The UK Independent Party will send 24 MEPs to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. It will be one of the largest national delegations, larger not only than that of the Tories and of Labour, but also of many important European political parties such as the French Socialists. As the UK single largest Parliamentary group, they will amplify the view that Britain is the homeland of Eurosceptics. It is seldom remembered, however, that the first proposal for European Parliament is more than three centuries old, and is due to a great English social reformer, the Quaker William Penn.
William Penn was granted ownership by Charles II, of a vast territory south of New York in 1681. His father, Admiral William Penn, Sr., had been a valuable servant of the king, and the king celebrated his memory by baptizing those possessions Pennsylvania, ‘Penn's woods’. In the intent of William, Jr., it would be a refuge not only for the followers of his confession persecuted in Britain, but for all oppressed religious minorities in Europe. Penn had gone over there, laying the foundation for a harmonious coexistence also with the native peoples.
Yet, European politics was jeopardizing his futuristic project. The war between France and the League of Augsburg of 1689 would have required more taxes and more soldiers from the settlers. Given the pacifist beliefs of the Quakers, there was the distinct risk that conflict with the crown would flare up with unpredictable consequences.
Penn was also surprised that the Netherlands was participating in the conflict. He was a sincere admirer of the federal experiment attempted in Seven United Provinces, and watched with great hope the birth and development of the new state in the middle of Europe, which tolerated different religions and valorised commercial enterprise.
Was it possible to solve the problem at the very roots, by containing and perhaps even abolishing wars? Experience showed that an English Parliament was the most effective method of limiting the power of the sovereign and giving voice to the other powers. And so, in the middle of a conflict that would last more than a decade, Penn outlines a visionary project: to create a new European Parliament.
Penn was not the first thinker to support the cause of peace. Almost two centuries before, Erasmus of Rotterdam had listed with ardour the damage caused by the war and, conversely, the benefits that could be achieved with peace.
Penn took a major step forward being not only in favour of peace, but also searching out ways of resolving conflicts through nonviolent means. Although intertwined with bloody dynastic events, the English Parliament had frequently offered a counterweight to sovereign power. If parliamentary control had worked in Britain and promised to do so in the newborn federative system of the Netherlands, why could it not work for the whole of Europe?
So it was that in 1693 William Penn wrote the short and elegant Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe by the Establishment of a European Parliament, in which he expressed the hope that both disputes between sovereigns, and those between the rulers and their subjects, might be resolved on the basis not of force but of justice. Cedant arma togae (Let arms yield to the toga!) is written in the epigraph to the Project.
To do this it was necessary to form an assembly made up of authoritative people, that it should be convened regularly, listen to all complaints and eventually issue a verdict inspired by the principles of justice. Penn held a radical belief in dialogue as a means of mutual understanding; a "parliament", as confirmed by the etymology of the word (from “parlare”, to speak), is the institutional expression of this belief.
He insists not only on freedom of speech, but also the obligation to listen to the arguments of others in Parliament:
“every soveraignty should be present under great penalties, and that none leave the session without leave, till all be finished”.
Penn never doubted that such authority would be considered wise and understanding, so suggested that Parliament use only one language: Latin or French.
Unlike other proposals of the modern era, Penn does not entrust to the ruling dynasties the task of settling disputes. He does not propose to strengthen the traditional diplomatic activity in the course of several centuries conducting summits and conclaves in which kings, generals and ambassadors treated secretly.
For him, it is necessary that the people called upon to decide on any given dispute act independently and not as representatives of a state. Hence the proposal to appoint a number of members for each country corresponds to their respective political and economic importance. The deputies were to be elected on the basis of "yearly value" of the territories, providing to larger and more powerful ones a corresponding amount of MPs.
Penn goes even further, and imagines a hypothetical Parliament with 90 members, of which 12 are from the Empire of Germany, 10 from France and Spain, respectively, 8 from Italy, 6 from England, and so on. When it comes to the smaller states, Penn even thinks it possible to form common constituencies, jointly appointing a deputy. To scroll through the allocation of seats, we see that Penn anticipates one of the characteristics of today's European Parliament, ensuring to smaller states a number of deputies in greater proportion, conscious of the fact that small powers, because small, are generally more inclined to the peaceful settlement of disputes.
What guarantees that individual MPs will vote according to their own sense of fairness rather than the interests of the country they come from? Penn suggests two gimmicks. The first is how to vote:
“the question for a vote should be by [secret] ballot, after the prudent and commendable method of the Venetians. Which in a great degree, prevents the ill effects of corruption”.
The second is to require a qualified majority, which would make it more difficult to act in a manner contrary to justice.
Although Members will be selected for countries, Penn does not think that they should act in defence of their country. Secret ballot allows the MPs of the same country to vote in opposite ways.
He suggests dividing the members of parliament into groups of 10, so that each group could contribute a common view to the plenary debates. Given the distribution of seats across countries, each group would have been composed by MEPs of different nations. Perhaps Penn was already imagining European Parliamentary political groups brought together on the grounds of affinities among the national members. He even suggested that each of the groups should elect a President (today at the European Parliament these are called Chairpersons). The President had the competence of deciding which member of his political group should talk on individual issues and also preparing the minutes of the debates.
What powers would be enjoyed by this Parliament? What guarantee is there that the sovereign would comply with its resolutions? This is still the most important problem that has resisted advance in today's international organizations. How can an institution with no powers of its own, no matter how authoritative, see that its decisions are respected? Penn argues that,
“if any of the soveraignties that constitute these imperial states, shall refuse to submit their claim or pretensions to them, all the other soveraignties, united as one strength, shall compel the submission and performance of the sentence, with damages to the suffering party”.
Power founded ultimately on consent and the authority of Parliament itself.
Penn’s project is not limited to Christian Europe, but aims to be as inclusive as possible:
" if the Turks and Muscovites are taken in, as seems but fit and just, they will make ten a piece more."
His Europe is thus not a Christian but a political space, to the extent that the powers at the edge of the continent, such as Russia and the Ottoman Empire, could obtain a number of MPs equal to the principal kingdoms of Europe, France and Spain.
It took nearly three centuries for the vision of Penn to materialize, and in June 1979 the first European Parliament elected directly by the citizens was implemented. That Parliament had only nine member states, and all from western Europe. Some progress has been made if the European Parliament is elected today by citizens of 28 countries. It is certainly a pity that more than half of all European citizens decided not to vote, in spite of the fact that the Parliament is now increasing its competences. And for sure, William Penn would have regretted the fact that in his own country nearly two thirds of his fellow citizens have turned their back on his dream.
A map of Europe in the 1690's
The distribution of seats in the William Penn proposal
“Empire of Germany to send Twelve; France, Ten; Spain, Ten; Italy, which comes to France, Eight; England, Six; Portugal, Three; Sweedland, Four; Denmark, Three; Poland, Four; Venice, Three; the Seven Provinces, Four; The Thirteen Cantons, and little Neighbouring Soveraignties, Two; Dukedoms of Holstein and Courland, One: And if the Turks and Muscovites are taken in, as seems but fit and just, they will make Ten a Piece more.”
Empire of Germany 12
Seven Provinces (Lower Countries) 4
The Thirteen Cantons, and little Neighbouring Soveraignties 2
Dukedoms of Holstein and Courland 1
Muscovites (Russia) 10
The pioneers of the European Parliament
1710 – The Quaker John Bellers resumes the project by William Penn before the Peace of Utrecht in the essay Some Reasons for a European State. Bellers envisages a Parliament with 100 MPs, each elected in a different European constituency. This could be done by subdividing European states into provinces and electing common deputies across border.
1814 – While the Congress of Vienna is already under way, and Napoleon exiled to Elba Island, Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon published in Paris the essay, The Reorganization of the European Community, which suggests a European Parliament elected based on a deputy for every million inhabitants. Saint-Simon notes that, after the defeat of Napoleon, France has adopted a parliamentary system modelled on that of Great Britain. Nothing, he says, prevents the two countries from joining together in a common parliament, to be potentially opened up to all Europeans turning to a representative democracy.
1941 – It must wait for the outbreak of the Second World War to see reaffirmed the idea of a European federation. In 1941, Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi, with the collaboration of Eugenio Colorni, articulated the hope for a united and federal Europe, in the Ventotene Manifesto, which takes its name from the island on which they were both confined by the fascist regime.
Get our weekly email