Maastricht Treaty 30 years on—The catalyst for a ‘disgruntled’ nation

Boris Johnson discusses partygate and Brexit three years on

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On Wednesday, February 8, King’s College London hosted an event examining Maastricht Treaty, officially known as the Treaty on European Union (EU), 30 years on. Those speaking included the former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis and John Major’s former policy advisor Stephan Wall.

Here, examines the impact of the Treaty — signed by the UK and 11 other nations in the Dutch city in February 1992 — that laid the foundations for the EU that we know today following years of discussions.

Although the signing on February 7 was a low-key event, it was a marker of great change. The then French President François Mitterrand convinced Germany’s chancellor Helmut Kohl to get rid of the D-mark in favour of the euro, following the unification of the country.

Not only did the Treaty see the single currency adopted and the creation of EU citizenship, allowing those in member States to move freely between them, it also established a common foreign and security policy.

Then Prime Minister John Major sought from the moment he was elected in 1991 to “put Britain at the heart of Europe” and attempted to surround himself with pro-Europeans in key positions within his cabinet despite having won only a small majority.

Under pressure to appease Eurosceptics, Major ensured Britain opted out of the Social Chapter, which covered the likes of employment rights, health, and safety and would have impacted strikes, and he also stipulated that Britain was not committed to joining the monetary union.

Despite his efforts, Major faced difficulties from “bastard” rebels (as he described them himself in the summer of 1993) and those who were vocal in their opposition such as Margaret Thatcher and Lord William Rees-Mogg, father of the staunchly pro-Brexit MP, when he sought to ratify the agreement.

The political landscape looked markedly similar to during the time of Brexit. As European politics expert and director of UK in a Changing Europe Professor Anand Menon wrote for The Times in 2017: “Politically, the angry parliamentary debates over the ratification of the treaty brought into the open a rift within the Conservative Party that has remained a feature of our politics to the present day…

“Several Conservative MPs prominent in the 2016 referendum were either among the rebels or were converted to Euroscepticism at the time of Maastricht.”

In July 1993, the Maastricht bill was passed through the Commons with Major being forced to call a vote of no confidence. Although, Lord Rees-Mogg attempted to put this under judicial review a week later but was dismissed by the courts. In November 1993, an amended version of the treaty officially came into force.

Filled with relief, Major told Ireland’s taoiseach Albert Reynolds: “You won’t know quite how good it feels finally to be through all the hoops, hurdles, and heffalump traps of our 14-month obstacle course. It feels very good.”

But all did not rejoice. Then Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, according to papers released in the National Archives in 2019, warned Major about the “poisonous” internal divisions over the EU with British attitudes potentially tipping “over into xenophobia” at Chequers in September 1994.

Former Conservative leader and post-Brexit Government advisor Ian Duncan Smith was anti-EU even then, voting with Labour 11 times in opposition to the Treaty. For some, the Treaty remains a bugbear. UKIP founder Professor Alan Sked told in 2020 that the Treaty was passed by MPs who had not read it and claimed that Hurd did not understand what EU citizens meant before the deed was done.

The Treaty and its political union qualities “disgruntled” those in Britain but also created problems for the EU itself, which are still felt today, as the bloc was given limited “effective” control over the likes of monetary policy, asylum, and immigration.

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Professor Menon continued: “However – anxious to maintain their own authority – [European leaders] stopped short of providing the EU with the tools for effective action. The member states did not so much empower the EU as dump competencies on it while giving it as few powers as possible. And the areas where this was most true — fiscal policy, justice and home affairs — now haunt today’s leaders as a result.

“Both the migration crisis and the eurozone crisis betray the traces of the incomplete integration so rashly entered into at Maastricht. In both cases, the EU has sufficient competence to attract the blame for failure, while lacking the ability to actually solve complex problems.”

In turn, the migration and Eurozone crises played their role in the Brexit debate, Professor Menon added. The new waves of immigration, brought about by the civil wars and unrest in the Middle East were seen as mishandled by both the UK Government and the European Commission. Additionally, the EU choosing austerity to manage its economy delayed economic recovery in both Europe and the UK, also fuelling euroscepticism.

How the UK’s departure from the EU has been handled in the three years since it officially left has been criticised by both those who voted Leave and Remain, with there still being issues to resolve. It has also been slammed by those who were directly involved in Maastricht. Major, who led the country until 1997, spoke at Northern Ireland’s Affairs Committee on Tuesday, said leaving was a “colossal mistake” and criticised Boris Johnson administration’s handling of the protocol.

He said: “The protocol is a mess. It was very poorly negotiated. I think some of the promises made after the protocol that there would be no checks on trade from Britain and Northern Ireland, how those promises came to be made I cannot imagine because they were patently wrong. The protocol needs changing. I am baffled as to how we could have reached a situation where that protocol was accepted.”

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