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The 1992 Maastricht Treaty: Misjudgement or misrepresentation?

Maastricht is now generally seen as the foundation treaty of the EU. In John Major’s report it sounds like something else, a renewal of inter-governmental collaboration.

The Treaty on European Union (TEU) was signed on 7 February 1992 in Maastricht and came into force on 1 November 1993. The name given to it would seem to indicate the fundamental significance attached to it by most of its signatories, though Union only became the legally correct name after the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.

It marked a new stage in European integration setting the Community on the path to political integration, political union and the formation of a new superstate. It introduced the notion of European citizenship, to which were attached certain rights, notably the freedom to move, reside and be employed anywhere within the Union. It also created a European Central Bank, and set out the timetable of the three stages in the creation of the new currency.

It also defined three pillars of its government: the main Single Market pillar, governed mainly by majority voting; and the two unanimity-governed pillars of Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) and Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

The central, supranational pillar included all the institutions of the European Community: the Commission, the Parliament, the European Court, the European Coal & Steel Community and the European Atomic Energy Community. It greatly enlarged the ‘Community Method’ of legislating in which the European Commission proposes legislation, the Council and Parliament consent, the Council normally by qualified majority voting (QMV), while the Commission, with the support of the European Court of Justice, monitors compliance.

The Treaty vastly expanded the Community’s areas of competence to include trans-European transport networks, industrial policy, consumer protection, the environment, education, culture, public health, vocational training and youth. In a separate Social Chapter aspects of employment and social policy were also covered, the most notable being workplace health, equal pay, employee consultation and safety.

The second and third pillars added two new areas of policy co-operation: Common Foreign & Security Policy and Justice and Home Affairs. These were left as areas of policy co-operation, so remained inter-governmental and not the responsibility of the European Commission. Under the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, aspects of JHA became the responsibility of the Community and therefore of the Commission and the European Court.

Most observers see the 1992 treaty as a major advance in European integration, laying the foundations of a new European state, and the twilight of inter-governmentalism. John Major saw it differently, as is clear from his account given to the House of Commons, which is shown below. His contribution to the Treaty is mainly remembered as him opting out of stage three of the creation of the new currency, when exchange rates would be irrevocably locked, and also of the Social Chapter, which the UK did not sign at the time.

What follows is an excerpt from a speech made by John Major in the House of Commons on 11 December 1991 regarding the Maastricht Treaty. Commentary is provided in the footnotes:

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the European Council in Maastricht which I attended with my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The European Council has reached agreement on a treaty on European union… Let me set out the main provisions of the agreements we reached.

The treaty covers economic and monetary union and political union. It follows the structure for which the United Kingdom has consistently argued.[1]

The treaty creates a new legal framework for co-operation between member states in foreign and security policy and in the fight against international crime. That co-operation will take place on an intergovernmental basis outside the treaty of Rome. That means that the Commission will not have the sole right of initiative and the European Court will have no jurisdiction.[2]

On defence, we have agreed a framework for co-operation in which the primacy of the Atlantic alliance has been confirmed and the role of the Western European Union has been enhanced.[3]

As the House knows, there was strong pressure over many months for all aspects of co-operation to come within European Community competence. That was not acceptable to this country. Instead, an alternative route to European co-operation has been opened up.[4] I believe that this will be seen as an increasingly significant development as the Community opens its doors to new members, and more flexible structures are required.

I turn now to the main features of the text. The treaty provides for the possibility that member states will wish to adopt a single currency later this decade, but they can do so only if they meet strict convergence conditions for which the British Government have pressed from the outset. These cover inflation, budget deficits, exchange rate stability and long-term interest rates.

A single currency may come into being in 1997, but only if a minimum of seven countries meet the convergence conditions, and eight of the Twelve [current member states] vote in favour… It is therefore highly uncertain when such a currency will be created and which countries it will cover.[5]

We have exactly the same option to join a single currency at the same time as other member states if we wish. We shall be involved in all the decisions. But, unlike other Governments, we have not bound ourselves to join regardless of whether it makes economic or political sense.

The treaty text on political union provides for enhanced intergovernmental co-operation on foreign and security policy, on defence policy and in the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking and other crimes.[6]

There was pressure from other member states to take foreign policy decisions by majority voting… The treaty reflects our view. It provides that the Council may, but only by unanimity, designate certain decisions to be taken by qualified majority voting. But we cannot be forced to subject our foreign policy to the will of other member states.

We are agreed that Europe must do more for its own defence. We should build up the Western European Union [a non-EU defensive alliance] as the defence pillar of the European union, but the treaty embodies the view set out in the Anglo-Italian proposal two months ago, and endorsed at last month’s summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation that whatever we do at European level must be compatible with NATO. The WEU must in no way be subordinate to the European Council. It is not. We have avoided the danger of setting up defence structures which would compete with NATO.[7]

In these negotiations, we put forward a series of proposals designed to be of direct benefit to the European citizen. All of them were accepted. The Community has agreed to increase the accountability of European Community institutions; to strengthen the European Parliament’s financial control over the Commission; to allow the European Parliament to investigate maladministration and to appoint a Community ombudsman accessible to all Community citizens; to build up the role of the Court of Auditors, which becomes an institution of the Community; and to ensure compliance with Community obligations by giving the European Court of Justice power to impose fines on Governments who sign directives but subsequently do not implement them.[8]

We wanted – and secured – a sensible enhancement of the role of the European Parliament. We did not accept the proposal made by other member states for a power of co-decision between the Parliament and the Council.

I also said then that we were prepared to consider some blocking power for the European Parliament. That has now been agreed. The treaty sets up, in a limited number of areas, a conciliation procedure where there is disagreement between the Council and Parliament. In the last analysis, the Parliament would be able to block a decision in those areas, but only if an absolute majority of its members turned out to vote the proposal down.

The House has been rightly concerned at the creeping extension of Community competence over the last few years. The Commission has often brought forward proposals using a dubious legal base, and the Council has found it difficult to halt that practice in the European Court. We have taken significant steps to deal with that problem.

First, the structure of the treaty puts the issues of foreign and security policy, interior and justice matters and defence policy beyond the reach of the Commission and the European Court.[9]

Secondly, the treaty itself embodies the vital principle of “subsidiarity”, making it clear that the Community should only be involved in decisions which cannot more effectively be taken at national level.[10]

Thirdly, in some areas – notably health protection, educational exchanges, vocational training and culture – we have defined Community competence clearly for the first time. Fourthly, there will be no extension of Community competence in employer-employee relations–the so-called social area.

[We] recognise the Community’s social dimension… But there is no reason for the Community to get involved in employment legislation, which must be for each country to decide for itself.[11]

At British initiative, we committed ourselves at Maastricht to the further enlargement of the Community… [And we made commitments] to the successors of the Soviet Union, to respect the rights of minorities, to implement international agreements on arms control and nuclear non-proliferation…

Our role has been to put forward practical suggestions–and sometimes to rein in the larger ambitions of our partners. Where we believed their ideas would not work, we have put forward our own alternatives. Those can be found throughout this treaty. As with all international negotiations, there has been give and take between all 12 member states. But the process was one in which Britain has played a leading role, and the result is one in which we can clearly see the imprint of our views.

This is a treaty which safeguards and advances our national interests. It advances the interests of Europe as a whole. It opens up new ways of co-operating in Europe. It clarifies and contains the powers of the Commission.[12] It will allow the Community to develop in depth. It reaches out to other Europeans–the new democracies who want to share the benefits we already enjoy. It is a good agreement for Europe, and a good agreement for the United Kingdom. I commend it to the House.

A different view of Maastricht from the House of Lords

Two brief excerpts follow from the speeches of former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and of Lord Lawson in the Lords debate on an amend on the bill that,[13] in the words of Lord Blake, ‘In plain language seeks to ensure that the Maastricht Treaty takes effect only after a referendum has been established as to whether or not the people want it.’ Margaret Thatcher made the following points:

Some people say that Maastricht does not have a big constitutional issue attached to it. Let us look at what the treaty itself says: ‘By this Treaty, the High Contracting Parties establish… a European Union… This Treaty marks a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’. It creates the Union. It gives it all the structures of a sovereign state. That is why we have citizenship, European and monetary union, common defence policies, common foreign policy, and so on. It is something quite different. In addition, it adds many more powers which can be decided by qualified majority voting. One should be very careful before extending those powers, except for a specific purpose. With qualified majority voting, the Commission has the only power—monopoly power—of proposing legislation. No one else has it. Only the Commission can propose legislation. It can do it by a simple majority vote: nine votes to eight. It can bring forward something to go to the Council of Ministers. The Council of Ministers is under majority voting; and there are 111 other examples of areas in which majority voting can apply.

Some time later the former Chancellor, Lord Lawson, spoke. Midway into his speech he made the point below:

Those who claim that the objective of the architects of the Maastricht Treaty is to replace the European Community of nation states by a single European superstate are clearly right. There is nothing disreputable about such an objective, although for my part, as a longstanding proponent of European unity, I believe it to be profoundly mistaken and, if it were ever to be imposed on the peoples of Europe, a blueprint for disaster. But I repeat: there is nothing disreputable about it. All that might perhaps be considered disreputable would be to deny that that is the objective of the architects of the Maastricht Treaty, since it manifestly is so.


[1] The first sentence describes the main theme of the treaty: the creation of a new supranational governmental structure based on QMV. The second sentence ignores it and diverts attention to the two ancillary inter-governmental pillars.

[2] The idea that ‘cooperation… on an intergovernmental basis outside the treaty of Rome’ was a main provision of the Maastricht Treaty has not occurred to anyone else.

[3] Far from the role of the Western EU being ‘enhanced’, its functions and institutions were subsequently transferred to the EU, mainly in 2005-6 after the Nice and Amsterdam treaties, and it was finally declared defunct on 30th June 2011.

[4] Surely, a masterstroke of presentation! Intergovernmental institutions were the traditional means of collaboration between national states and the main purpose of this treaty was to replace as many of the existing ones within the European Community as feasible with supranational governmental institutions, though it was accepted that some would have to remain inter-governmental. Hence the ancillary pillars, Justice & Home Affairs, and Common Foreign & Security Policy.

[5] A rather remarkable misreading of the intentions and determination of other members. Either that, or they had other meetings without him. As we now know, the strict convergence conditions were not met, but in 1999 the currency went ahead anyway.

[6] He clearly wanted to convey the notion that the treaty, and the future of the Union was mainly about intergovernmental collaboration, and therefore returned for several minutes to describe the ancillary intergovernmental pillars, both of which were intended at the time to be temporary, though they only finally disappeared in the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009.

[7] Another serious error of judgment. The other members were plainly ready to abandon the Western European Union. Given the importance he attaches to it here, it is odd that he does not mention it at all in his memoirs.

[8] Community, community, he clings to the name, though the treaty is to transform it into a union.

[9] But for how long? They have all subsequently become Union competences after other treaties were agreed, suggesting that he seriously misjudged the forces behind ‘the creeping extension of Community competence’.

[10] He makes light of, indeed ignores, the vast expansion of the powers of the Commission authorized by this Treaty. It is doubtful whether the ‘vital principle’ of subsidiarity has ever been used to restrain the Commission or to allow national governments to retrieve powers from it. In his memoirs this ‘vital principle’ is mentioned only in passing.

[11] But all the other members think there is a reason for the Union ‘to get involved in employment legislation’ and they also supported the massive extension of Community competence in transport, vocational training education, consumer protection, industrial policy, and culture. The UK was the exception. One of his achievements was to opt out of the Social Protocol or Chapter, and the new currency. One of his failings was to mislead to the House about just how isolated and at odds with other members the UK was.

[12] This is a curious way of describing the vast extension of powers of the Commission.

[13] European Communities (Amendment) Bill, HL Deb, 14 July 1993, vol 548 cc239-334.

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