25 years after Maastricht, European Union in existential crisis

Twenty-five years after European leaders concluded the Maastricht agreement on the funding of the ‘European Union,’ new challenges threaten the 28-member bloc.

MAASTRICHT, THE NETHERLANDS (DECEMBER 8, 2016) (REUTERS) – The European Union will celebrate its birthday on Friday (December 9), 25 years after European leaders gathered at the Dutch city Maastricht to agree on the criteria of the Treaty of Maastricht, which created a politically unified EU.

The treaty marked Europe’s transition from an economic union, the European Economic Community, to a political union, the European Union, by introducing a common currency and the idea of European citizenship.

A political analyst at the Brussels-based think tank European Policy Centre, Janis Emmanouilidis said the Maastricht Treaty was a peak of European compromise.

“Maastricht was a real milestone. It created what we now call the ‘European Union,’ it created the basic institutional structures, it put forward cooperation in the areas of security, defence, foreign policy, it made progress or establish cooperation with respect to justice and home affairs and obviously the big leap was the creation of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), which led to the current (euro) currency,” Emmanouilidis said.

With the EMU fostering the creation of a shared currency for all members except Denmark and Britain, states had to fulfil economic criteria to exchange their lire, francs and other currencies for the euro. EU budget rules have proven difficult for some countries to reach following the euro zone crisis in 2009, resulting in bailout packages for countries including Greece and Spain.

Emmanouilidis said the treaty didn’t go as far as it should have in monetary policy integration.

“There is a sense of complacency, there is a feeling there’s no danger that the common currency will implode, do we really have to do certain reforms? And I think there is a need to do them, because other storms will come and you need to prepare the EU for that. And Maastricht did not do that to the full extent it should have done. I think that’s one of the lessons we should take with us,” Emmanouilidis said.

The treaty was signed after months of negotiation, striking a balance between countries that wanted a full union and those who wanted a looser relationship. Some national governments struggled to approve the treaty, but Emmanouilidis says the discontent with the treaty doesn’t compare to troubles facing Europe today, such as Britain’s vote to leave the bloc, the rise of populism and migration influx.

On the streets of Maastricht, residents said Europe benefit them, but that more work should be done to bring the continent closer together.

“Pay less attention to bureaucracy and those things, and more to what is good, like peace — it’s originally established for peace in Europe and we have it now for seventy years or something — so that’s a good thing,” Dutch student Jannes said.

“Europe is still needed today and we have grown apart from each other and that makes me worried,” Maastricht resident Jan-Paul said.

When European leaders agreed in 1992 to the agreement, the bloc had only 12 members. Since then, the EU has grown to 28 members, 19 of which use the euro.

The signing took place on February 7, 1992 in Maastricht. Having extracted key concessions, including the right to opt out of the currency, British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd put pen to paper under the watchful eye of the then-European Commission President Jacques Delors.

The following years were filled with protracted discussions over who would be in, who would be out, what the currency would be called and how to tighten deficits and meet the supposedly inviolable rules for membership.

The currency itself was born on January 1, 1999, when the exchange rate of 11 founding members was fixed to the euro, although notes and coins were to remain in circulation for a further three years.