27 March 2017

25 years of the Maastricht Treaty: party or hangover?

The signing of the Maastricht Treaty marked the first step towards the establishment of the European Union (EU) as we know it today. Now, 25 years later, it is time to take stock. Has the EU lived up to expectations? Is it up to the task of addressing the problems of our time – the euro crisis, the refugee crisis, Brexit and rising anti-European populism, with Trump as just the latest variation on this theme? Has the ideal of an integrated Europe become obsolete? We asked a number of Maastricht professors for their views. If it were up to Luc Soete, professor of International Economic Relations, Brussels should be given more power.

You believe the future of the EU lies in further integration, but the current trend is towards “own country first”. What now?

“For me it’s not merely about more or less integration; there are other paths too. On a number of issues, such as migration and security, much more integration is needed if you want to be effective. But on other issues – agriculture, say – we could do with less, or with something else altogether. Policies should be made at the level where they’re most effective. Personally I’m strongly in favour of a European research policy. For me it’s absurd that alongside the European Research Council the member states all still have their own national agencies that do the same thing. And it’s those very agencies that stand in the way of a single European research policy. The Wellcome Trust in the UK hands out some 800 million euros annually just for life-sciences research. The NWO in the Netherlands spends about 600 million per year on all research fields, the FWO in Flanders about 200 million and Luxembourg 50 million. And there are another 30 such agencies around Europe. Every one of these organisations works with tenders, reviews, project proposals, all of which often end up being assessed by the same small coterie of researchers. It’s clear the process would benefit from economies of scale. Let the ERC take the reins when it comes to European research policy.”

What’s the biggest misconception about the EU?

“That they take power from the member states; that’s just not true. My point is that it would actually be desirable in a handful of areas. At present there’s a kind of top layer that overlaps with the national layer, which makes for constant tension between the EU and the member states and means they’re continually passing the buck. That top layer should be given real power in a few areas, as it has in agriculture or used to have over trade."

What will the EU look like after Brexit?

“I’m a pragmatic economist, so I tend to be guided by economic advantages: what will result in a win-win situation? A hard Brexit – a total split between the UK and Europe – is not win-win, but lose-lose. I think a number of points will emerge soon on which both sides want to agree, to their mutual benefit. The only reason it hasn’t happened yet is because the negotiations are just getting off the ground. Everyone’s still in fighting mode. Take the conditions attached to most European grants, such as the obligation to spend six months doing research in another member state. If England is no longer a member state there’ll be no legal foundation for this obligation, yet I imagine a lot of effort will be put into maintaining it. Is it in our advantage if the UK is not part of the Erasmus exchange programme? No. Cambridge, Oxford; these are highly respected universities with international teams you want to collaborate with. Some countries see admitting that as a betrayal. I think it’s important to salvage those pure win-win situations.”

Will anti-European populism prevail?

“Populism and increasing nationalism are a great threat for Europe. Be they in France, Germany or the Netherlands, populists want more power for the member states. But people who argue that Brexit should be followed by Nexit don’t know what they’re talking about. The UK is a relatively big country, an island, and not part of Schengen or the single currency. Without Europe they may be able to go it alone. Not so for countries on the continent; we’re now inextricably intertwined with one another. But the UK, too, will pay a steep economic price in the long term.

“Just as I didn’t expect Wilders to come to power in the recent elections, I don’t see Le Pen managing it in France or the AfD having a significant influence in Germany. And then the crisis year 2017 will pass, and after the elections and all the Brexit negotiations Europe will end up more strongly united. I’m fairly confident things will turn out all right. But then, I also never thought there’d be a Brexit.”

By: Annelotte Huiskes