This week I talked to an audience consisting mainly of young Europeans in an ancient and delightful Dutch city that is becoming a little worried about its place in the history books. It’s called Maastricht. Looking back over the story of how the Maastricht treaty that led to today’s eurozone was negotiated, I find a vital lesson. The framework of Europe’s economic policies has changed fundamentally over the past 20 years, but the way in which those policies are arrived at has not.
Now, as then, the crucial deals are thrashed out between a few key national leaders, and their advisers, in negotiations behind closed doors, often over good food and wine. Back then it was France’s François Mitterrand and Germany’s Helmut Kohl, with an important role played by the Italian prime minister, Giulio Andreotti. Next week it will be François Hollande, France’s first Socialist president since Mitterrand, making his post-inauguration pilgrimage to Angela Merkel in Berlin, with a significant role played by today’s Italian prime minister, Mario Monti. From François to François: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Today, with published documents augmented by journalistic and academic research, we can see exactly how the Maastricht cake was baked. Or, rather, half-baked: that is, the monetary union made without the fiscal union necessary to sustain it. Here, for example, is Mitterrand writing to Kohl in December 1989: “Under the Irish and Italian presidencies, the economic and finance ministers can refine the suggestions for the co-ordination of budgets.” Co-ordination of national budgets! Hold your sides and laugh out loud, otherwise you’ll have to cry.
And now glimpse those two old foxes, Andreotti and Mitterrand, getting together at a hotel outside Maastricht on the evening before the December 1991 summit, to work out over dinner how they will pin Kohl down to a timetable for a monetary union that was clearly intended to bind a newly (and, for them, alarmingly) united Germany into a tighter European framework. Answer: by making entry automatic, provided certain rigorous German-style conditions are met, such as budget deficits under 3% of GDP and public debt under 60%. Hold your sides again, and laugh so as not to cry.
I hope to live long enough to read the official French and German records of next week’s conversation between Hollande and Merkel in Berlin, and first-hand accounts of the relevant conspiratorial dinners. By these well-tried methods, Europe’s leaders will reach a compromise. It will probably involve a watered-down but then dressed-up Hollandesque “growth pact” to complement Merkel’s fiscal pact, with European funds, banks and so-called mechanisms allowed to provide an added element of stimulus.
I don’t recall whether back in 1991 people quipped about Kohlrrand or Mitterohl, as everyone now does about Merkozy giving way to Merde. But well they might have, although Kohlrrandeotti would have been more exact then, and perhaps Merkhollti today. (The economic competence, integrity and reported influence on the German chancellor of Mario Monti merit at least a letter or two.)
More seriously, the fundamental politics of this decision-making have not changed. Since Maastricht, the European parliament has gained more powers, but that has not produced European politics to shape European economics. Now, as then, these are national leaders, pursuing national interests, as defined by their own national elites. They justify their conduct to still overwhelmingly national media. The elections that matter are national ones, most recently in France and Greece. Even some sub-national elections – such as Sunday’s in North Rhine-Westphalia – can be more important than the European ones.
What has changed since the days of Maastricht, however, is the voice of Europe’s peoples. There was always a grain of truth in the jibe that the EU was built by a “conspiracy of elites” – but it was only a grain, not a loaf, because in most countries those elites could base their pro-European policies on a solid, if largely passive, consensus in their populations. Now no longer. The Greeks have just cried “enough is enough”. There is a danger that the eurozone could fall apart chaotically as a result.
If, thanks to effective action by Merkhollti, it does not, the people of Europe still need to be persuaded of the case for continued integration. Even in solidly pro-European Poland, where I am now,, doubts are growing. And that brings me back to the young Europeans I just spoke to. One came up to me afterwards and said roughly this: “I agree with almost everything you said, but how am I going to persuade my dad, who’s a German worker in a small town, and doesn’t see why he should pay to bail out feckless Greeks.” To which one answer is: if you think Europe is worth it, it’s your job to convince your dad. And, harder still, to persuade the one out of every two young Spaniards who are now unemployed.
The actual policies to save the eurozone, and with it the European project, will still be shaped by a handful of national leaders over dinner. But for them to succeed will now need the engagement of millions of other Europeans, in their own national languages, media and politics, in their pubs, clubs and cafes. Without that – and there is not much sign of it at the moment – the rescue will fail, and then the name of Maastricht will take an unhappy place in the history books.
Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist.