Can Europe Hold Together?

Remember disenchanted voters in towns “where the factories had closed their doors leaving behind only wasteland,” in a Euroskeptic heartland which “is the principal victim of unemployment, exclusion, and poverty,” “abandoned,” “fearful of the future,” and determined to derail the process of European integration?

No, those were not the Leave voters in the UK’s Brexit referendum in 2016. Instead, the quotes come from the French press in the aftermath of the country’s 1992 referendum, in which a narrow majority of French voters approved the Maastricht Treaty, which laid down much of the current shape of European institutions, including the EU’s common currency, the Euro. The ratification of the treaty proved hugely controversial in the United Kingdom, where the generation of “Maastricht Rebels” provided the initial ferment for a Euroskeptic movement that would eventually lead the country out of the EU. In Denmark, meanwhile, voters initially rejected the treaty in a referendum, forcing the government to negotiate a number of formal “opt-outs,” most prominently from the country’s membership in the Eurozone.

Clearly, the French referendum’s divide between the educated, professional avant-garde of “chic neighborhoods” and the working classes foreshadowed the turbulence that defined much of political life in the West over the past decade. However, the tale of the Maastricht Treaty and of the resistance it engendered in a number of European countries not only gives the early flavor of political realignments that became apparent much later, but it also exposes a perennial flaw of the European project: the mismatch between its potentially unbounded ambitions and the relatively modest set of tools at its disposal.

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