Twenty years of the Maastricht Treaty

In the middle of a crisis where political visions about the future of Europe seem to be in as short supply as money, we should take any opportunity to remind ourselves of the past events and visions that paved the way to where we are today. One of those important opportunities is the anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty, or the Treaty on European Union as it is formally known, which was signed on February 7, 1992, exactly twenty years ago today.

The importance of the Maastricht Treaty for European integration is difficult to overstate. In completing the process that had been launched with the Single European Act six years previously in 1986 and establishing the European Union as a distinct entity, the Treaty finally united the previously legally-but-not-really-separate organisations of the European Communities – most prominently the European Economic Community, the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Atomic Energy Community, but also the less well-known TREVI and European Political Cooperation frameworks – under one single institutional and legal umbrella. As was the intention, this opened a new chapter in the process of European integration, which had otherwise been more or less dormant for the past several decades, and set in motion the further developements that we have witnessed in the twenty years since.

At the same time, it established many of the features of the EU that most of us take for granted today, including the Economic and Monetary Union which would later become the euro, and the single market and its accompanying four freedoms (of persons, goods, capital and services), which is in many ways at the very heart of what the Union is all about.

Just, for instance, considering the freedom of movement of persons, the language of the Treaty represented a significant shift from previous practice – whereas earlier agreements had spoken primarily of the right of workers, the Maastricht Treaty spoke of the rights of citizens, and extended a general Union citizenship to all citizens of its member states. This shift from the functional definition (persons who are or seeking to be employed) to the universal one (all persons with citizenship in a member state), as interpreted through later case law from the Court of Justice, extended the free movement to a number of new categories of persons, such as for instance students or pensioners, who previously had enjoyed much more limited rights.

That’s just one example of the different ways in which the Maastricht Treaty served to establish a new legal framework and attitude towards European integration that re-invigorated the evolution of the European community and institutions, and started the new Union down the path that led past the Nice and Amsterdam Treaties, past the abortive Constitutional Treaty, and culminated (so far) in the most recent Lisbon Treaty. We have come a long way in twenty years, but we have much longer yet to go, and in going further towards the “ever closer union”, we should use the occasion of the anniversary to draw inspiration from the people and the events that got us as far as we have come today. Now let’s have some cake to celebrate.

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