were afraid to give up too much of their sovereignty.
And like the Continental Congress in its time, the EU is now facing a situation for which the available instruments of government are simply inadequate. For the Confederation, it was the Annapolis Convention that more than anything crystallised the shortcomings of the Articles in the minds of the public and the politicians and made possible the process that ended with the final adoption of the United States Constitution three years later. And in much the same way, I think the meeting of the European Council that took place on December 8-9 this year will prove to be a similarly defining moment in the process of European integration. More than anything, the British veto highlighted the shortcomings of the present system and traditions and may have created an awareness that a significantly different system is called for if we are to find the way out of the present crisis.
In the United States, it took less than two years from the Annapolis Convention in September 1786 to the final ratification of the new Constitution in June 1788. It will take much longer in Europe. But the Union has nevertheless been launched on a new trajectory which will hopefully in the end lead to a more deeply integrated, better functioning and more prosperous Europe.