What we can learn from the oldest constitution in Europe

The Constitution of May 3, 1791, of the Polish Crown and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania could serve as an inspiration for debate about the future of the European Union.

Guest comments and contributions from external authors do not have to coincide with the editors ’opinion.

Exactly 230 years ago, on May 3, 1791, a government decree established the political system of the Royal Republic of the Polish Crown and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It is considered the first written constitution in Europe (a few months before the French constitution) and the second oldest in the world after the Constitution of the United States. It embodies an important part of Polish and Lithuanian national consciousness as well as the many peoples of the Rzeczpospolita. This constitution is seen as evidence of the attainment of the zenith of the political and legal development of the First Republic of Poland, which is a true state union between two countries. For this reason, May 3 has been declared the most important national holiday in Poland, and a memorial day is also celebrated in Lithuania.

The 230th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution and the formation of the Alliance of States between the Two Peoples, which is being celebrated this year, is a good opportunity to recall the achievements and mission of this document. Due to the partition of Poland and thus its disappearance on the map of Europe in the nineteenth century, not only historians and lawyers, but also the international public paid scant attention to this constitution. Nevertheless, it has lived in the hearts of our peoples as an enduring symbol of freedom, independence, and democratic and republican aspirations.

Based on the thought of enlightenment

The first modern European constitution was based on the idea of ​​the Enlightenment. This should not only rehabilitate the country, but also modernize and strengthen its political system for the future. Unlike the Austrian, Prussian and Russian states, the goal was not to establish an absolute monarchy, but to introduce a new concept that would restrict the rights of the monarch and strengthen the powers of the House of Representatives, which is made up of the nobility.

In addition, a practical solution was presented at the administrative level through the creation of a statutory protection authority and governmental committees – similar to modern ministries. The separation of powers was based on the concept of Montesquieu and was consistently introduced by statutes and decrees within a few months from mid-1791 to mid-1792 throughout the entire Rzeczpospolita. It should be especially noted that during this time it was also possible to delineate the interrelationships between Polish and Lithuanian institutions within the framework of the newly designed constitutional order. This agreement was unanimously approved by the House of Representatives on October 20, 1791 and was added to the common legal basis in the form of what is called “mutual guarantee for both countries”. This event, which was extremely important for both parts of the Polish-Lithuanian monarchy, took into account the efforts of both peoples to preserve the common state based on the union.

The framers of the May 3 constitution – King Stanisوافaw August Pontovsky, Ignacy Potocki, Hugo Cottage and Stanislav Machovsky – did not intend to restrict republican freedom to the Republic of Rzeczpospolita. Instead, their goal was to modernize, expand, and secure it. Its main success was to find a compromise that was accepted by the House of Representatives and the nobility. They were relying mainly on enlightenment principles. In doing so, they were also inspired by tried and tested solutions that other free nations such as the USA or the United Kingdom of Great Britain had developed for themselves.

Aggressive expansions

The republics of the two countries, both Polish and Lithuanian, had good prospects of becoming a functional modern kingdom of Central Europe and of helping to determine the fate of the continent. They were denied this opportunity by the aggressive expansion policy of their absolute neighbors Austria, Prussia and Russia. In mid-1792, Russian and Prussian forces invaded Poland and completed the Second Partition of Poland. Finally, in 1795, the country was completely divided between the three division powers. In addition to regional imperial intentions, their goal was to suppress the democratic and liberal trends that were manifested in the May 3 constitution.

From the perspective of nearly two and a half centuries, one has to take into account the importance of this legal document for Poland, Lithuania and Europe, from a historical and contemporary point of view. There is a current occasion for that, as the Conference on the Future of Europe kicks off on May 9. This pioneering achievement of Polish and Lithuanian politics, which history has almost forgotten, can inspire reflection. Because the most important messages are the feeling of freedom and the idea of ​​solidarity – values ​​that are held in high esteem by Poles, Lithuanians and other peoples in our part of Europe. It is precisely these pillars that characterize the weight and eternity of the May 3 constitution. It demonstrates the potential to build a better future together and can rightly be described as an inspiration to all of Europe.

The authors

Jolanta Róża Kozłowska He is the Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to Austria.

Donatas Kušlys He is the ambassador of the Republic of Lithuania to Austria.

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