European Topics

The perception in continental Europe of the off-shore islanders (the Britons) as introspective, insular and isolationist has grown significantly in recent years... Much emphasis is placed on seemingly unimportant indicators ~ the small number of Englishmen who speak another European language; the adamant refusal to allow foreigners to bring their dogs to Dover; the wide acceptance that Europe begins at Calais and that the population of the British Isles has never been European... The popularity of the British, huge in 1945, waned as its great army of well-disciplined soldiers was replaced by its undisciplined army of lager louts... Now the British attitude to the Treaty of Maastricht, as that is portrayed on the continent, exaggerates the misunderstandings further.

William Forbes has lived in the Benelux region for several years... He is to contribute an occasional column examining issues as they can be seen from the continental viewpoint.

A View from Maastricht

The Origins of the Treaty

WE HAD WALKED slowly across the Vrijthof without talking, the glorious harmony of organ and choir still enveloping us... It was, I remember, slightly chill, for it was Christmas Day, but as in this famously temperate region the wind seldom blows fiercely, we were not cold... The Romans had noted the gentle climate here, where our maritime and continental air masses meet, and had described its favours in their letters home... They had grown grapes on terraces overlooking the river, cultivated pleasant gardens, and although they may have longed for their heavy Mediterranean sun, the land around Maastricht had accommodated their villas and catered well for their luxurious expatriate lifestyles.

So we were now sat outside a café drinking strong coffee, nibbling the small spicy biscuits the Dutch serve with it, looking across the square towards the great eastern windows of Sint Servaas... The holy bishop died in the days of Roman rule, and the small wooden chapel built over his grave has during the centuries grown into this great cathedral... Charlemagne prayed here... Charles of Lotharingia, the last of the Carolingians, grandson of Charles the Simple, who was grandson of Charles the Bald, who was grandson of Charlemagne, is buried in its crypt... Saint Servaas would not have recognised his church now, nor any other part of Mosa trajectum... Albeit built (and rebuilt in part many times) astride ancient ways, Maastricht is today a very modern city.

From a fabled spring on a French hillside 200 miles away, exactly due south, the Meuse has traced its legend around granite spurs, through wooded glens, past ancient battles, bearing the traffic of two millenia to and from the northern ports... A little south of where we sipped our coffee it changes its name to the Maas, widens, aligns the frontier between Belgium and the Netherlands, then reshapes its valley into an orchard strath... At Maastricht, the oldest city in the Netherlands, its lazily-flowing water is crossed by the Romans' road from Belgian Tongeren to German Aachen (Tongres to Aix-la-Chapelle in this multilingual region of confusing roadsigns)... Another Roman road, from Liège (Luik or Lüttich) to 's-Hertogenbosch (the Duke's wood, now usually abbreviated to Den Bosch) runs parallel with the laden barges until it breaks away nor'westwards and the Maas rolls on towards Venlo, Dordrecht, Rotterdam and the cold North Sea.

And yet, still, modern Maastricht remains also an old city, a walled city, much besieged... D'Artagnan, the great Musketeer, fell here for his king, mortally wounded by a defender's musket ball, one of the very many thousands slain by the Belgæ, Romans, Huns, Vikings, Spanish, French and Austrians long before twentieth-century warfare stamped its hellish mark on the region... Today, modern Maastricht exploits that history to draw in the tourists and, because Maastricht is neither Dutch nor Belgian nor German, but fairly representative of the mongrel mixture that is Europe, sometimes it draws also the politicians.

Which is why, I thought on that Christmas Day, Maastricht offered a platform to look at what Europe has been and what it is becoming.

The others discussed the symbolism of Maastricht as a European entity... It is so far inland, yet the five-pointed silver star on the red flags fluttering occasionally on the staffs around the square is the stella maris ~ the star of the sea... Twelve of these stars, mullets in British heraldry, coloured gold, formed a circle on the blue flags we could see... But, as Tirlemont pointed out, whatever Maastricht could have meant as an historical icon has been eclipsed by the Treaty... That is all that Maastricht means in the popular view of people who have never been here... "Maastricht" is now just the "Treaty of Maastricht".

Rumigny joined us, pulled up a chair, sipped coffee and, as we bid him welcome, launched an attack against the Treaty... He is an odd fellow, long and thin and gloomy, rather like the old drawings of Don Quixote or the imaginary skeletal form of the Last Minstrel... Perhaps he is more the minstrel, for he has the air of a tired man who might have seen it all, a time traveller, or even, perhaps, Tiresias.

A tragedy, he said... Supposed to ensure there would be no more war in Europe... Supposed to foster love between all Europe's peoples... Supposed to enhance prosperity... Supposed to direct our energies towards greater industry, to improve agriculture, to encourage freedom of movement... Supposed to share out our natural resources fairly... All the great leaders indicated, more or less, that they were in agreement... So they wrote it down and they signed it, here, just a few minutes from where we sit... At Meerssen.

Not Meerssen, said Gordinne... It was Randwyck.

Meerssen, said Rumigny.

Not everyone agreed, said Tirlemont... But the idea of a united Europe and no more war, ever, is irresistible... Even the sceptics will go along with a Treaty which ensures that.

Rumigny turned to me, his thin shoulders hunched up almost to his ears... You're British, he said... You insist the proof is in the pudding, he said.

More or less, I said.

Greater industry, he said... Improved agriculture... Free movement... Enhanced prosperity... Natural resources fairly shared... And peace... No more war... Peace and our Holy Mother the Church triumphant... And what did the Treaty give us in truth?

He glared at us... His eyes, I thought, were feverish... Influenza or fanaticism?.. No... This was Christmas Day and Rumigny was tight.

We had four years of squabbling, he said.

No one spoke... Not even Tirlemont would deny that.

Ah, we agree, he said... Right!.. So in 851 everyone returned to Meerssen to reaffirm the agreement of 847, and then before any sign of the future prosperity could show, the arguments began again... And then it blew apart ~ everyone wanted more than their fair share, no one honoured any promises at all, and when Germany and France returned to Maastricht for the third and last time, Meerssen 870 that was, they repartitioned Europe in such manner as to ensure conflict would ensue for the next eleven centuries... And so we had war for eleven centuries.

Ah, yes, Meerssen, said Gordinne... But that wasn't the Treaty we were discussing... When you joined us we were discussing the European Union and the Treaty signed at Randwijk.

Oh, said Rumigny after a pause... Well, he said after another pause... So what's the difference?.. They're all the same, aren't they?

And so we left it... It was Christmas Day... A day of hope... Peace on Earth and good will to all men... We finished our coffee and ambled slowly towards our cars and the roast turkey and the mulled wine... The Maastricht flags and the European Union flags fluttered a brief, careless farewell as we left the square.

(c) 1997 William Forbes

Meerssen, three miles from the cathedral, was the site of a Carolingian palace used three times for meetings summoned by the grandsons of Charlemagne to discuss the future of Europe... Randwijk is the site of the modern conference centre, one mile from the cathedral, where the famous intergovernmental meeting was held to sign the European Union's Treaty of Maastricht.

A View from Westminster

A Later View from Maastricht

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