Mathieu Segers, professor of Contemporary European History and European Integration and dean of UCM on 25 years Maastricht Treaty

"Credibility is Europe's biggest problem"

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. This time: Mathieu Segers, professor of Contemporary European History and European Integration and dean of University College Maastricht.

Femke Kools, foto: Philip Driessen

What does the term ‘European integration’ mean?
“It’s the ordering mechanism for European politics and society after the Second World War; the broad framework that underpins welfare states like the Netherlands and shaped the unification of Europe following the Cold War. In addition, European integration encompasses the history and prehistory of the EU, from the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community to the EU we know today. It’s very broad; from the common market to the monetary union, the single currency and the supranational institutions. The integration process has become so successful and all-encompassing that it’s developed a dynamic unto itself. And that’s something a lot of people are quite averse to today.”

What is the biggest problem currently facing Europe?
“Credibility. If anything is important in politics and in European integration, it’s that. At present the credibility of European integration is under pressure from all sides; in the national democracies of the member states, but also in cross-border European relations and international politics. This gives rise to doubts and paralysis, which in turn only reinforces the credibility problem. The big question is, can we reverse this problematic spiral?”

What are your expectations for the coming year?
“It’s not easy to make predictions. A year ago Trump and Brexit were inconceivable, so that gives you some idea of what’s possible in politics at the moment. For a long time the European integration process excluded the extremes. It was a technocratic collaboration, where if you just took the time for dialogue and preserved the peace, you’d reach a middle ground that everyone could accept. But that’s no longer the case. The time pressure has become enormous when it comes to important issues like refugees, the euro and the Ukraine crisis, and finding Europe-wide solutions is complicated by the fact that people’s views and politics have become extremely polarised. All this points to a much wider range of future scenarios. It’s possible Europe will experience a kind of shock and eventually come of age. But it’s hard to say who could lead that process, partly because the elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany mean we don’t know who will shape European politics in these key countries next year. That creates a kind of suspense. 2017 will be a thriller year, which will also put to the test whether the Maastricht Treaty provides a foundation to keep moving forward in the 21st century or whether something else should replace it.”

In your latest book, Europa en de terugkeer van de geschiedenis (Europe and the return of history), you suggest that the European holiday from history and politics is over. What do you mean by that?
“The Maastricht Treaty marked the birth of the monetary union. In fact, that’s all it was about, which is quite strange. The end of the Cold War, German reunification, impending European integration – these were the major developments of the day, and they called for a redefinition of Europe in the world. The challenge was to answer questions like: what is the point of European integration? What is it worth to us? Where are its borders, its limits, be they geographical, cultural, spiritual or socioeconomic? It was and is difficult to understand how Europe could respond to such political and moral questions with a hyper-technocratic project like the currency union. Yet that was what happened in Maastricht. And there was a reason for it: Western Europe hadn’t had to deal with big questions about politics, morality and identity for a long time. During the Cold War the US led the way, while the economies of Western Europe flourished. After the Cold War, continued prosperity meant the matter of dealing with the big, difficult questions was constantly postponed. There was a sense that time was on our side. The European integration process gradually came to be seen as invincible. And so Europe just kept on taking a holiday from history and politics. There’s still strong, latent support among the people of Europe for European values and the things Europe stands for in the world, but that support has been buried under a layer of misunderstanding, complacency and political negligence in the member states. The current setup of the institutions and member states makes it impossible to appeal to that foundation of shared values and translate it into action. That’s very worrying and has an alienating effect on all parties involved.”

What exactly are the ‘values’ of Europe?
“They’re laid down in the treaties of Paris, Rome, Maastricht, Amsterdam and Lisbon, which have developed since the 1950s. But they’re often formulated very generally – the result of compromise – or in text that’s virtually impenetrable. So when you’re faced with an acute situation, taking action calls for interpretation of the treaty as well as concrete implementation – and that in turn requires another new political process. That’s what’s so fascinating about European integration: the wheel has to be reinvented every day, because there’s no template to go by. Take the refugee crisis. If you look at the treaties for clues as to how to respond as a united Europe, then Merkel’s approach is the right one. All European treaties state that human rights must be nurtured and promoted. The problem is that this jars with political reality, with the support for it among the people of Europe and the stability of European societies themselves. In the member states, which have to implement European policy, a majority were in favour of the much more defensive policy of closing borders. The result is a complex, time-consuming and laborious political process of pushing and pulling around the question: now that we’re aware of this situation, should we add agreements to the treaties to clarify how a particular article should be interpreted? When the problem is serious and there are major differences of opinion, this eats away at the credibility of European cooperation. Until recently, it has always been possible to come up with a basis for cooperation that results in some sort of solution. But the credibility of this method is being severely tested.”

Why is that?
“Partly because the problems Europe faces today are very different to those during the Cold War. There’s now a real threat from Russia without the explicit protection of the US. Moreover, it has become clear that even the US can pose a threat to European interests. As Josef Joffe, a German analyst of international politics, recently wrote in Die Zeit: when elephants make love, they crush the grass. That scenario is becoming all too real, and the grass is Europe. We still have no position on crucial questions like security and borders, let alone a joint security force. The times and the people of Europe are calling for political action, particularly when it comes to security and protection. But the architecture of European integration and the institutions is not equipped to deal with it, especially now time is no longer on the side of European integration but rather against it. That explains much of the current paralysis. The big questions we neglected to answer after the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago are now coming back to haunt us. Therein lies the crux of today’s credibility problems.”

What can the European governments do?
“Show political courage. Because that’s what it takes to deliver the message that there’s no black and white template if you want to take Europe seriously. The nation state doesn’t exist in its pure form, but nor does the European federation. The reality is somewhere in between. To give a more concrete example, the coming years will show that Brexit doesn’t exist either. The outcome of the referendum means the UK can’t remain a full member, but from the point of view of British interests, cutting ties entirely isn’t feasible either. In short: if politicians can’t sell the middle ground, we’ll keep on having these huge credibility problems. This is something the UK will have to deal with in the coming decade: the people voted in favour of leaving the EU, but reality won’t turn out to be so unequivocal. What they’ll get are years of negotiations. That’s a raw deal.”

What does this mean for the coming years?
“As the pressure mounts and things become increasingly chaotic, a broader range of scenarios becomes possible in the political arena. It can’t be ruled out that these unprecedented circumstances will lead to some fundamental change; in fact, it’s becoming ever more likely. Europe hasn’t faced a challenge like this since the war. That can have a unifying effect, although so far that doesn’t seem the most realistic scenario, at least not beyond a small group of Western European countries that have benefited from European cooperation the longest. But even that depends on the upcoming elections. If the results show that a majority of French and Germans want to withdraw support for Europe, things will become very difficult. But if people are still in favour of trying to solve our current problems through European cooperation, that could mark the start of a new phase in the European integration process. Both scenarios are possible.”

All in all, is there cause to celebrate?
“The EU is a project that stands for peace, reconciliation and cooperation. But it’s also the largest attempt to voluntarily extend a sphere of influence ever seen. That’s fantastic in itself. The downside is that an expansion project of that magnitude inevitably arouses suspicion in others. It also requires you to change and adjust your institutions, something Europe has neglected to do over the last 25 years. That was a big mistake. The Maastricht Treaty has never been as important as it is today. We have to return to the genesis of Europe, see where changes are needed to ensure stability in the future. So it’s neither a time for celebration, nor a hangover; it’s time for a quest for inner strength.”

Mathieu Segers will discuss this topic during the Literary Salon in the Pesthuys in Maastricht on 23 March.

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