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The Pillars of Europe: The Legacy of the Maastricht Treaty After 25 Years

(Page 1-11) Council of the European Union

International Affairs Academy, Document of the Day

The Treaty on European Union, signed at Maastricht on 7 February 1992, entered into force on 1 November 1993. In November 2018, we therefore celebrate 25 years of both the European Union which it established, and the Council of the European Union, as it was then renamed.

The Maastricht Treaty was a turning point in the process of European integration. For the first time, the ambition of political union was formalised, moving on from the initial objective of economic integration as an instrument for political reconciliation.


The Maastricht Treaty was the result of the gradual, laborious process of European integration. It was made possible by changes in the world order that had been in place during the previous 50 years, which opened up new possibilities for Europe.

Early attempts to create a political union among European countries had been made during the 1950s but the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the collapse of the Soviet Union’s control over eastern Europe, injected a real sense of urgency into discussions on the future of Europe. In that rapidly changing situation, the President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, saw an opportunity to call for a ‘leap forward’ in the integration process, which was reflected in the focus of the Dublin Council meetings of 1990 on three issues: economic and monetary union (EMU), increasing democratic legitimacy and coherence in political action, and the establishment of a common foreign and security policy.

The Strasbourg European Council of December 1989 set the launch of an intergovernmental conference (IGC) on Economic and Monetary Union for December 1990. The Dublin special meeting of the European Council in April 1990 launched the preparations for a separate IGC on political union.

The Rome Summit in October 1990 developed Delors’ idea into a proposal for a Treaty covering EMU and Political Union, which foresaw the extension of the Community’s powers in the areas of the environment, health, social policy, energy, research and technology, consumer protection, immigration, visa policy, the right of asylum, and international crime. It also proposed the creation of ‘European citizenship’ and mentioned the possibility of a common defence framework.

In April 1991, the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council presented a draft Treaty on European Union, which introduced a structure divided into three key areas of activity: the European Communities, the common foreign and security policy and justice and home affairs.

The Maastricht European Council in December 1991 reached agreement on the new treaty, the Treaty on European Union (TEU), which covered these fields in a single text.

The Treaty on European Union was signed in Maastricht, located on the river Maas (Meuse) at the symbolic crossroads between the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, on 7 February 1992. The European Union was born, and the Treaty became commonly known as the “Maastricht Treaty”.

The Maastricht Treaty entered into force on 1 November 1993, following its ratification by the then 12 Member States (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal and United Kingdom).


The Treaty formally established the European Union. However, it is not a blueprint for a constitution, but rather a very large legal text comprising over 230 articles and including very precise rules governing the decision-making of the EU institutions, together with specific policy objectives and practices.

The Maastricht Treaty also pushed forward two key elements for European integration: monetary union (meaning ultimately a single currency), and a common foreign and security policy. It also conveyed EU citizenship, thereby supplementing national citizenship.

The Treaty widened the scope of European Community policymaking to include some new areas, including education, culture, public health, consumer protection, trans-European networks, industrial policy, and development cooperation. It also expanded cooperation between the EU and Member States on social policy, a common commercial policy, economic and social cohesion, research and technological development, and the environment.

The Maastricht Treaty marked an important change in the institutional balance within the Community by giving more powers to the European Parliament. For instance, it not only gave the European Parliament the right of initiative, the right of petition and the role of appointing the Ombudsman, but also introduced the codecision procedure, which meant that the European Parliament and the Council had to adopt legislation jointly. These innovations aimed to widen democratic accountability in the European decisionmaking process. A new body was also created, the Committee of the Regions, to represent regional and local interests in the context of EU legislative activity. The Committee had its roots in, and reflects the subsidiarity principle enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty.


One of the most noteworthy and fundamental characteristics of the Maastricht was the reorganization of the European Union's competencies into three areas, commonly known as pillars. These were:

  1. The European Communities (EC) Pillar

  2. The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) pillar

  3. The Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) pillar

This structure was the result of a compromise between those Member States which were pushing for the expansion of the competencies of the European Communities to include fields such as foreign policy, military matters, criminal justice, and judicial cooperation, and other Member States which had misgivings about including such sensitive areas under supranational mechanisms.

The pillar structure brought with it different decision-making procedures. The first, ‘European Communities’, pillar provided a framework enabling the Community institutions to exercise the powers conferred on them by the Member States in areas governed by the Treaty. The number of decisions to be taken through qualified majority voting in the Council of the European Union were increased.

The second and third pillars operated on an intergovernmental cooperation basis, usually through consensus between the Member States, and with less involvement from the Commission.

The pillar structure also clarified where, and to what extent, the Union has exclusive legislative competence, where it shares its competence with the Member States, and where it may carry out actions to support, coordinate or supplement action by the Member States. There are three categories of EU competence: exclusive competence (only the EU can act), shared competence (the Member States can act only if the EU has chosen not to), and actions to support, coordinate or supplement action by the Member States, but without harmonising their national rules.

The pillar structure, introduced 25 years ago by the Maastricht Treaty, was subsumed into the overall European Union structure in 2009 as a result of the Treaty of Lisbon. This improved institutional efficiency and strengthened the democratic nature of the Union. Since Lisbon, the Union has been based on two key treaties: the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

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