The programme kicked off a good half hour ago. On the stage in the main hall of the MECC is the former Danish foreign minister, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, fielding questions from a pupil from the United World College in Maastricht. Ellemann-Jensen was one of those present during the proceedings in 1991. Suddenly, murmuring breaks out as a group of men make their way to the front of the hall. Most then recede, but one heads for a seat in the first row. It’s Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, and his presence can hardly go unnoticed: one by one, he greets the other honoured guests with a hug. The conversation on stage falters. After another half hour, another big name turns up: Herman van Rompuy, former president of the European Council. He too has a seat in the first row, but his entrance goes virtually unremarked.
Juncker is looking forward to today. Perhaps because it’s his birthday: he is turning 62. Plodding up the steps to the stage, he seems to have aged. But he is met with great applause – this is a home game for him, that much is clear. His speech is full of reminiscences about his days as finance minister for Luxembourg, when he was closely involved with the negotiations and the eventual signing of the treaty. It wasn’t easy at the time, he recalls. Where would the European Bank be located? How independent should it be? Heated debates were the order of the day.
The summit was held in Maastricht because the Netherlands held the European presidency at the time. Prior to that, it was Luxembourg’s turn. “So we had prepared everything. That May I’d already come up with the famous opt-out construction, which allowed the UK to join without having to accept the euro. Because the summit would take place in December, the agreement was that we’d only then announce it to the press. But Jacques Delors [then president of the European Commission], being Jacques Delors, immediately held a press conference. And so it became the ‘Delors plan’. I was jealous. Later he put things right a book and apologised.”
Jacki Davis, the moderator, asks politely but firmly if Juncker would mind keeping it short to allow students to ask questions. “No, I will not keep it short!” he retorts with mock indignation. “It’s my birthday. I could have stayed home with my family!”
Between all the antics and musings, Juncker makes a few memorable remarks. The Maastricht Treaty “was the start of a new chapter for us. Our impression was, we’re writing history here. It’s the most important document I signed in my whole career. We’re very proud of what we achieved. Don’t forget that, despite all the criticism, on other continents the EU is seen as a great achievement.”
Not least among its accomplishments is seventy years of peace in Europe. “Although that’s not necessarily thanks to my generation. After 1945 the attitude was ‘nie wieder Krieg, war – never again’. So that came down to the war generation. We could be a little more grateful to them.”
Peace through European cooperation: the topic is also a favourite of Mark Eyskens, the Belgian foreign minister in 1991. It’s a theme that apparently is less appealing to young people – although the pupils from the United World College seem to think otherwise, emphasising its importance over the course of the day – and says during one of the panel discussions, “We have to get this message across to young people. Seventy years of peace in Europe, that’s a first since the days of Julius Caesar. After him there was always war.”
Still, the mood is not overly positive, for not all is well in Europe. Juncker responds with sarcasm to a student’s question on how to deal with countries like Hungary and Poland, which are openly flouting EU rules. “It’s not just those two countries; the others also don’t follow the European directives. Take the budget rules, you see how it goes: the Commission proposes guidelines, the member states sign off, and then they don’t implement the policy. That’s new. It’s not a rule-based system anymore.” This is a major concern for him.
Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, harps on this message too. Member states go their own way, claiming the successes of Europe for themselves while blaming setbacks on the EU. Brussels-bashing has become all too popular a sport. But, Schulz says, keep in mind that “Europe didn’t invent France or Germany or the Netherlands. It’s the other way round: those countries invented Europe.”
What of the ‘democratic deficit’? The European Parliament is working to reduce it, but, according to Schulz, “if you really want to take aim at something, go for the European Council. That’s where the government leaders deal with their affairs behind closed doors; that’s where most of the Commission’s plans are blocked. We have no shortage of ideas in Europe, but we do have a lack of courageous leaders.”
Leaders who, Eyskens says, should not be afraid to deliver controversial messages. “Being a refugee is a human right! Explain that to voters. And while you’re at it, tell them that Europe needs people. That by the end of this century we’ll be fifty million people short. We need idealistic, intelligent people.”
His compatriot Herman van Rompuy couldn’t agree more. If he entered the hall without fanfare this morning, he makes himself heard loud and clear during his lunch lecture. “Optimism is a moral duty, hope is a verb”, he practically shouts at the audience. “Our lack of self-confidence is harming us. We have to keep our democracies open, against neo-nationalism, against populism, because they lead to a bunker mentality. The greatest enemy is fear.”
And something else is needed too, Van Rompuy adds, something that has been neglected for all too long yet provides at least a partial explanation for populism, the spectre of which cast its shadow over the entire day. That something is the realisation that citizens want to be protected from the problems of our time; from the crisis, from terrorism, from the excesses of globalisation.
On this point Mathieu Segers, Maastricht professor of European Integration and dean of the University College, held a mirror up to the hall. Segers is a rising media star when it comes to European affairs. In the MECC, he took his audience back to the genesis, to the very origins of the Union. “It’s based on two pillars: preventing another war, and – we are inclined to forget – combating poverty. The reference point in that regard was the Great Depression. European integration was supposed to go hand in hand with the European welfare state; that was the original idea. But that association is now gone, and therein lies the problem.”
He receives hearty applause, and his words echo throughout the course of the day: Europe must work hard on the ‘Pillar of Social Rights’ recently outlined by the Commission. This social policy cannot be permitted to fail, lest it throws fuel on the fire of, yes, those populists again. It’s not going to come cheap. Maria João Rodrigues, former Portuguese employment minister, now European Parliament member and rapporteur for this ‘social pillar’, stresses the necessity of a sort of ‘New Deal’, as the US introduced after the crash of 1929.
In other areas, too, there is room for improvement. As various speakers point out, the EU could be more flexible when it comes to membership requirements: not every country needs to be involved in every aspect of the EU. Then there’s the French-German initiative for a European defence union, a plan supported by politicians like Van Rompuy and Juncker, but also academics including the Maastricht professor of European Law Bruno de Witte. Now that the US president-elect has made clear his ‘America first’ position, this plan seems all the more urgent. Juncker goes one step further: defence-wise, things could be a lot more efficient. “We have 174 types of weapons in Europe. One Eurotank, one Eurohelicopter, shouldn’t that be enough?”
This would, of course, mean more rather than less Europe, but that’s not something this audience takes issue with. And Bruno de Witte launches another idea that goes down well: an asylum union. “Italy, Greece, Germany, Sweden, those countries are picking up everyone else’s slack. Have the EU take over and fund it.”
What does the future hold in store? Segers predicts a ‘thriller year’ ahead, with elections in Germany, France and the Netherlands, where Eurosceptic, populist parties could see further gains.
Schulz gives an emotional speech on the “second European renaissance” of 1989, when the East-West divide fell away and “families were reunited”, followed by the events of 1991 in Maastricht. But that optimism has given way to a bitter series of problems. “Journalists are prosecuted for doing their work too well, and yet a free press is indispensable in a democracy. Housing for asylum seekers has been attacked, the political climate has been poisoned, Brexit is looming as a result of smear campaigns. If we don’t fight for European values such as freedom, respect and democracy, we’ll lose everything. I don’t want to be a witness to that.”
And so the urge to fight lives on. As does hope: witness the pronouncement of the Maastricht mayor Annemarie Penn-te Strake, co-host of the conference with governor Theo Bovens. Noting that “faith in the EU is shrinking faster than the ice cap at the North Pole”, she wants to revive awareness that the question “Who is Europe?” has only one answer. We, the citizens, are Europe.
A sense of perspective is palpable too. The Dane Ellemann-Jensen, an old hand in such matters, recalls that his own country initially rejected the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum. “But we got a second chance, a second referendum that resulted in a yes. So to those who are negotiating with the UK, I say: they deserve a second referendum, have patience. And because the Brits are more stubborn than we are, I say: have a little more patience.”
But at the edges of Europe, the view is not so rosy. Gordon Bajnai, the former Hungarian prime minister who had to make way for Viktor Orbán, sighs during the conference that the EU is like Noah’s ark: he who jumps, drowns. “So we have to keep it afloat.”
After his defeat Bajnai left politics for the business world. But his heart lies in public service, and so he attempted a comeback. During the lunch he explains that his challenge to Orbán was met with a nasty smear campaign. “That I could live with. It only became intolerable when my supporters deserted me one by one in favour of the opposition. They were bribed. I don’t have hard evidence, but I know it’s true. When I realised I was fighting on two fronts I decided to call it a day. Hungary is starting to look more and more like Putin’s Russia.”