Twenty years on from Maastricht

German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Finance Minister Theo Waigel sign the Treaty on European Union in Maastricht

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.

Students visit the European Parliament in Strasbourg

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.

Students visit the First World War trenches at Sanctuary Wood

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,
beyond religion,
beyond skin

Students at the German war cemetery at Vladslo, Belgium

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.

On a visit to the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Tyne Cot, near Ypres

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.

Attending the nightly Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ypres

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.

Students visit the European Parliament in Brussels

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, PostwarTony 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.

See also

5 thoughts on “Twenty years on from Maastricht

  1. Good stuff, Gerry. It was a very bleak day, yesterday, for we, the boomers, and our dreams of a united Europe. Alas, a form of Gresham’s Law applies: small minds bring down big ideas. While fear, not dreams, now cloud every horizon

    “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.”

  2. agreed, Gerry, with your timely piece.Too many things too easily forgotten.
    The constant inability of the right in Britain, since the Beaverbrook Daily Express of the 1950s, to free itself from pre Suez shackles of British Empire isolationism, combined with the less than enthusiastic support for the EU project from the left has given us a Euro sceptic population.We also have a spineless “leadership” on the Left who are terrified of seeming to defend the EU.
    The traditional anti EU campaigns usually embrace the Tory/UKIP right, the Marxist/Bennite left & BNP. Both left and right anti-EU groups are claiming “we told you so”. Although I’m not surprised that the “right” have more influence and publicity than the “left”.
    This morning I decided to ignore the awful Clegg on Andrew Mahr’s prog -knowing that his “discomfort” with Camerons veto would be well repeated all day, instead I listened to R4 and pro EU critique from (I think] Jonathon Powell and the usual from Niall Ferguson. I did find myself agreeing with Ferguson’s view that the big mistake for the EU governments was to insist that no governments should get into debt, none should be in the red, etc. All of our economies have been in debt since..well…economies began. Perhaps a default by all concerned might only be a bad thing for the bankers?

  3. Bill – it was the historian Timothy Garton-Ash who provided the pro-European perspective on Broadcasting House (his was a key academic voice that I’d make sure my students heard, back in the day). He said: ‘Once upon a time there *was* no European Union – instead there was a great European disunion, with Europeans fighting and dying in their tens of millions on the Normandy beaches, at Stalingrad, in Holocaust and Gulag. And from those fields soaked in blood rose the cry ‘Never Again’. With that deep motivating spirit, a democratic Germany rejoining the European family, East Europeans yearning to breathe free, we built something extraordinary – a voluntary union of free countries, stretching from Finland to Greece, Portugal to Estonia. But the biggest recent step of unification put the cart before the horse – a monetary union before the political union needed to sustain it. As Europeans now scramble to put the horse back in front of the cart while bond market vultures circle overhead, we find that those great motivating forces of the European project over the decades since 1945 are either absent or much weakened.What will Europe look like in 20 years time? The answer is: it will depend on us. If the peoples of Europe want it to survive, it will. If they don’t, it won’t. Heaven knows – the EU has many, many faults but this is, to adapt Churchill’s famous remark about democracy, the worst possible Europe, apart from all the other Europes that have been tried from time to time. Never before have most European countries been liberal democracies joined in a single political and economic community.[…] All this is under threat if the ill-designed eurozone brings down the European house.Isn’t this something worth saving? I think it is – how about you?’

    In the post I meant to say something about the view of those on the left who saw the Single Market as simply a device to make European capitalism a more profitable enterprise. I voted No in the 1972 referendum, but later, like the majority of those on the British left (the continental left, having experienced the rigours of fascism and Nazism, could never understood our delicacies) I came to see that the European project, especially in the Thatcher era, offered more benefits than negatives: social, workplace and environmental regulation and protection, redistribution of resources to regions (like Merseyside) ‘lagging behind’ (in the jargon), education and training opportunities. It still does – but in the 1990s and after the balance shifted too far towards free market thinking. But I agree with Garton-Ash: it is worth saving.

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