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

Poseidonians: how low they’ve fallen now

I’m no great fan of referenda (clumsy, too easily manipulated) but it’s a bit rich when leaders in a Union that claims democracy as its most sacred founding principle suggest that allowing the Greek people a say in the fate of their country is outrageous. The saddest aspect of the current deepening crisis is, as Seumas Milne suggests in his piece today in The Guardian:

…the controversy goes to the heart of Europe’s problem with democracy. It’s not just fear of the risks of delay on febrile bond markets that has caused apoplexy, but the danger that Greeks might vote the wrong way. Voting is not how things are done in the EU. And whenever a state does actually consult its people – Denmark and Ireland had a go – they are made to vote again until they get it right.  But the democratic deficit has now tipped over into a democratic crisis. To protect the banks that lent to Greece and protected its elite from unwelcome tax demands, the country is being systematically stripped of its sovereignty, as EU and IMF officials swarm over its ministries drafting budgets, setting policy deadlines, “advising” on tax and pushing through state selloffs.

For many years, in my job teaching students preparing for university, my subject was European Studies and back then, in the 1990s, after the Wall had fallen and the Maastricht Treaty had created the European Union, there was a positive, optimistic buzz around the project – something me and my students sensed particularly when we travelled to Brussels to observe the EU institutions at work.  There was talk then of the ‘democratic deficit’ – but a heady feeling that the problem would soon be overcome.  And much of the discussion around the single currency was of the benefits that would flow to the ordinary citizen – an end to having to change money (and lose money) as you crossed borders, easy cross-border shopping, that kind of thing.

But as Seumas Milne observes:

the loss of credibility created by the crisis goes beyond the eurozone to the economic ideology that has shaped the whole European Union for decades: of deregulation, privatisation and the privileging of corporate power, regardless of the modest employment rights introduced to limit social dumping.

Milne concludes that ‘none of the mainstream political parties across Europe is facing up to the failure of that model or the crisis of democracy it has sparked. … Everywhere the crisis is turning the orthodoxies of the past generation on their head – and it’s going to be a different world by the time the debris has cleared’.

Last week, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a series of essays, State Of The Union, in which writers and journalist from five member states mused on the present crisis.  The prevailing tone – whether the writer was Irish, Italian or French was that of an elegy for the prosperous and hopeful days of the 1990s.  In the final essay, the Greek novelist Ersi Sotiropoulos, mused that

Autumn this year in Greece is darker than in other years – a season of insecurity and distress. The signs of recession are everywhere: in the centre of Athens shops are closing one after another. Immigrants squat in dilapidated buildings, the trash piles up in the streets. … I walk through a collapsing city, a city paralysed by the strikes, where rubbish from the past several weeks still sits uncollected in the streets and wonder – is this place really a part of Europe?

She went on to detail the huge social consequences of the austerity programme forced on the Greek people:

Steep cuts in Greek social programmes, wide cuts across the public sector, tax increases requiring even minimum wage workers to pay much higher taxes, cutbacks in pensions, so-called reforms… Greece’s state assets were to be privatised and sold to priavte banks and investors at heavily discounted prices – the telephone company, Greece’s two main ports and the National Lottery.  These decisions were made without any kind of consensus, and what the government was being asked to achieve was close to impossible. People weren’t prepared to accept the measures and took to the streets. The protestors feel doubly betrayed – not only by successive administrations which through waste, abuse and mismanagement brought them to this point – but by their European partners who borrow at rates of 1.5 to 3% and then lend to Greece at 5 or 6%, making money from Greek misfortune.

Then Sotiropoulos raised perhaps the most significant and depressing point about these events – that the European Union is steadily becoming associated in the minds of citizens across Europe with an elite far-removed from the street and the experience of ordinary people.  Events at the Cannes Summit this afternoon reinforces a sense of increasing division and hostility in the EU, as the Merkozy axis sternly admonishes Papandreou for daring to call a referendum and threatens that, if push comes to shove, Greece can be banished from the eurozone. Ersi Sotiropoulos:

Then there is the German Question. Of all the European nations, Germany is the most strident in demanding that the Greeks be punished for their fiscal irresponsibility. Yet Germany was the world’s largest debtor after both World Wars – and in both instances owed its economic recovery to debt relief on a massive scale. The Greeks have reopened the matter of Germany’s debts to them, which date back to World War II.  …  When it occupied Greece, Germany confiscated all the gold in the State Treasury as a “war loan” to cover the costs of the occupation. Today this loan, which was never repaid, would be worth $95 billion US dollars.  The only reason Germany refuses to pay it back is that this would create a precedent – in other words, other countries might seek a similar restitution.

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.

In her Radio 4 essay, Ersi Sotiropoulos concluded:

Amidst all this turmoil, the Greeks feel abandoned, confused: their country is on the brink of disaster. In their panic, some people are stockpiling canned food and milk in their homes. Others have withdrawn all their savings from the bank. If years of corrupt governments, clientelism and favouritism prevented Greeks from developing a sense of citizenship, that doesn’t mean that all Greeks are corrupt or thieves.  Though we know that other countries on the periphery of the eurozone will soon follow in Greece’s wake, that doesn’t make us feel any more European. … The Treaty Of Rome – intended to create a peaceful Europe, independent from the U.S. and founded on mutual support and development – seems today like empty words. There is no solidarity between member states.

She had begun her talk by quoting the poem Poseidonians, written by Constantine Cavafy in 1906:

The Poseidonians forgot the Greek language
after so many centuries of mingling
with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners.
The only thing surviving from their ancestors
was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,
with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths.
And it was their habit toward the festival’s end
to tell each other about their ancient customs
and once again to speak Greek names
that only few of them still recognized.
And so their festival always had a melancholy ending
because they remembered that they too were Greeks,
they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia;
and how low they’d fallen now, what they’d become,
living and speaking like barbarians,
cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life.