Legal experts unravel social and political origins of constitutions

20 June 2011

The latest workshop in our series on the Social and Political Foundations of Constitutions was held on 17th June at Jesus College Ship St Centre, at which a roundtable of legal experts discussed the purpose and transnational diffusion of constitutions, before turning in the afternoon to an indepth examination of the foundation of the EU Constitution.

Jeff King from Oxford University addressed a neglected aspect of constitutional theory, that of their purpose, arguing that, in liberal democracies, constitutions set out core political commitments that give expression to the core political principles of the polity, and against which it can be held to account. From this interpretation, King argued that constitutions must be egalitarian and idealist in nature, striving to incorporate all major provisions for social justice, and that this mission statement can produce positive consequences, even if the implementation of such ideals is less than comprehensive.

Mila Versteeg from Chicago University sought to tackle the paradox that, if constitutions are proud assertions of national identity and self-determination, why it is that the same constitutional principles and approaches are replicated in the constitutions of quite different countries. She explored the process of constitutional diffusion, and developed a theoretical typology of four mechanisms of diffusion to provide an insight into how and why certain constitutions and constitutional principles are reproduced across the world.

Professor Neil Walker took a comparative approach to assess how the origination of the EU Constitution differs from that of other national constitutions, finding much common ground, whilst acknowledging that the indeterminacy and controversy surrounding the EU Constitution are both problematic and mutually reinforcing.