I pull the wafer-thin curtain back tentatively to avoid it dropping off.
It’s November alright. There can be few sights in this world more depressing than the view from a railway station hotel window in autumn. I reckon the only reason they put curtains over them is so that you don’t see how ugly it is out there. It’s not like they keep the light out in summer.
There is little daylight to be deflected at this time of year. I don’t linger longer than to wash, dress and stuff my meagre belongings into my rucksack. Half an hour later I am sitting at the bus stop in the drizzle, sipping at my holy water as if I’d scooped it out of the sea.
They say you can survive drinking sea water if you take small and regular doses and I figure that my spa cure should best be consumed in the same way. My mouth tastes of rotten eggs and I cannot for one moment believe that it is good for your health. Living the dream in Aachen, Germany.
It’s going to take a lively day to cheer me up but my destination has been known to raise a pulse or two in its time. Fifteen miles down the road is the fair city of Maastricht.
By rights it should be a sleepy place. Its student scene keeps it lively at night but by day it exudes the same sophisticated provincialism of its German neighbour and fights it out with Nijmegen for the title of Holland’s oldest city. It’s a lovely town and not the sort of place to cause offence to anyone.
Strange to think then that twenty-five years ago Maastricht was a dirty word.
February 7th, 1992. It was in Maastricht that British prime minister John Major and eleven other European elected leaders signed the treaty that merged the existing pan-European organisations, most notably the European (Economic) Community, into one European Union.
Most male readers will agree that it is a sad reality of modern life that every so often, mainly due to the breakneck pace of our daily existence, anniversaries get forgotten. Such has been the case in 2017 for those following European politics. In the confusion most of us have forgotten that the EU has actually become twenty-five years old.
1992 was hardly a vintage year for British politics. The economy was in a mess, unemployment was high and Major’s government were forced to withdraw the pound from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Honest John may have been the Prime Minister but Margaret Thatcher still loomed large over the scene.
Chesney Hawkes was still a force to be reckoned with in British pop and Leeds United were champions of England. Howard Wilkinson was their coach and this sat well with a nation that still believed that — whether in sport, politics or industry — effective leadership was provided by gruff Yorkshiremen with sideburns who regarded the professional foul as the height of tactical innovation. Britain still had industry in those days of course, names like Swan Hunter and Westland Helicopters.
Happy days they were not. An annus horribilis according to HRH Queen Elizabeth II — although Maastricht was not what she meant. She had enough on her plate with her own domestic difficulties: Three royal divorces in the making and Windsor Castle on fire, an event which occured exactly forty-five years after she married Prince Philip. Presumably that anniversary too was forgotten.
We were deeply aware, I think, of our lack of sophistication — but great things were promised for the future. We were going to become part of Europe and not all were pleased. Maastricht will be remembered less for the signing of the treaty itself and more for the Tory party MPs who opposed it.
Even by the less than inspired sartorial standards of the day they were a funny looking bunch. Theresa Gorman in her lime green suit. Teddy Taylor in his striped blazer looking dressed for a day at the cricket and not for a parliamentary session. John “Spock” Redwood, the half-English, half-Vulcan Welsh Secretary who eventually stood against Major for the party leadership.
Looking back, you can see where UKIP get their curious “purple party” look from. Strange tastes they had, those rebels — politics aside. Curiously enough, on the day that Maastricht was signed, Nigel Farage quit the conservative party. The rest is on its way to becoming history.
It takes about an hour to get there. A delicate light is struggling to force its way through the clouds as the bus passes through muddy brown fields and villages with fancy bilingual signs. This is Holland’s wine country apparently — hard to believe on a day like today. I can only imagine that ’92 was a particularly bad year.
Finding the place where the treaty was signed requires sacrificing all that is good about Maastricht. It was done a good way out of town, half an hour’s walk of so in the pouring rain, in the equivalent of the local county council headquarters. By the time I get there I am soaked.
There’s not much to commemorate the occasion. You could be anywhere. Rotterdam, or anywhere, Liverpool, or Rome. The sort of off-the peg, fuck-it-that’ll-do public building you would go to watch a Beautiful South gig in. A Dutch equivalent of Dagenham Civic Centre. A small black obelisk is all that marks the spot.
For John Major and for the Conservative Party it opened up a can of worms which has yet to be closed. The Maastricht Rebels fought him all the way, cost him his majority and forced a leadership election. “Bastards”, he called some of them. When New Labour and Tony Blair came along the Tories didn’t stand a chance. They were too busy fighting each other to fight an election.
Not that we really cared back then. All the while Britain was getting richer. People were even starting to dress properly. Cool kids like myself drank Becks Bier and listened to French techno. Jürgen Klinnsman signed for Tottenham Hotspur. Nottingham Forest parted with a fortune for Andrea Silenzi, the first Italian to play in the Premier League — and still to this day nobody knows why.
By the early years of this century we couldn’t get enough of Europe. There was still opposition to European integration but the issue wasn’t whether Britain would be in the EU but whether it would join the euro.
We needed their people too. There were more jobs than people back then and you couldn’t get a plumber for love nor money. After the EU expanded in 2004 Britain chose not to exercise its right to impose restrictions on workers coming from the new states. The UK looked enthusiastically at expansion as a way to counter France and Germany’s influence.
Meanwhile Germany — like the vast majority of existing EU states — put restrictions in place and licked its wounds. Back then the Fatherland was the “Sick Man of Europe” — too undynamic and expensive for the new age, struggling with public debt and unemployment.
They were tough years for British people living there. The pound/euro exchange rate made travelling to Norway seem like a bargain in comparison.
All your UK-based British friends talked about was how much their houses had gained in value, what the next exotic holiday destination was going to be, or the latest booze craze. It seemed to us that the whole island was floating on booze back then, and we kind of felt we were missing out on the party.
As it turned out, Cool Britannia was not floating on booze but on borrowed capital. The Finance Crisis sharp took care of that.
We’re not back where we started. The country is in much better shape than it was in 1992. The eurosceptics might want to tell us where the foreign investment that fuelled expansion back then will come from now, but I prefer to focus on the constants. Conservative party infighting persists to this day and Labour are little better.
After three decades of arguing about Europe I see no reason why it should stop now. This is not the end, it is merely a realignment. Once Britain is out then there will inevitably be a clamour to go back in. Such is human imagination that the grass is always greener on the other side. Brexit will need to be a roaring success to prevent this.
Other European parties don’t have this problem you know. Party lines on European integration were drawn up long ago. If you vote for Angela Merkel you get Europe with all the trimmings, if you vote for the Alternatives for Germany you get the lite version. The Machiavellian nature of British politics has deprived the public of any consistency on the matter.
The prevailing view among Conservatives now is that “Britain’s heart was never in this.” I disagree. Britain voted to join, Britain has been quite happy to accept the best of European integration and has played the game well with the worst. But in the end Britain couldn’t make its fucking mind up. As such, it’s wasted everybody’s time.
Michael Portillo, one of the eurosceptic cabinet ministers described by Major as a “bastard”, recalls how he once told the prime minister he should throw out half of the cabinet in order to get a clear line on Europe. Which half didn’t actually matter. I suspect Theresa would dearly love to do the same.
In honour of Honest John I pull out my phone, turn the camera on myself and set it to “video” mode. “The Conservative party are a bunch of bastards!” I record myself declaring. A realistic reenactment of that famous day. It’s as true now as it was then.
I’m depressed. I stomp back into the town in the pouring rain, the wind blowing the spray in from the river. Time for a drink, something stronger than holy water.
I sit at the bar at the White Sheep. Not for the first time in the Netherlands I feel like I’m in Britain. Normally I like this very much but just now I can’t help but feel that the British are bastards.
Maastricht has been as much a Pandora’s box for the EU as it has for Britain. Evils were released which have not yet been contained. Ambitious targets for debt as a proportion of GDP have been missed by a mile. The euro hobbles on, but monetary policy has plagued the club from day one. The EU lives to fight another day, but it is hardly living the dream. There is much still to be done. Say what you like about the EU, it is not afraid of a challenge.
Some Trappist ale cheers me up, as does the warmth and the elegance of my surroundings. The rain has brought the punters in from the streets and the place is full. The taps run constantly. Heads of foam are expertly cut with a flat edge and trays are packed full of beer.
I start to unwind. There’s nothing more relaxing than sitting watching other people working. And there’s a bright side to all of this. The best of the Maastricht Treaty never materialised but the worst didn’t either. Twenty-five years on the dreaded European superstate so feared by Tory rebels has not come to fruition.
I make a note to myself not to forget the next anniversary. On December 6th Finland will be a hundred years old. It has been a century since she gained independence from Sweden and such is the magic of Europe that I have friends there I can congratulate. Hope to cling to.
One hundred years. Twenty-five is nothing in comparison. We all have some growing up to do I think.
Keep calm and carry on.