Europe is in turmoil 25 years after Maastricht

The European Union was an attempt to break with petty nationalisms and to find common ground. What went wrong?

In 2012 the EU received the Nobel Peace Prize for having “contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy, and human rights in Europe.” At the time, Thorbjørn Jagland, a former prime minister of Norway who chaired the panel awarding the prize, said in an interview with The New York Times, “We see already now an increase of extremism and nationalistic attitudes. There is a real danger that Europe will start disintegrating. Therefore, we should focus again on the fundamental aims of the organization.” The plan seems to have failed.

After 1945, hopes of a lasting peace in Europe were almost immediately dashed by the outbreak of the Greek Civil War, followed by Soviet-led oppression in Eastern Europe, and culminating in the terrible and unforgivable civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose repercussions are still being felt. Today, the illusion of peace is marred by Chechnya, Ukraine, the rise of populist politics, and the unlikely-to-end-any-time-soon refugee crisis.

When the Maastricht Treaty was signed on 7 February 1992 (ironically just two months before the siege of Sarajevo began), parts of Europe seemed to be moving towards greater stability. Twenty-five years on, the European Union is facing an identity crisis. Its economies are faltering, sceptics in Britain want out (in the face of well-informed opinion that says they are wrong) and right-wing political populism is parroting the racism and intolerance of earlier times.

What the newly formed European Union committed to a quarter of a century ago was remarkable: stronger and deeper integration. To advance this “European project”, Maastricht called for better economic cooperation, the development of a unified European foreign policy, and agreement on common judicial policies. In principle, these were admirable directions to pursue even if the mechanisms were to prove to faulty or ill-thought out.

For a time, the experiment worked. The European Union grew to 28 member countries, created the euro and had serious people talking about how Europe would run itself in the 21st century. Then came recession, in which seven years of tough economic times exposed cracks that turned into chasms. Self-interest took over and Europe began to fall apart.

In terms of geopolitical realities, Europe was a counterweight to the might of the USA, Russia and China. Now, fragmentation and disintegration are on the cards with a scornful Donald Trump in the White House and a gleeful Vladimir Putin exerting malign influence at every turn.

As Natalie Nougayrède pointed out in “With Trump and Putin, Europe is now between a rock and a hard place” (The Guardian, 7 January 2016):

“For Europe, two dangers arise. The first is that the principles on which the transatlantic link was founded in the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, including the pledge to uphold ‘democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law’, might head for the dustbin. The second is that Europe may witness a return to spheres of influence, something that has historically plagued it, and essentially amounts to saying this: might makes right, and the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must. Not much seems to separate Trump from Putin on that account.”

The dismantling of Europe cannot be laid at the door of the UK’s Brexit decision. Yet, Brexit has played a corrosive role in calling the European project into question. This month the UK Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether an act of Parliament is required to trigger Article 50 to commence formal exit negotiations. If, as seems likely, the Supreme Court gives Parliament the final say, both the House of Commons and the House of Lords will be in a position to block Brexit. But that would only be the first step in saving Europe from the knacker’s yard.

It is vital that the UK stays in the European Union. It is vital that Marine Le Pen is not given the chance to sink the ship by instigating a Frexit. It is vital that the European Union regains the initiative by finding new ways and means to solve problems and tensions of its own and others’ making. It is vital that Europe provides a reasoned and effective counterweight to the bluster of Donald Trump in the USA and the machinations of Vladimir Putin in Russia.

Peace and justice – not to mention democracy and human rights – depend on it.

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