In the 17th century, Britain fought a civil war over the principle that no one – not even the King – should be above the law. This conflict resulted in the destruction of the concept of divine right in Britain and the gradual emergence of the system of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy that has formed the basis of so many constitutions ever since (yes, even some of those without monarchs involved).
But at its heart, the English Civil War laid down the concept of the rule of law. This was such a good principle that pretty much the entire world runs on it now, in one form or another.
This idea that no one should be above the law was the first principle of the emancipation of the people. Without this fundamental concept, the subsequent developments in Western ideas of liberty and democracy (primarily via the French and American Revolutions, both partially inspired by aspects of England’s Civil War rhetoric) could never have progressed – for without the rule of law, we are nothing. We survive merely upon the whim of others. All we have and all we are can be taken away in an instant, and there is nothing we can do about it.
In 21st century France, all the Roma have is being taken. Systematically. By the state. Which in turn pleads that it is merely supporting the rule of law, because “they” are in the country illegally. Even though, in most cases, the French state has no idea precisely who “they” are, because “they” don’t deserve to be tried on a case-by-case basis to determine who is and who is not in France illegally. “They” don’t deserve to be presumed innocent. “They” are just a group of undesirables. “They” don’t have names, or rights. “They” are automatically guilty, merely by being of a particular ethnicity. “They” merely need to be removed.
And yet France has the gall to complain when the European Union’s Justice Commissioner points out the similarities between their current actions towards the Roma and the ethnic persecutions of the Second World War?
In 17th century Britain and 18th century France and America, the call was for no monarch to be above the law. In the 21st century the call should be that no government – or, to be precise, no state – should be above the law.
I’ve long argued that this is one of my key reasons for favouring some form of supranational governmental structure:
I for one would welcome legal restrictions on the ability of the state to interfere in our lives through unjust laws. I would like there to be lines in the sand, over which no government can step.
The Economist’s new Charlemagne has the best overview of the background to the current crisis over France’s explusion of the Roma, while The European Citizen has the best overview of the implications of French treatment of Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding’s strongly-worded speech:
Meanwhile, France is hitting back in a manner that only further underlines the fundamental problem – the French government’s belief in the divine right of states: “That is not how you talk to a large state,” says the French Europe minister.
In the old days, no. No it wasn’t. Because if you talked to a large state in a manner they disliked, they were likely to vent their anger through force, just as the monarchs of old did before them. And look how well that turned out for France, back in 1870-71, 1914-18 and 1939-45…
This is why the English Civil War was fought. It’s why the French Revolution started. It’s why the American Revolution happened. “The rule of law” isn’t just about words written in some dusty textbook – it’s about core, fundamental principles. It always has been. It’s about the rights of man – hence Thomas Paine’s use of that phrase as the title of his most famous work. In another, Common Sense, he likewise noted “in America, the law is King”.
This is a principle that the EU has been trying to bring to Europe, a mere two centuries late.
How big does a state have to be to be above the rule of law – laws that France has signed up to, lest we forget? Laws that this very French government recently reaffirmed through the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty? Principles that every member of the UN and Council of Europe has signed up to via the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and European Convention on Human Rights (both of which exist independently of the EU, in parallel to its own rules, so important are these principles considered)?
If France can get away with breaking internationally-agreed laws designed to protect not just ethnic minorities but individuals of any race, colour or creed just because she’s large, can an even bigger country get away with breaking laws designed to protect France? A bigger country like, say, Germany? Remember how that went, France? The Nazis also won an election – does that mean they had the right to invade?
Just as one of the prime motivators of the English Civil War, French Revolution and American Revolution was to escape the oppression of kings, so one of the prime motivators for the formation of what has now become the EU was to protect Europe’s many peoples from the oppression of states, from governments who believe they have some kind of divine right to do what they like because they’ve got the largest army, but also – in the modern world – because they received more votes in an election.
Sorry, chaps – but the rule of law is not trumped by who has the most votes, just as it isn’t trumped by who has the most soldiers, or the biggest stick. Being voted into office doesn’t mean you can do what you like any more than being king means you can do what you like. We’ve progressed beyond that stage.
Or, at least, I thought we had.