On 7th February 1992, the Maastricht Treaty established the foundation of the European Union. In a live broadcast organized by Studio Europa Maastricht, Frans Timmermans reflected last week on the 30th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty and its significance for the EU.
February 7, 2022. It appears to be a regular Monday morning in Maastricht. It is cloudy and cold, and we are all thinking about the things we will do during the day. We might have to prepare for our next class, go to work or remember to buy groceries. But exactly thirty years ago, on 7th February 1992, a particular group of people gathering in the Gouvernement aan de Maas building in Randwyck had a very different task: signing the Maastricht Treaty.
The Maastricht Treaty, also known as the Treaty on European Union, represents the foundation of the European Union. Signed by the representatives of the twelve European nations that then formed the European Community (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom), the treaty’s aim was “to mark a new stage in the process of European integration”. Since its entry into force on 1st November 1993 officially marking the establishment of the European Union, the Maastricht Treaty has had a profound impact on the daily lives of millions of Europeans. The effects of the treaty encompassed three pillars. First, the three communities EEC (European Economic Community), ECSC (European Coal and Steel Community) and Euratom (European Atomic Energy Community) were embedded under the “European Union”. The second pillar concerned a common foreign and security policy. Finally, the last pillar referred to cooperation between the member states regarding justice and home affairs.
While the Maastricht Treaty has paved the way for significant changes on an institutional level, it is also interesting to see what it meant for the daily life of European citizens. First of all, the concept of European citizenship established by the treaty meant that people in Europe were not just citizens of their own country anymore. They had now also become citizens of the European Union. Moreover, the Maastricht treaty opened the door for the introduction of the single currency: the euro. Both the status as EU citizens as well as the euro have profoundly shaped the way that EU citizens live, work and move within Europe.
But what exactly was the significance of the treaty in the context of European integration? What were the hopes of these European politicians that were, in a sense, the architects of the European Union? On 7th February 2022, the platform Studio Europa Maastricht invited Frans Timmermans, Vice President of the European Commission, to reflect on the 30th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty in a live broadcast. In the studio, the interviewer and Frans Timmermans, seated opposite of each other, were joined by an online audience of students between 19 and 24 years old that had the chance to ask Timmermans interesting questions about the Maastricht Treaty and the EU. In the beginning of the broadcast, Timmermans tells about his own position as a diplomat working in Moscow in the years leading up to the signature of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. In the way Timmermans speaks about this period, it becomes clear that, as someone who has grown up in a profoundly divided Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a very significant event in his life.
In Timmermans’ view, the Maastricht Treaty is “the reflection of Europeans trying to come to terms with the fall of the [Berlin] Wall” and the way that Europe was going to change after the end of the European divide. Timmermans uses this moment to recall the fascination he felt in regards to the rapidity and the extent of the changes that followed the end of the Cold War. The unification of Germany in particular was an important milestone leading up to the Maastricht Treaty and its notions of European integration and cooperation. Looking back on the years of the treaty, Frans Timmermans remembers two “driving forces”. Since it was a time of major political changes, there was fear for instability and violence within Europe. But the end of the Cold War also meant an end to the threat of a “nuclear armageddon” that was predominant in people’s minds throughout the 80s. In this time of optimism, the Maastricht Treaty represented a way to avoid conflict and ensure stability. Or, in the words of Frederica Mogherini, former Vice President of the European Commission, Maastricht was “a revolution” since it marked the first time in history that “building peace became the aspiration of a continent”.
A lot has happened in the last thirty years. Further sixteen countries have joined the European Union. A whole generation has grown up knowing only the Europe of the EU, not remembering a time before the euro or the freedom of movement inside the EU. In a way, Europe witnessed the construction of a new collective memory amongst young Europeans. Sitting in the studio in front of the young student audience, Timmermans calls attention to the fact that their position of not having to live in a deeply divided Europe represents “a huge huge gift that goes unnoticed”. In addition, the Treaty on European Union itself has also been subject to change, notably with the signature of the Lisbon Treaty in 2007. The latter abolished the three pillar system to give way to the European Union as a legal personality that succeeded the European Communities.
However, the European Union did not just face internal changes. The very idea of European integration has been challenged time and again by various crises, people and nations. From the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the European migration crisis of 2015 and Brexit to the Covid-19 pandemic and the current conflict at the EU’s eastern borders, the EU had to overcome many obstacles. With currently 27 member states and a wide range of political positions within the EU, finding a common solution to complex challenges often lead to long and heated negotiations. In light of all these crises, the optimism that accompanied the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 seems to have dissipated and euroscepticism is on the rise. In addition, the increasing aggression of Russia towards the EU raises concerns of a new European divide. For Frans Timmermans, to whom this matter is visibly of high importance, this represents “a test of our solidarity and of our resilience”. But as someone who has witnessed the struggles and successes of the European Union since 1992, Timmermans stresses with determination that “we are only weak if we are divided. If we are united, we are so strong.”
In the broadcast organized by Studio Europa Maastricht, Timmermans also addressed the challenge faced by the EU in terms of its own diversity. With several prospective member states which would enlarge the EU even further, it is important that the European Union strengthens the way it deals with the diversity within the EU. According to Timmermans, in some circles within the EU there is “the feeling that we can’t handle more member states”, which is increased by attacks against the rule of law. While Timmermans does not name any specific countries as examples, thinking about the recent developments in Poland or Hungary might be contributing to the sentiment that the EU should first take measures to safeguard the rule of law in its current member states before admitting new members. Yet, not only the criteria for membership should be strict. By using a metaphor about how difficult it becomes to criticize a family member once they are sitting with you at the table, Timmermans also alludes to the importance of the EU standing up to its own member states if it becomes necessary.
Furthermore, one of the EU’s biggest challenges is how it deals with the climate crisis. While reflecting on lessons learned in the thirty years after the Maastricht Treaty, Timmermans admits that the EU was “much too late in devising a Green Deal agenda” and that it should have worked harder on a common foreign policy. In regards to the climate crisis, Timmermans also emphasizes that trade agreements with international partners need to reflect the EU’s goals concerning the environment. Finally, when asked whether we need a new treaty or a treaty revision to achieve the EU’s projects, such as the Green Deal, Timmermans argues confidently that we have not yet reached all of the possibilities of the existing treaties.
It is evident that the European Union currently faces different challenges, both internally as well as externally. In the last thirty years, it has gained valuable experiences, yet today’s world seems more complex than ever. One of the strategies that the EU wants to use in order to deal with the new issues is seeking closer contact with its citizens. Timmermans explains that with the Conference on the Future of Europe, the EU wants to “engage with the widest possible audience of European citizens” in order to get to know their priorities and interests. A further instrument used to involve EU citizens and learn about their concerns is the Eurobarometer. In the latest Future of Europe report, published in January 2022, it becomes clear that social inequalities and concerns for the environment are considered to be the main challenges for the EU.
The European Union has come a long way since the signature of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Cooperation within Europe has enabled many benefits for member states. Yet, more and more people call into question the meaning and the role of the European Union in this day and age. The future of the EU certainly depends a lot on the way it will deal with the various crises and complex global challenges that we face today and tomorrow.