Astonishment, jubilation, and awe seized the hearts of European leaders after they took decisive steps toward uniting their continent in December 1991. By agreeing to accelerate Europe’s progress toward “ever closer union,” they produced far more than simply another treaty. The accord they signed in the Dutch town of Maastricht committed their countries to the most sweeping voluntary surrender of sovereignty in the history of the nation-state.
As a correspondent covering the Maastricht summit, I was caught up in the excitement. It was hard to avoid concluding that, as German Chancellor Helmut Kohl put it, “The way to European unity is irreversible.” Within hours after I filed my report, though, my editor called from New York. He did not believe what I had written. How, he demanded, could countries with such vastly different histories and political cultures believe that they could function as one?
As I reassured him that this was really happening, I could hear his incredulity rising. I felt sorry for him. He had spent decades covering old Europe, with all its conflicts and rivalries. This, I concluded, had made him too narrow-minded to understand that a completely new Europe was emerging. Finally I persuaded him that what I had reported was real. His disgusted response, minus expletives, was: “That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”
A quarter-century later, Europe is coming around to his view. Britain’s vote to quit the EU is in part an expression of self-defeating insularity, but it is also a stern rebuke to arrogant elites. The project that began at Maastricht was unrealistic. It might have succeeded, but was dragged down by the failure of its leaders to listen to ordinary citizens.
European unity remains a splendid idea. It is in trouble for two reasons. First, it places utopian dreams of cooperation above the reality of nationalism. People want to be governed by leaders from their own “imagined community,” not by outsiders. They want at least the illusion that they control their own fate. The EU has pretended this deep need does not exist, or that it can be wiped away with glittering phrases and promises. Ignoring the deep cultural roots of nationalism has not made it disappear. On the contrary, by attacking the principle of sovereignty so directly, the EU inadvertently fed the nationalist backlash that is now sweeping Europe.
The second reason the Maastricht project collapsed is the EU itself. It is run by a corps of unelected bureaucrats, many of them unconnected to traditional society and contemptuous of public opinion. Visionaries who promoted European unity in the years after World War II saw it as a gift to the continent’s people. But their successors have rarely consulted those people, listened to their complaints, or adjusted EU policies to meet their needs. Instead, they embraced the ideology of deregulation, privatization, and reduced social spending. They imagined Europe as a free-trade zone with open borders but little social protection for ordinary people. That is hardly a vision to stir people’s hearts.
Europeans are angry at the EU not only because they feel it is disrupting their lives with sweeping dictates on everything from the size of bananas to immigration. Their deeper resentment is over the way these decisions are made. They come from a remote body called the European Commission, whose members are chosen by back-room bargaining, and from its president, a bland politician from Luxembourg named Jean-Claude Juncker, who is also unelected and would go unrecognized on almost any street in Europe. This has led to frustration, then to anger, and finally to rebellion in Britain.
Reason tells us that whatever the EU’s flaws, abandoning it in favor of a return to atavistic nationalism could lead to disaster. Voters, however, are not always guided by reason. They need emotional as well as political reassurance. The EU has not listened to its constituents. Like other self-absorbed ruling classes, including those in the United States, it is now paying for its arrogance.
Maastricht is dead. That is not all bad. The EU will soon be rid of a member state that was constantly denouncing it and continually asking for special treatment — a form of blackmail that is unhealthy for any organization. Now it has a chance to change course. If the EU becomes a project based on improving human lives rather than raising corporate profits, European unity may still have a future.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.