The euro was conceived 20 years ago today, but now even Maastricht questions its survival
It all began here, 20 years ago today: the euro adventure. A dozen European political grandees – marshalled by Mrs Thatcher's nemesis, Jacques Delors – signed the single currency into life.
On 9 December 1991 the then 13 European leaders – including Germany's Helmut Kohl, Francois "Sphinx" lMitterrand of France and Italy's Giulio "Il Divo" Andreotti – convened for lunch. They ate at the 400-year-old Chateau Neercanne, about 5km from the centre of Maastricht, to celebrate their decision to pursue European Monetary Union.
Before their meal in the main restaurant, the leaders gathered in the wine cellar for aperitifs and signed their names in charcoal on the sandstone wall – on what is now a glass-enclosed tablet saying Déjeuner Europese Raad (European Council lunch) 09.12.1991. Their names, heavy with history, are on the right, with Mitterrand at the top and John Major, with Delors, at the bottom. Their hostess, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, is named on the left.
Last night, two decades later, the now 27 leaders of the EU again sat down to dine. But this time in Brussels, on a mission to save the euro, to save the European union from splitting in two and, potentially, to save the world from slumping into a global recession.
It is a colossal challenge, but it was back in 1991 too, when the euro was viewed as a way of binding together a newly reunited Germany, a historic source of political instability and war, into a Europe of permanent peace and mutual solidarity that was no longer divided between capitalism and communism. As Kohl would say repeatedly: "A European Germany, not a German Europe."
Leo Smeijers, who served Europe's leaders that day and now runs the chateau's L'Auberge brasserie in a former chapel, says Beatrix brought her own staff to look after the 14 at lunch but Hans Snijders, head chef then and now, cooked their food. They ate langoustines and pheasant, washed down with an Australian white (eyebrows raised at that disclosure) and an unrecalled red.
Snijders, sitting quietly with the rest of the staff at his own lunch, laughs at the memory. The mood, says Smeijers, was convivial but serious. He hopes the new gathering in Brussels will save the euro "because we need and we have one currency everywhere in Europe – well, almost everywhere". He smiled at his British guest. "I understand there's problems about making a big, strong pact but it has to happen."
Joelle, a younger restaurant manager, is half-prepared to accept a return to the guilder, however.
At the Christmas market on the Vrijthof in central Maastricht, where Dutch, German and French shoppers mingle by stalls selling nougat and chocolate, Agnes, a pensioner from Breda, looks at the lunch list of 20 years ago and says: "They were real politicians in those days; they took real decisions, strong decisions."
Her husband, Gerard, strongly supports the euro but thinks Greece – "they're all corrupt there" – should leave for five, six or even 10 years. He says they should have time to recover, get their economy stable and then rejoin. "My own feeling is that Balkan countries, say, planning to join the EU should stay away from the euro until their economies are stable."
He looks at me intensely. "As long as you Brits are not part of the euro you should close your mouths. You should stop telling us what to do and come as soon as possible to the euro. Britain is a European country after all."
Max, a German student doing his masters in economics, is also keen for the Brits to join – eventually. But, equally, he's scathing about the role played by "Anglo-Saxon" banks in fomenting the original credit crisis.
Like many Germans, including Kohl, he is a fervent admirer of Churchill. "I was listening to his Zurich speech of 1946 recently and he called for a European Union that would be a United States of Europe and that's an idea, an ideal, worth saving, especially given our history of wars."
Like many young Germans, he's "not a big fan of Germany taking leadership or having it thrust upon this Merkel government" because "they don't behave very nicely to the others". But then he adds: "It may be unavoidable. France is struggling and England is not involved so who else is there to lead? I think what they'll do is get back to the core union."
Bart, a policy adviser to the Province of Limburg, works in the building where the Maastricht treaty was signed. He, too, favours the euro but admits to having second thoughts – along with, he suspects, 40% of the Dutch who might happily revert to their own currency.
"When I'm angry I think we should have a neuro in northern Europe and a seuro in the south," he says. "This meeting has got to be the last warning for those who don't keep within the rules. Sometimes, when I get mad, I think these Greeks and Italians don't have the basics or even the mentality for a strong economy. They simply don't work hard enough."