EU treaty twenty years old, but still shaky

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The European Union has lost a lot of its lustre since the heady days of the Maastricht Treaty. Two decades later, the monetary crisis reveals deep structural faults in the agreement.

“The treaty should have created a strong economic union with joint sovereignty in budgetary and fiscal authority.” Even Laurens Jan Brinkhorst, an avid EU supporter, admits that Maastricht lacked teeth. The weakness of the document is now Europe’s Achilles heel, he says, as Brussels struggles to tackle the huge debt problems of the southern member states.

But Brinkhorst, a former EU ambassador and Dutch cabinet minister, remains optimistic. “Europe always responds late. It needs a crisis to move forward. The readiness to do that is stronger than ever.”

Five ways the EU has improved citizens' lives

  1. No more exchanging of currencies within Eurozone
  2. No more passport control within Schengen zone
  3. Bigger job market for European jobseekers and employers
  4. Easier to study in other EU countries
  5. Easier to find products from other European countries in shops

World power
On February 7, 1992, the twelve member states signed the Treaty on European Union in the Dutch city of Maastricht. Triumphantly, it was predicted the EU would soon grow into a world power.

Europe’s rise was to supposed to be based on financial strength. The treaty led to the creation of the euro. It also established the three pillars of the EU: the European Community (the European Commission, Parliament and Court of Justice), the Common Foreign and Security Policy, and the pillar of Justice and Home Affairs.

Deep divisions
“My expectations were high” says Ben Bot, former Dutch foreign minister and top-ranking diplomat in Brussels. “I thought we'd get the three branches – economic, justice and foreign affairs – under one roof. It didn’t work. There were countries that didn’t feel the time was ripe.”

Like Brinkhorst, Ben Bot is a fervent believer in the EU. But he deplores the deep divides that slow down decision-making in Europe. “Maastricht was supposed to diminish those divisions and transfer sovereignty to Brussels,” says Bot, who calls the EU a “shaky building.”

“The greatest failure since Maastricht was introducing the euro without the economic structure that guarantees the safety and security of the single currency. If you don’t have a central banker and central economic government, you get into situations like we have with Greece.”

Disillusionment
And that was just the beginning of Europe’s problems. In 2005, France and the Netherlands rejected the European Constitution in national referendums. It was a double blow from which the EU has never recovered. Fear of a European superstate intruding on national sovereignty remains strong today.

The Dutch "Nee" and French "Non" put an end to the great ambitions of a European world power. If indeed they were ever taken seriously to begin with. Ben Bot says they weren’t. “Obviously the EU didn’t have the ambition to be a world power. It only wanted to strengthen its economic output and financial presence in the market by creating a currency on a par with the dollar, a worldwide reserve currency.”

Overreach
And that is precisely where Maastricht failed, says Derk Jan Eppink, European Parliament member and former assistant to Commissioner Frits Bolkestein.

"The signing of that treaty was when Europe started overestimating itself. People thought rapid EU expansion and the euro would pull us together, but they're pulling us apart. Some say the crisis is a perfect excuse to push forward and create a debt union, because at least then we'll have a union. Maastricht is a case of imperial overreach."

But diplomat Laurens Jan Brinkhorst balks at such talk, whether it comes from "the euro-bashing Anglo-Saxons who don't understand the continent," or from his own countrymen. “I have lost count of how many times the doomsayers predicted the downfall of Europe.”

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the EU, the city of Maastricht is hosting a conference (7-8 February) where veteran Dutch and European politicians will discuss the legacy of the treaty and Europe’s future.

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