Twenty years ago today the text of the Maastricht Treaty on European Union was agreed by representatives of the twelve member states at the time. Formally signed on 7 February 1992 in the small Dutch town that gives the treaty its name, it came into force on 1 November 1993, and with it the EU came into existence for the first time. Those were heady days for supporters of European integration – the Cold War division of Europe had ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and East Germany was welcomed into the Union as part of a reunited Germany. Simultaneously, the Single Market came into being at the end of 1992.
At that time I taught European Studies on a college Access course preparing students for university entry. In those days several universities in the Liverpool area, many more across the country, had European Studies degree courses. Today there are none in the region and few left anywhere. Back then there were plenty of opportunities for students to learn a European language in higher education; today most European language courses in universities have been axed or severely cut back.
The raised profile for European Studies and for the idea that young British people should learn a foreign language reflected the optimistic ‘Europeanism’ of the period. I found young people especially responsive to the ideal of closer European integration, especially when they learned how that dream had emerged from an era of nationalism and ideological extremism that had brought Europe to ruin, death and destruction in a conflict in which 50 million soldiers and civilians had lost their lives.
Young people warmed, too, to the freedom to travel, work , live and vote anywhere in the Union afforded by the Single Market. Most were responsive to the symbols of a new European identity that came with the Union – European citizenship with a common passport, the flag, Beethoven’s stirring anthem, the single currency whose notes all featured bridges that had been built. I saw how positive attitudes towards the idea of ‘a common European home’ (Mikhail Gorbachev) would be strengthened – or emerge – from educational visits and international exchanges (this post is illustrated by photos taken on some of those ventures). It was a mood captured in Nitin Sawhney’s 1999 lyric, ‘Beyond Skin’:
My identity and my history are
defined only by myself –
beyond politics, beyond nationality,
In class we would discuss the origins of this dream – how, during and after the Second World War, people in different parts of Europe began to dream of a different kind of Europe. How many of these dreamers were from Europe’s linguistic and political borderlands that had borne the brunt of invasion and war – Robert Schuman and Helmut Kohl from Lorraine, Konrad Adenauer from the Rhineland, Alcide De Gasperi from northern Italy, Paul-Henri Spaak from bilingual Belgium. Europe’s diversity and nationalistic rivalries helped foster the impulse to unite.
In the space of twelve years after the end of the Second World War, leaders of European nations whose peoples had experienced two world wars resulting from those nationalistic rivalries, created the foundations of the European Union to which first six, and now 27 states belong. The idea of a federal Europe to overcome national enmities had gained support in the wartime resistance movements.
There will be no peace in Europe, if the states are reconstituted on the basis of national sovereignty… The countries of Europe are too small to guarantee their peoples the necessary prosperity and social development. The European states must constitute themselves into a federation…
– Jean Monnet, 1943
Then, in 1946, Winston Churchill made his famous speech in Zurich advocating a ‘United States of Europe’, and in 1948 a Congress of Europe was held at The Hague, reflecting widespread aspirations for a unified Europe.
But those idealistic aspirations didn’t get very far. It was two French statesmen – Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman – who really got the integration train rolling when they realised that nations would have to see some economic benefit if they were to sign up to ‘ever closer union’. In particular, they saw that France and Germany might put aside their long-running antagonism if there were economic incentives for cooperation.
In May 1950 Schuman proposed the creation of a common authority to regulate the coal and steel industry in West Germany and France, with membership also open to other western European countries. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was established in August 1952. In June 1955 the six members of the ECSC agreed to examine the possibilities for further economic integration. This new effort resulted in the 1957 Treaty of Rome which created the European Economic Community (EEC).
History says, ‘Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.’
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells….
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term
– Seamus Heaney, from The Cure at Troy, 1996
By the time my students were studying the process of European integration at the turn of the 21st century, the story had advanced a great deal further: they had grown up in the heady years that embraced the fall of the Berlin Wall, German reunification and the Maastricht Treaty that created the European Union. and set the timetable for introducing a single currency. On 1 January 2002, euro coins and notes went into circulation, perhaps marking the zenith of this period of optimism about the future of the ‘New Europe’ that came into being in the 1990s. Helmut Kohl, German Chancellor during those momentous years, remarked:
The policy of European unification is our continent’s greatest success story. There is no reasonable alternative to ever-closer integration among the European peoples.
And yet – even then we debated the ‘democratic deficit’ at the heart of the EU institutions, and analysed the reasons why the process of ratifying the Maastricht proved so difficult – first rejected by a Danish referendum, and then scraping through after some alterations; approved by only a tiny margin in the referendum in France called by a triumphalist Francois Mitterand who expected a sweeping victory; and squeezing through the UK parliament as John Major came under enormous pressure from the Eurosceptics in his party.
Now, twenty years later, the European Union has more than doubled its 1992 membership (from 12 member states to 27), yet support for the EU has dropped below 50% in opinion polls across the union, while average turnout in European Parliament elections has fallen from over 60% in 1979 to 43% in 2009.
And this problem isn’t going to go away: yesterday’s deal in which 26 countries signed up to conferring intrusive rights on EU institutions to enforce budgetary policy in countries that break the euro’s debt and deficit rules, plus automatic penalties for those who break the rules, has enormous significance. As The Guardian puts it this morning:
The prospect is of a joyless union of penalties, punishments, disciplines and seething resentments, with the centrist elites who run the EU increasingly under siege from anti-EU populists on the right and left everywhere in Europe.
But with voter antipathy towards the Union growing, especially in the Mediterranean states whose citizens have been bearing the brunt of measures taken to tackle the eurozone debt crisis, how easy will it be to get public approval for this deal? In Greece and Italy, there is already plenty of suspicion of the northern European elite – and anger at the ‘technocrats’ who have made a career in investment banks and the European Central Bank that have replaced democratically elected governments (anger exemplified by the magnificent Liana Kanelli, a Communist member of the Greek parliament who, rejecting the austerity measures being imposed there, suggested to Channel 4 News that voters were, in effect, being asked: ‘Do you want to die or do you want to be killed?’)
Yesterday’s deal is ferociously deflationary and will hit public spending across the continent if implemented. Countries will not be allowed to run a budget deficit of more than 0.5% of GDP in good times – or up to 3% of GDP if conditions get really tough. This is much lower than the current deficits for most of eurozone countries – and runs counter to the view of economists who lean towards the sagacity of Maynard Keynes and argue that only government initiatives can kick-start growth in these circumstances.
But it’s even worse than that: countries will be obliged to get their debt levels below 60% of GDP – annually reducing their gross debt by one 20th of the difference between the current level of national debt and the 60% limit. In other words, Europe’s citizens face a decade of austerity, rising unemployment and widening inequalities both within and between societies.
It’s a sign of these times that Avaaz, the transnational campaigning organisation whose name means ‘voice’ in several languages, was articulating this viewpoint in an online petition in the lead-up to the summit:
Panicked by big banks, Europe’s governments want to change our constitutions and the EU treaty to permanently ban vital public spending. This is nuts: in the 1930s such spending was precisely what allowed Europe and the US to escape the Great Depression. Europe needs to toughen up and regulate the banks, not tie our governments’ hands to make them happy.
The Avaaz petition read:
To European Union leaders: As citizens concerned about the impacts of the economic crisis, we call on you to calm market panic with sound economic policy, not by undermining our democratic rights to choose policies that save our jobs and services. History demonstrates that austerity cannot save our economies from recession – we must be bold and through public stimulus spending, invest in a prosperous future for Europe and the world.
I don’t know how a true democracy can be achieved that would be seen as legitimate by EU citizens in all member states. The EU is often compared with the United States in discussions about democracy and the balance between state’s rights and federal powers: if democracy and a sense of common citizenship was achievable in the United States, why not across the continent of Europe? But there are greater hurdles to be overcome in Europe (even allowing for the average American’s suspicion of central government): EU 27 is already a larger entity, population-wise, than the USA, has 24 ‘official’ languages, and deep wells of national history and cultural differences.
That’s not to say that it couldn’t be done: the young protesters of 2011 across the Arab world and in the Occupy movement seem to be able to look beyond the limits of nationality and forge links across borders using social media and new technology in imaginative ways. The problem is that for them, and many others, the elites in Brussels, Paris and Berlin are the enemy, tainted by association with the institutions of financial capitalism.
The paradox is that the European financial crisis is driving the EU leaders towards the federalism that has dared not speak its name in the last two decades. Which brings us back to the Maastricht Treaty and the creation of the eurozone. Even then there were some (admittedly a minority) who argued that the failure of the Treaty to set up a proper fiscal policy for the entire euro zone alongside a common currency meant the entire scheme was half-baked and ultimately unworkable. One of those voices was the economist Wynne Godley, who wasn’t anti-European or anti-government. His criticism of the plan for a common currency was that it didn’t provide for enough government. He wrote:
Although I support the move towards political integration in Europe, I think that the Maastricht proposals as they stand are seriously defective, and also that public discussion of them has been curiously impoverished…. The central idea of the Maastricht Treaty is that the EC countries should move towards an economic and monetary union, with a single currency managed by an independent central bank. But how is the rest of economic policy to be run? As the treaty proposes no new institutions other than a European bank, its sponsors must suppose that nothing more is needed. But this could only be correct if modern economies were self-adjusting systems that didn’t need any management at all.
It’s quite likely that the key players at the time – Mitterand, Kohl, Delors – realised that this was a bridge too far, that they wouldn’t get public backing for such a sweeping move. Perhaps, like the early architects of European integration, they took the long view – that economic pressures and self-interest would eventually force further political (and fiscal) union.
That certainly seems to be what the leaders of the EU are stumbling towards at present. The really alarming issue, though, is that they are groping for a federal solution restricted by free market, monetarist thinking and with growing ranks of Europeans on right and left opposed to them.
We seem a long way from the ideals that drove the post-war moves to create a peaceful, prosperous, ever-closer union of European nations. The hope for the future that forged the European Union was that there should be no return to the barbarism of nationalism and war on the continent. But for those born in the last 20 or 30 years, this increasingly is not a felt emotion, but just something in the history books. Six years ago, in his magisterial history of Europe since 1945, Postwar, Tony Judt warned of this:
If in years to come we are to remember why it seemed so important to build a certain sort of Europe out of the crematoria of Auschwitz, only history can help us. The new Europe, bound together by the signs and symbols of its terrible past, is a remarkable accomplishment; but it remains forever mortgaged to the past. If Europeans are to maintain this vital link – if Europe’s past is to continue to furnish Europe’s present with admonitory meaning and moral purpose – then it will have to be taught afresh with each passing generation. ‘European Union’ may be a response to history, but it can never be a substitute.