The Maastricht Treaty and its implications: European citizenship 25 years in the making – Time to celebrate?
November 1, 2018
More than two decades ago, the commencement of the Maastricht Treaty was a defining moment in European history and important step towards building the EU as we know it today. Yet, the 25th anniversary has been overshadowed by the EU’s wave of problems and a lack in European citizenship. It seems to be high time to evaluate the implications of the Maastricht Treaty and draw conclusions for the present and the future.
The Maastricht Treaty and its consequences in a nutshell
The Maastricht Treaty, officially known as the Treaty on European Union, was signed in Maastricht in February 1992 and came into force on 1 November 1993. The treaty was shaped by factors including the aftermath of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but also the EU’s emerging development as international actor. It represents the shift from a Community towards a Union and lays out the foundation for key political and economic changes. The most important aspects integrated are the economic and monetary union (EMU) and the introduction of a single currency, the euro. Moreover, the treaty includes a reinforcement of the capabilities of the European Parliament. Additionally, it provides the legal basis for new common policies and implements the concept of European citizenship (Treaty of European Union, 1992).
Although the idea of bringing Europe ‘closer to its citizens’ and hence a European citizenship and identity was not new, it got the first time institutionalized in the Maastricht Treaty. Therefore, the treaty was described as marking “[…] a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen.”.
The treaty and its following consequences still matter today. It represents a significant deepening of the integration process, but it also stimulated debates about the EU’s democracy and legitimacy, and generated a public reaction which signalled an increasing unease with the integration process. NGOs like AEGEE were meant to serve as intermediaries in political representation and legitimacy, bridging the gap between EU institutions and EU citizens as well as harmonizing their interests.
Evaluating European citizenship measurements implemented by the Maastricht Treaty
However, it can be questioned if the Maastricht Treaty and its implementation tapped the full potential concerning the establishment of a European citizenship and identity. There are several factors intertwining and making an evaluation evermore complex.
First of all, the EU still has a communication issue. Consequently, citizens are not aware and therefore do not appreciate all the benefits and accomplishments the EU can offer. Quite contrary, a lot of beneficial aspects like lasting peace are taken for granted, especially among younger generations who grew up in the EU system and hence never experienced a different way of living. Moreover, most of the time, the EU is negatively portrayed by national decision-makers, which makes it even harder for citizens to acknowledge that although the EU has to improve, it still is an advantageous starting point. That is also why EU citizens lack in having a positive image of the EU and trust in its institutions.
Secondly, the EU misses a public sphere. Debates regarding the European public and demos were absent from the Maastricht Treaty negotiations. Moreover, European debates are mostly joined by political elites but fail to reach a broader audience.
Both aforementioned aspects lead to an ineffective and not well established EU citizenship, although that was one of the main aims of the Maastricht Treaty. Connections between EU institutions and its citizens by means of intermediaries like NGOs does not seem to function sufficiently. Although there was an increase in NGO participation, it did not generate a more democratic political representation. Reasons might be the lack of equal and effective participation as well as a missing active empowerment of citizens. Already during the ratification process of the Maastricht treaty in Denmark and France it became obvious that public opinion on European integration had changed from widely supportive towards nationalistic and sceptical. Although 70% of the EU’s population feel that they are citizens of the EU, almost half of them do not think that their voice counts in the EU. Therefore, the EU still maintains problems regarding its legitimacy and representation.
In summary, although there were severe efforts by the Maastricht Treaty to turn the EU into a more inclusive, participatory and open system, structural aspects of the EU system still hinder NGOs to enable their positive effects on democratic representation and legitimacy.
Today, 25 years after the enforcement of the Maastricht Treaty, we experience a different political and economic climate. Events such as the debt crisis, Brexit and rising anti-European populism challenge the European project more than ever before. A lot of effort was put into the negotiations of the Maastricht treaty, but there were some institutional and policy issues that remained incomplete and thus need adaptations and changes.
Problems Europe faces today and in the future cannot be solved by one single country. The EU member states do not have a rational alternative than working together if they want to effectively tackle these issues. But to make this happen, the EU still has to improve its connection to its citizens, win back the public’s enthusiasm for the European idea and further increase their trust in European institutions. Without these improvements, the European project will lose the support of its citizens, will not be able to continue the integration process and thus will slowly but steadily lose its strengths and significance.
Facing the current crisis, we might want to ask the same question again that was discussed prior to the Maastricht Treaty – what kind of Europe do we want? And how do we want to achieve it? Still, we should not only complain. Before we go back to work on the European integration process, we should make time to celebrate the EU’s accomplishments every now and then, since this is something that is overlooked too often. And there is always a reason to solemnise and dance for the EU.
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