Date with history: The birth of the European Union

The signing of the Maastricht Treaty on February 7, 1992 frustrated Eurosceptics and federalists alike. Yet it underpins the EU to this day, writes Chris Bickerton.

The World Today Updated 21 March 2024 Published 2 February 2024 3 minute READ

Chris Bickerton

Professor of Modern European Politics, University of Cambridge

On 7 February, 1992, in a southern Dutch provincial government building that resembles a combination of the Sydney Opera House and a modern version of Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, politicians from 12 European countries signed the Maastricht Treaty.

In the past decade, debates about the significance of this document have focused on its principal legacy, the euro. The recent death of one of its architects, the Frenchman Jacques Delors, has led to reflections on the origins of this treaty and its consequences for Europe.

A new European order

The treaty of 1992 was a product of a historical moment: the disappearance of the Iron Curtain, the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union. These events raised fundamental questions about the nature of the new European order that was to fill the vacuum left by the end of the Cold War.

The treaty absorbed these questions into a complex new institutional architecture, one that satisfied neither European federalists nor Eurosceptics. Nevertheless, much of what the Maastricht Treaty bequeathed to Europe remains in place to this day.

The signatories of the Maastricht Treaty were the six original founding members of the European Communities – France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy – along with the more recent entrants, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark (who joined in 1973), Greece (in 1981) and Portugal and Spain (in 1986).

British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd responded with an embarrassed laugh when journalists asked him what was in the treaty.

Negotiated by some of Europe’s leading statesmen of the late 20th century – the French president François Mitterrand, the German chancellor Helmut Kohl, the Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, the Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers – it was eventually signed by foreign ministers and finance ministers.

When asked by journalists what was in the very long document he had just signed, British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd responded with an embarrassed laugh. This ambivalence was reflected at a popular level when, in referendums later in the year, France narrowly accepted the treaty (51 per cent in favour) and Denmark rejected it (50.7 per cent against – a year later the treaty was approved in another vote).

Those who negotiated the treaty were more enthusiastic. In September 1992, a critically ill Mitterrand took part in a televised debate, insisting the treaty was of great symbolic value and, moreover, protected the newly created single market by reinforcing the external borders of the 12 member states.

The Maastricht Treaty unified into a single body, the European Union, what had hitherto been three different European communities: the European Atomic Energy Community, the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community. This simplified things, but the treaty’s content was far from simple.

A Europe of ‘bits and pieces’

According to the treaty, the European Union was to rest upon three pillars. The first was responsible for Community level policies where the European Commission had the power to propose new ideas and implement them. The second related to cooperation in justice and home affairs and the third was devoted to foreign policy. In pillars two and three, national governments continued to have primary responsibility.

For figures such as Delors, who had hoped for a more federal structure, the Maastricht Treaty was a disappointment. Deirdre Curtin, the Irish academic lawyer, described it as a ‘Europe of bits and pieces’.

But it would be wrong to think of this as just another messy European compromise. The Maastricht Treaty combined the long-held wish for monetary stability with the urgent geopolitical business of German reunification.

The 1970s in Europe was a time of economic stagnation and price increases, with strikes and the oil crisis of 1973 adding to the inflationary pressures. By the mid-1970s, inflation was almost at 20 per cent in the UK and almost 25 per cent in Italy.

Opening the monetary door to profligate countries such as Italy alarmed the West German bourgeoisie.

Delors’ experience as a French civil servant in the 1960s convinced him that the way to avoid wage-price spirals was to uncouple salaries from the retail price index and set them in line with economic performance. This same search for economic stabilization underpinned Delors’ support for limiting the political manipulation of national currencies through the creation of a European monetary system. He carried this with him to Brussels when he took up the post of President of the European Commission in 1985.

This economic story is central to the Maastricht Treaty’s commitment to the introduction of a single European currency. For this reason, before anyone started to climb on to the Berlin Wall to make the case for German reunification, a single currency was on the minds of European politicians and officials. Geopolitics, however, also played a decisive role.

Resistance to a single currency was not only the preserve of British Eurosceptics. The prospect of opening the monetary door to profligate countries, such as Italy, and newer members, Greece and Spain, alarmed the West German bourgeoisie. They associated uncontrolled prices with the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise to power of the National Socialists.

An exceptional gesture

The swift and unexpected move towards German reunification changed attitudes. Kohl, the German chancellor, understood that while many of his fellow citizens desired reunification after the runaway events of autumn 1989, many beyond Germany were hesitant.

The solution was to make an exceptional gesture of European commitment: the euro. Even if there was no formal deal, we can think of the euro as the price Germany paid for its neighbours, France in particular, to accept unification.

The European Union of today is far easier to grasp if we see it through the lens of Maastricht.

There is some irony in the way perceptions of the euro have evolved. Designed to bind a reunified Germany to Europe, the euro came to be associated with German dominance when a number of countries between 2010 and 2012, Greece in particular, found themselves in need of huge financial assistance to remain in the common currency bloc. The conditions attached to the loans were felt as egregious violations of the sovereignty of the debtor states.

The European Union of today is far easier to grasp if we see it through the lens of the legacy of Maastricht. The European Parliamentary elections in June promise to reveal, as they usually do, the state of European public opinion. However, their wider political role is limited.

It is unlikely that the composition of the European Commission will be determined by these results in the way that governments are formed after national elections. Instead, the European Council, recognized as an institution for the first time in the Maastricht Treaty, leads the EU today. The Council is made up of heads of state and government, which gives member states their hold on the EU and is evidence of the treaty’s lack of federalizing ambition.

The same applies to European foreign and security policy. While the EU has spent a great deal of money supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia, the leading security institution in Europe remains NATO. This is consistent with the Maastricht Treaty’s determination, more than 30 years after it was signed, that foreign and security policy remain the preserves of national states.