LONDON — At the speed of an express train, a formidable new dilemma is hurtling toward the British government: how to respond to the prospect of a written constitution that the leaders of the European Union are determined to have. Drafts are already being circulated and will be finalized in the next few months.

Britain, remember, has never had a written constitution throughout its history. Nor did England have one before the union with Scotland in 1707. The nearest thing it has had to a written constitutional document is the Magna Carta of 1215, which secured the rights of the more powerful barons against royal absolutism. Otherwise it has relied through the centuries on a process of “broadening down from precedent to precedent” — in the words of the famous Victorian poet Lord Tennyson.

Unlike Germany or Japan in 1945, the United States after its war of independence, or France and Russia after their revolutions, Britain never felt the need to make a fresh beginning and write down how individual rights should be protected against the state or how the powers of government should be delimited.

The rest of the EU members are, however, now determined to have an all-embracing new constitution covering all members and replacing the present muddled patchwork of treaties with a detailed document defining the precise powers of EU institutions, the powers retained by nation-states and a huge new list of social “rights” of every European citizen — on top of the more basic rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom from arbitrary arrest and other rights, that the British have long possessed anyway.

There are three ways that British authorities could react to the new pressure for fundamental change:

(1) They could accept that the game is up, that British parliamentary sovereignty must be formally surrendered to a higher authority (many people feel it has been partially surrendered already) and that Britain is now a substate in a new and larger political entity.

(2) They could seek to modify the constitutional texts now being completed and somehow water down the central powers of the union so as to preserve the status of the nation-state and the predominantly intergovernmental nature of the EU system.

(3) Or they could fight and reject the whole idea, offering instead a set of rules for European cooperation so far removed from the ambitions of the rest of Europe that they would be dismissed out of hand.

In practice, the British government under Prime Minister Tony Blair has chosen the middle course. It has accepted a new constitution as inevitable and has put up, semiofficially, a draft compromise version to the current European Convention on the Future of Europe, where all these issues are being discussed.

This draft seeks to reserve powers over such crucial issues as defense and foreign policy to the nation-states but broadly goes along with the reinforcement of the notion of the union as, generally speaking, a higher authority that will share responsibilities with the nation-states in some cases while holding exclusive power in other areas, such as commercial policy, fisheries conservation and monetary policy.

So the British offering is a “thus far and no further” document, an attempt to halt the slide toward the centralization of powers in Europe and defend nation-states against further encroachments. Somehow a skeptical British public has to be persuaded that this sort of compromise is the best that can be done.

There are two snags to this approach. The first is that most of it will be rejected anyway by other European leaders, especially the attempt to keep defense and foreign policy out of central hands. The overwhelming continental wish is to make the EU a military power in its own right with a single foreign policy and a single foreign-policy spokesman who can project Europe’s power on the world stage, thus checking — although this is unspoken — the perceived American impulse toward hegemony.

The second snag is that most British people will hate the whole idea of a written constitution. They will accept that the EU must have clearer club rules about who does what, but that is as far as they will go. If given the chance to vote on a new European constitutional treaty in a referendum — and the Conservative opposition is already pressing for one when the new proposals come next year — the majority would probably oppose it.

At that point, the union would be in turmoil. With one of its largest members, Britain, in effect vetoing the constitutional project and the rest determined to go ahead, the threat of a real parting of the ways would be greater than it has ever been since the original European Community was founded 45 years ago.

The British scene would also be turbulent. British opinion is already deeply divided on the matter of the euro — so much so that the decision on whether to join the currency system is certain to be put off for a while. The issue of a new constitution will add heavily to the divisions.

The one hope is that some of the nine or 10 new Central European states about to join an enlarged union will side with the British and slow down the momentum and integrating zeal of other European leaders. If Turkey is now invited to join as well, the second-biggest member after Germany might also take the British view.

But that is some way ahead. In the meantime, both British and other European politicians must prepare for a very bumpy ride as the EU finally faces up to the fundamental question of what it is and which way it wants to go.

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