“Can Europe hold together?” asks Dalibor Rohac. I can’t help thinking he is asking the wrong question.
Thirty years after the Maastricht Treaty accelerated the process of European integration, it is increasingly clear that Europe’s people, when allowed to vote on the issue, tend to reject their leaders’ integrationist ambitions.
The Danes voted against Maastricht. The Dutch, French, Swedes, Norwegians, and Irish all rejected the various integrationist proposals that followed. And of course, in 2016, the Brits voted to leave the EU entirely.
Instead of asking if Europe can hold together, we should be asking if Europe should be held together at all. Why is it felt necessary to unify Europe’s disparate peoples in the first place? What is it that compels European leaders to support pan-European systems of governance at all?
It is not as if European integration has been a success.
The most common rationale for Europe’s unification is that a single economic block will be more successful. As Rohac points out, this was the justification for creating a single European currency, the Euro. But as he rightly explains, it was the political imperative for further integration, not economics, that lay behind the monetary mission. The economic case, he writes, was “vastly overstated.”
If the Euro was supposed to give Europe a competitive edge, how come the Eurozone lags behind the rest of the world by almost every measure of output and innovation? In the two decades since the Euro came into existence, Europe’s share of global output has fallen from over 20% to below 15%.
The European Union seems to have largely abandoned innovation. Most of the EU’s biggest firms are in the business of producing either oil and gas, or automobiles. In America, by contrast, many of the largest firms are digital.
A list of Europe’s largest firms today would include many of the same names that would have appeared on such a list a generation ago. By contrast, America’s top firms today include companies like Amazon, Apple, and Alphabet—businesses that dominate areas of economic activity that scarcely existed forty years ago.
Maastricht, as Rohac notes, came shortly after the collapse of Soviet communism and German reunification. The urge to integrate came about, it is often suggested, to prevent Germany from becoming overbearing once more. They intended the EU to help avoid war.
Seriously? Does anyone really believe that if it was not for an army of bureaucrats in Brussels these past thirty years, Germany might have invaded France again? The two times that the European Union has faced an actual war on her borders, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo, it was America and NATO, not the EU, that brought peace and stability.
One of the most common justifications for European integration made in Europe (but less so in the United States) is that the EU is needed as a counterweight to America. Writing in the German newspaper Handelsblatt recently, the then German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was explicit about the need to have Europe as a “counterweight” to the United States. “That’s why it is indispensable that we strengthen European autonomy by creating payment channels that are independent of the United States, a European Monetary Fund and an independent SWIFT system,” he added.
Such calls for Europe to act as a counterweight to America are not just talk. As Maas makes clear, being a counterweight means explicitly undermining America’s clout on the world stage.
Rohac does not touch on this, but American audiences need to have it spelt out to them that much of the rationale behind EU integration is fundamentally anti-American.
Perhaps European integration was supposed to enable Europe to be an independent force in world affairs. Yet one only has to reflect for a few seconds on the extent to which Europe has made herself dependent on Putin’s Russia for energy to realise how disastrously that has turned out.
Maastricht, and indeed the various subsequent EU treaties, need to be seen for what they are: a power grab by Europe’s political elites. Attempting to explain Maastricht on the basis of some kind of economic or geopolitical rationale is to miss the point.
Maastricht stands out as merely one of the more egregious examples of Europe’s elites colluding in order to subvert democratic constraints that they found cumbersome and inconvenient. Instead of having to make laws in legislatures elected by voters, Maastricht enabled them to have EU institutions issue directives—a kind of technocratic fatwa. Rather than leaving public life when voters had ejected them from public office, Europe’s political elites created in the text of their treaties a bureaucratic empire, run largely by politicians that had been rejected by electorates in their home countries.
Rohac makes the interesting and accurate observation that Maastricht proved to be a hollow victory for Europe’s integrationists. Yes, they forced it through, establishing the framework for a single currency, the Euro. They undoubtedly extended the competencies of EU institutions, too.
But Maastricht was the moment when the edifice started to fall apart. Maastricht helped radicalise a new generation of Euroskeptics in Britain and Scandinavia, who came to regard the entire process of EU integration as illegitimate.
Twenty-two years after Maastricht, I co-founded Vote Leave, the official Brexit campaign. Maastricht helped move me and my fellow travellers from seeking to reform the EU to wanting out altogether.
Maastricht will be judged by history as a failure, not only for the integrationist project, but for hundreds of millions of Europeans whose lives EU integration has helped impoverish. Three decades after Maastricht, and more than two decades since the advent of the single currency that the treaty enabled, Europe is disastrously underperforming economically.
Thanks to the effects of having a shared currency, many European governments have been able to carry on with welfare programs that condemn the next generation of Europeans to high taxes and low growth. As Rohac points out, the rules that were established in the wake of Maastricht to ensure that no government ran up massive debts denominated in the new common currency were set aside. The Stability and Growth pact committed the Eurozone countries to keeping their budget deficits below 3% of GDP. In 2020, France, Italy, and Spain ran deficits three times that amount. Not even Germany, at 4.3%, kept within the rules.
Europe is demographically vulnerable, with tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean each year. Maastricht might have sought to create a “post-national” Europe. But “post-national” Europe is a land of mass immigration whose nation-states lack the cultural confidence to achieve assimilation.
Rohac concludes with lofty talk about reinventing the European Union “as a platform geared toward managing Europe’s inherent diversity and channelling it towards productive uses”.
Alas, there is only one kind of European Union on offer. And it is a project that seeks to order Europe by top-down design. The EU has no room for allowing society and the economy to arrange themselves organically.
For years, we Euroskeptics in Britain were told that we would be satisfied by something called “subsidiarity.” This is the idea that devolving decision-making to the lowest possible level within the European Union might be possible. Yet for all the abstract references to subsidiarity that appear from time to time in various EU documents, actual decision making is never passed down.
I cannot recall a single instance where something decided at an EU level was returned back to the member states for them to decide. Besides, who gave the EU the authority to pass “down” any powers that it did not legitimately possess in the first place?
Thirty years after Maastricht, the European Union is no more capable of making the kind of reforms it needs to save itself than it was back then. Rather like the Habsburg Empire, to which it is in many ways the successor, the European Union will stumble on, lurching from crisis to crisis, bits of it breaking away from time to time, as a once-great civilization becomes a cultural and economic backwater.
Maastricht was just a milestone in that tragic journey.