Criticism is nothing new. Some people once feared further integration because they saw the ‘European project’ as a Catholic invention that would eventually put paid to the Calvinistic north. Others fretted that the political Big Boys would ride roughshod over the smaller countries, or eyed Brussels suspiciously as the capital of Big Business. There was always something. Still, things have never been as bad as they are now. With criticism is coming from all angles, left and right, the prevailing sentiment can be summed up in a single word: anti-Europe.
Somewhere along the way, things have gone wrong. It’s been 25 years since the Maastricht Treaty was established. You could even celebrate its anniversary twice: now, for the agreement was reached in December 1991, and in February, because it was in that month in 1992 that the Treaty was actually signed. But even back then, European cooperation was not something you could just pull out of a hat. The Netherlands held the presidency in the second half of 1991, and things got off to a dramatic start. In September of that year the then foreign minister, Hans van den Broek, put forward a revolutionary vision for the future of Europe. The proposal ultimately boiled down to turning the European Community, as it was then called, into a federated club.
The proposal was met with universal derision. ‘A total flop’, as Van den Broek himself put it. The Maastricht Treaty came about just a few months later, but it was a drastically watered-down idea. It was the first European summit I reported on as a political journalist. I was yet to specialise in the art of waiting, but it was there I learnt that when it comes to reporting on Europe, patience is a virtue. For however transparent the European Union aims to be, as journalists we never have a seat at the table. You have no choice but to sit on your hands and watch the minutes go by. I recall having to book a hotel room on several occasions; Maastricht was a long ride.
It was no picnic for the heads of state either. Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand would get into foul moods when, so I was told, meetings got in the way of mealtimes. Setting aside the fact that Ruud Lubbers had a peerless negotiating strategy even then, he detested breaking for dinner if there was still work to do. Later, it occurred to me that the only reason Lubbers never became president of the European Commission was simply because it was feared in Brussels that the extended daily lunch and dinner would be scrapped to improve meeting discipline.
The most important agreement made in Maastricht was the establishment of a single European currency. And loath as I am to rain on the parade, it must be said that Maastricht has also become notorious for what was not agreed on. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps that’s precisely the current problem. No monetary union without a political union, so it was always said. But deeper political cooperation was not feasible then, and is now virtually unattainable. To be sure, even in 1991 the British were wont to put up roadblocks; the opt-outs and exceptions were necessary concessions to keep them on board. Prime Minister John Major was mainly happy that the ‘F word’, federation, was off the table.
Perhaps that would have been the right time to push on. But it didn’t happen then, and it won’t happen now – not for the time being anyway. Those early days were, in some sense, comparable to the situation today. Then too the refugee question was high on the agenda, with the war in Yugoslavia having recently broken out. And the plans for a European defence force were coming up against political resistance, just as they continue to now. The watershed moment that kicked off the loss of support we are seeing today was probably the referendum on the European Constitution in 2005, when Dutch and French voters rejected the plans for further integration.
In 1992 the then Belgian prime minister Wilfried Martens said of the agreements in Maastricht, ‘The ideas weren’t clear. We didn’t realise what we were doing. We didn’t realise how far our decisions were removed from public opinion.’ It is a painful quote, and one that could just as easily be said this week. As Herman van Rompuy put it, the European Union is an ‘ongoing process’. For Robert Schuman, too – one of the founding fathers of Europe – it was clear from the outset that the ‘European project’ wouldn’t happen in a day.
But now, 25 years after Maastricht and almost exactly 60 years after the Treaty of Rome (which established the European Economic Community), the European House is staggering. To save it, new architects will need to give it a thorough overhaul – and soon, otherwise the entire edifice may come crashing down. And during the renovation process, being afraid of voters will not help. Sometimes politicians simply have to stick their necks out.
Kees Boonman is a political journalist/commentator for EenVandaag/Kamerbreed and lecturer in journalism and new media at Leiden University.