The European Union at 30 – an extract from ‘Circle of Stars’

November 1st 2023 marks the 30th anniversary since the entry into force of the Maastricht Treaty, which established the European Union. This extract from Dermot Hodson’s book, Circle of Stars: A History of the EU and the People Who Made It, describes the events occurring in the European Community in the lead up to the signing of the Treaty.

Håkan Dahlström from Malmö, Sweden, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Maastricht wasn’t written on a blank page. As the historian Kiran Klaus Patel shows, the treaty’s three signature projects – the single currency, the common foreign and security policy and cooperation in the field of justice and home affairs – had been on the European Community’s agenda since the 1970s.1 However, cooperation in these fields had either stalled or taken place outside the European Community’s decision-making structures. The 1970 Werner Plan to establish an economic and monetary union by the end of the decade was soon abandoned amid the international economic crisis that followed the collapse of Bretton Woods and the first oil shock. Although member states endorsed a new plan for economic and monetary union in Madrid in June 1989, they concluded at the same summit that a single currency couldn’t be realised without, what eventually became, the Maastricht Treaty.2 The European Political Cooperation, which was created in 1970, allowed foreign ministers to produce joint declarations on questions of international peace and security, issues which the European Community had hitherto steered clear of. However, such efforts had next to no impact on world affairs, as Patel acknowledges.3 It was not until the Maastricht Treaty entered into force that the EU had a fully fledged foreign and security policy which sought to protect ‘the common values, fundamental interests and independence of the Union’ or seriously considered a common defence policy.4 Member states, meanwhile, initiated cooperation on drug policy in 1971 and counter-terrorism in 1975, but discussions in these and other areas of justice and home affairs remained on an ad hoc footing until the EU was created. However, Maastricht was not just about the formalisation of the hitherto informal. It was also about the realisation of a political project that had been flown as a trial balloon two decades earlier and burst.

In October 1972, the Heads of State or Government of Belgium, Denmark, France, West Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom met in Paris, where they invited the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice to prepare a report on transforming ‘the whole complex of the relations’ between members of the European Community into a European Union.5 It was twenty years by this point since the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community and fourteen since the founding of the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community. The European Community, as these entities were collectively known, had enjoyed early success, most noticeably in the creation of a customs union, common market and common agricultural policy. But the project had lost its way in the mid-1960s after Charles de Gaulle recalled French diplomats and ministers from Brussels after a row over qualified majority voting. This empty chair crisis was resolved by a compromise which ensured no member state could be outvoted on matters of ‘vital national interest’.6 The downside of this arrangement was that it slowed down Community decision-making at a time of growing international instability.

Although he had been a close ally of his predecessor Charles de Gaulle, French President Georges Pompidou sought to revive the European Community rather than keep it in check. Pompidou’s first major foreign policy decision as president was to drop his country’s veto on UK accession to the European Community. His second was to call a referendum not only on whether Denmark, Ireland, Norway and the UK should be allowed to join the European Community but on whether France should embrace ‘the new opportunities opening up in Europe’.7 Two-thirds of voters supported Pompidou, who in turn convinced his fellow Heads of State or Government to support his plans for ‘European Union’ in Paris in October 1972.8 Growing frustrated with the European institutions’ slow  deliberation on this subject, national leaders soon took matters into their own hands.9

Belgian Prime Minister Leo Tindemans accepted the invitation to study what form European union should take with energy, enthusiasm and a heavy heart. A European federalist marked by his teenage experience of Nazi occupation, Tindemans saw European unity as vital for his own country’s security. He was also a European pragmatist, who cut his political teeth on plans to decentralise power among Belgium’s fractious French- and Flemish-speaking communities. He understood from the outset that a federal Europe enjoyed next to no political support among other leaders.

After touring nine national capitals to meet with political leaders and civil society, Tindemans’ message was direct: public opinion was favourable towards the European project and frustrated with political leaders’ lack of commitment to it. ‘Almost all the people to whom I spoke,’ the Belgian prime minister told his fellow Heads of State or Government, ‘could not imagine a better future for their country than that offered by the building of Europe.’10 But the public was sceptical of national leaders’ willingness ‘to establish a genuine European Union and solve the real problems of the day at European level’. In a television address marking the publication of his report in December 1975, the Belgian prime minister cut a professorial figure, clutching a pen and making  notes, as if writing his recommendations in real time. Preferring to disappoint federalists rather than alarm other Heads of State or Government, Tindemans eschewed calls for a European Constitution or even a treaty revision in favour of practical steps to give meaning to the idea of European Union. Member states, he argued, needed to speak on the world stage with one voice, even on questions of security and defence, to develop a common economic and monetary policy, if necessary among a subset of member states, and to serve European citizens rather than the ‘pleasure of the technocrats’, including through the protection of rights.

The European Council, as the Heads of State or Government now christened their regular summits, greeted the Tindemans Report with polite indifference. The Belgian prime minister may have diluted his proposals to suit their tastes, but his recommendations remained, as the historian Mark Gilbert memorably put it, ‘strong beer . . . which nobody had the courage to gulp’.11 French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s abstemiousness was particularly damaging. France’s youthful president had promised to continue efforts to rejuvenate European integration after Pompidou’s untimely death, but the liberal leader was enfeebled by France’s troubled economy and, what Michael Leigh called, ‘a network of political constraints at home’.12 Lacking a stable parliamentary majority, Giscard depended on the support of Jacques Chirac’s Rally for the Republic, but Chirac resigned as prime minister after two years and moved further to the right in his effort to retain control of his party from Gaullists. In December 1978, while recuperating from a car crash, Chirac launched a veiled attack from his hospital bed against Giscard’s ‘party of foreigners’, further limiting the president’s ability to lead on European issues.13 Political support for Tindemans’ ideas was no greater in other member states. Faced with rising inflation, increasing unemployment and energy shortages, national leaders turned inwards.

For Tindemans, the EU’s establishment in November 1993 ‘confirmed’ what he had tried to achieve in his report almost two decades earlier.14 But this claim downplayed key differences between his vision of a European Union and the one codified by the Maastricht Treaty. The European Commission should ‘reassert its freedom of action’ and ‘add its own brand of dynamism to the building of the European Union’, Tindemans had argued. Maastricht gave the European Commission limited say over new and sensitive areas of cooperation. The European Parliament should be given the right to propose legislation like a regular parliament, Tindemans had suggested. Maastricht conferred no such right, allowing the European Parliament instead to co-decide on European Commission proposals in some policy areas, this power having hitherto rested solely with national representatives in the Council of Ministers. The biggest difference between the Tindemans Report and Maastricht, however, concerned how the idea of European union was received. In writing his report, the Belgian prime minister was supremely confident that public opinion favoured deeper European integration. The first Eurobarometer published in 1974 had, after all, shown that three-quarters of Europeans viewed progress towards European unity to be insufficient.15 Just how divisive the EU would be with the general  public  became  apparent  from  the  moment  that Maastricht was signed.

About the book

Circle of Stars
A History of the EU and the People Who Made It

Dermot Hodson

‘A highly original and wide-ranging history of the EU. Hodson skilfully weaves together the national and European stories, focusing on political personalities as makers-of-history, carefully picked from across the political spectrum.’
Luuk van Middelaar, author of The Passage to Europe

Find out more

About the author

Dermot Hodson is a professor at Loughborough University London and visiting professor at the College of Europe, Bruges, and was formerly an economist at the European Commission’s DG for Economic and Financial Affairs. His books include The New Intergovernmentalism: States and Supranational Actors in the Post-Maastricht Era.

Also of interest

  1. K.K. Patel (2020) Project Europe: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University
    Press). ↩︎
  2. Council of Ministers (1989) ‘Presidency Conclusions, European Council, Madrid,
    26–27 June’, SN 254/2/89. ↩︎
  3. Patel (2020): 72. ↩︎
  4. Articles J.1 and J.4, Treaty on European Union (1992). ↩︎
  5. Heads of State or Government (1972) ‘Statement from the Paris Summit (19 to 21
    October 1972)’ Bulletin of the European Communities. October 1972, No 10.
    Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities: 14–26.
    The court is referred to in this book by its informal name, the European Court of
    Justice, rather than its formal name at the time of writing, the Court of Justice. ↩︎
  6. P.N. Ludlow (1999) ‘Challenging French Leadership in Europe: Germany, Italy, the
    Netherlands and the outbreak of the empty chair crisis of 1965–1966’ Contemporary
    European History, 8(2): 231–48. ↩︎
  7. The referendum also concerned the question of whether the UK, Ireland, Denmark
    and Norway should be allowed to join the European Community. Norway voted
    ‘no’ to accession in a referendum of its own and never joined. ↩︎
  8. Heads of State or Government (1972) ‘Statement from the Paris Summit (19 to
    21 October 1972)’ Bulletin of the European Communities. October 1972, No 10.
    Luxembourg: Office for official publications of the European Communities:
    14–26. CVC.EU Archive, University of Luxembourg. ↩︎
  9. Heads of State or Government (1974) ‘Final communiqué of the Paris Summit (9
    and 10 December 1974)’ Bulletin of the European Communities. December, No. 12.
    Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities. ↩︎
  10. L. Tindemans (1976) ‘European Union: Report by Mr Leo Tindemans, Prime
    Minister of Belgium, to the European Council’, Bulletin of the European
    Communities. Supplement 1/76. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the
    European Communities. ↩︎
  11. M. Gilbert (2020) European Integration: A Political History (London: Rowman &
    Littlefield): 188. ↩︎
  12. M. Leigh (1977) ‘Giscard and the European Community’ The World Today, 33(2):
    73–80. ↩︎
  13. L. Vigogne (2019) ‘6 décembre 1978: Chirac lance l’appel de Cochin contre le “parti
    de l’étranger” ’ l’Opinion, 26 September. ↩︎
  14. ‘Interview de Leo Tindemans / Leo Tindemans, Étienne Deschamps, prise de vue:
    François Fabert. Bruxelles: CVCE [Prod.], 24.02.2006; CVCE, Sanem. video
    (00:13:33, Couleur, Son original)’. Archive, University of Luxembourg. ↩︎
  15. C. Schweiger (2016) Exploring the EU’s Legitimacy Crisis: The Dark Heart of Europe
    (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar): 5–6. ↩︎

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