Where is Europe headed, and what about the Meuse-Rhine Euregio? That question was the centre of attention during the Europe Calling! Citizens’ Summit on Saturday 6 May in Maastricht’s Provincial Government Buildings. Citizens, students and public officials from the border region shared ideas, discussed position statements, debated, and reached at least one conclusion at the end of the day: Europe is alive and well.
More than 120 people who live in the region known as Europe’s Balcony were prepared to spend this rare spring day of 2017 indoors. While the sun shone invitingly outside, citizens from Monschau, Hasselt, Maastricht, Aachen, Heerlen, Liège and other towns gathered in the Council Chamber of the Provincial Government Buildings to consider the future of Europe during this Citizens’ Summit. The Summit was the closing act of the Europa Calling! Maastricht Treaty 25th Anniversary programme. The programme consisted of a series of meetings reviewing the state of the European Union precisely 25 years after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty.
The previous meetings in the series had featured politicians, officials, public servants, researchers and the lead players of a quarter of a century ago. On 6 May, however, it was the turn of the citizens. And although Belgian, Dutch and German office holders – including the King’s Commissioner for the Province of Limburg Theo Bovens and Maastricht Mayor Annemarie Penn-te Strake – attended the proceedings, they did not take part in the discussions. What they did do was listen to the citizens, promise to take their ideas and suggestions seriously, and pass them on where possible to politicians in the Belgian, Dutch and German capitals and in Brussels. After all, if there is one paramount criticism of the European Union, it’s that it is out of touch with its citizens.
The Europe Calling! Citizens’ Summit, organised by the Meuse-Rhine Euregio, the Province of Limburg and the City of Maastricht, did not presume to close the gap between the EU and the people. It did, however, make a serious attempt to list the accomplishments of European cooperation. Much has changed since 1992, argued Mathieu Segers, Professor of European History at University College Maastricht, who opened the meeting with a brief but fascinating talk. The internal borders are open, goods and services can move freely across them, and EU member states cooperate in all sorts of areas. “What is exceptional is that cooperation has not been imposed by war and conflict,” said Segers, reminding his audience that for hundreds of years, Europe was torn apart by battles, with countries and leaders determined to dominate, rule, and claim power for themselves. Napoleon and Hitler were mentioned, and the permanent arms race. “Nations stockpiled arms, wanting to be the strongest. The more weapons, the safer – but they also inflamed one another. Today, we take a different approach to the security dilemma. We work with one another in Europe. That is unique in our long history.”
Segers could sense his audience thinking “But is that enough?”. Shouldn’t Europe become a federation, isn’t it all moving too slowly? There are still so many rules, barriers, laws and provisions impeding cooperation. “That’s true, but it takes time to reach consensus. I recently spoke to a Chinese official who was in fact deeply impressed by Europe’s deliberate, careful decision-making process. Despite the enormous pressure of the economic crisis and flood of refugees, it did not take hasty decisions. That is the strength of today’s Europe: it thinks things over, it does not act with reckless abandon. Decisions are postponed. Many people see that as a sign of powerlessness, but my Chinese friend referred to the culture in his own country, where the implications of decisions can last for a thousand years. He was very impressed by our European officials.”
After Professor Segers’ extraordinary lecture, the Council Chamber “stage” – which had a copy of the Maastricht Treaty prominently on display on a central table – was turned over to the citizens. Under the guidance of moderator Sander Kleijkers, they engaged in a series of brief discussions of various position statements and voted on them using individual voting devices. For example, 95 percent of those present voted in favour of their country’s EU membership, and the same percentage supported retaining the euro. But they also had certain wants and criticisms. Some were in favour of a federation resembling the United States of America, whereas others feared losing their own culture and rejected that notion. A large proportion of the participants wanted more emphasis on social policy and climate change and less emphasis on economic matters. Some favoured a two-speed Europe. Others warned about a divided Europe, pointing to anti-EU sentiments, Brexit, and election trends that do not augur well. “Brussels needs to be more in touch with citizens.”
The refugee policy also stirred emotions. Slightly more than half felt that the EU should welcome refugees unconditionally, while a quarter would prefer to keep them out and advocated resettlement in their own region. Security and the threat of terrorism were prominent arguments in this context. A considerable majority (80 percent) rejected the idea of internal border checks, however, and a small majority wanted the EU to establish its own army to patrol its external borders.
After the break, the participants took a quiz testing their knowledge of the EU. The two winners received a nice bottle of wine each – with a label bearing the date 1992, of course. Natasha Walker then summarised the results of the five previous Europe Calling! meetings, which were held in Maastricht, Genk, Liège, Aachen and again in Maastricht, before going on to launch a new series of position statements.
Even after three hours of listening and talking, the participants were keen to get started. They were especially eager to discuss the mass of rules and provisions that inhibit European cooperation, and that also impede progress in the Meuse-Rhine Euregio. At that point, Theo Bovens could not help getting involved in the discussion. “Perhaps our Euregio can make a case for having a separate status that gives us more options. So many of these ideas have been circulating here for so long, and the people really do want to move forward with cross-border cooperation. It would be good for the economy; all the necessary calculations have been performed. Once again, I’ve noticed today that Europe is alive and well here.”
After the official close, the intense discussions continued over drinks. Europe Calling! did not lead to tangible results, but it did produce several documents and reports that are destined to end up on desks somewhere in The Hague and Brussels. As Ger Kockelkorn, former mayor and advocate of European cooperation, said, “It can’t do any harm to talk over the pros and cons again. In my view, it was an inspiring meeting.”
It was also a meeting attended mainly by proponents of European cooperation, something the organisers were well aware of. And many of them were people who had done well for themselves in society. “All true,” said George Vogelaar, documentary filmmaker, “but I also see passionate students here. And our children are great fans of Europe. It’s really not just the old people. I believe that cooperation is crucial to progress in Europe.”