MAASTRICHT, Netherlands — Twenty-five years ago, the modern European Union was born here.
Dutch voters were deciding whether that history matters, and what future role their country should play in Europe, as they went to the polls Wednesday, in the first of several elections this year expected to elevate Euroskeptic parties.
Final polling suggested that the far-right Party for Freedom would gain seats but fall short of installing its populist leader, Geert Wilders, as prime minister. This would dim the prospects of a “Nexit” referendum, in the model of the British vote last year to leave the European Union.
Yet the pull of Wilders's nationalist message has made the election a contest over competing visions: one open and outward-looking, the other hemmed in from forces of immigration and economic globalization. Between these visions lie the principles of a united Europe — economic convergence, common citizenship, free movement and joint foreign policy — set down in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.
These principles are terribly important to Bernice Doore, who was voting at a music school in town. At her side was her husband, Andy Nicholls, who is a British citizen.
“The well-being of people who live and think as Europeans is at stake,” said Doore, 55, who has lived in this small city in the far southeast of the Netherlands since she came here as an 18-year-old to study medicine.
It is no longer a crucible of high politics; Maastricht is perhaps best known internationally for its annual fine arts fair, which is Europe’s largest.
But Doore, who works in child health care, said her city’s history is on her mind now more than ever, particularly as she and her husband wonder what the British government’s negotiations about the terms of the exit from the E.U. will mean for Nicholls's ability to live and work abroad.
That uncertainty, he said, has made him physically ill.
“We’re going to be collateral damage,” he said. “We embraced what the politicians said in this heady moment, in 1992, with talk of open borders, free movement, and then they can just as easily take it all away.”
Maastricht marked a turning point because it committed European leaders to political, not just economic, integration. It also laid the groundwork for the single European currency. Both points have proved contentious as the E.U. has been buffeted by challenges that have tested the bloc's cohesion. These include the debt crisis that arose in 2009, its epicenter in Greece, and the refugee influx of the past few years.
Luuk van Middelaar, a Dutch historian and former adviser to the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, said the idea of a politically integrated Europe was never popular in the Netherlands.
“The Europe they liked was the old Europe of the Common Market, which was the Europe as it was first built between the 1960s and the end of the Cold War,” he said. “The Dutch liked that very much because we are a nation of traders. The Dutch never liked the idea of so-called political Europe.”
By the late 1990s, there was resistance to further unification, van Middelaar said, as the Netherlands flipped from a net receiver to a net payer into the budget of the E.U. Along with the French, the Dutch vetoed a proposed European constitution in a 2005 referendum.
Still, observers of Dutch political history said “Nexit” is not a winning proposition, and they suggested that this calculation led Wilders to make Euroskepticism less central to his message than in previous campaigns.
Despite long-standing antipathy to European overreach, said Michael Wintle of the University of Amsterdam, the Dutch “know which side their bread is buttered on.”
John Fievez, a retired accountant leaving his polling place, embodied this tension, between distaste for the E.U. but no real desire to see his country cut ties with it. He recalled the city’s invasion in 1992 by “men in suits making a big fuss,” and he said he was convinced, at the time, that the treaty was important.
“Now I don’t think it’s so important,” Fievez said. “The E.U. takes the vote away from the country you live in. I think it’s rubbish.”
At the same time, he said he thinks the Dutch economy is too small to stand on its own.
The problem is that the more mainstream parties have failed to articulate a positive vision of Europe, said Bram Ranzan and Thijs Keijsevs, students at Maastricht University. They said they saw some semblance of this vision in the platform of Alexander Pechtold, the leader of Democrats 66, and decided to place their faith in him.
“People are upset with the political elites because they don’t see them offering real solutions to their problems,” said Ranzan, who studies economics. “So shouldn’t our leaders be talking more about how European cooperation can be a solution, especially when it comes to climate change, to the military and big difficulties like that?”
Maastricht’s mayor, Annemarie Penn-te Strake, said an election that has drawn international attention could be an opportunity to articulate such a message. In this city, she said, history is a natural touchstone for politics.
“It’s not only because of the fact that 25 years ago the treaty was born here in Maastricht. That’s not enough,” she said. “It’s all the ideas and the values in the treaty that we embrace here in the city.”
This city — of all cities — is European, she said, for it hugs the border with Belgium and lies a short distance from Germany.
But geographic proximity may not be enough. When asked which identity was primary, voters interviewed here uniformly answered: Dutch.
This presents a difficulty that must be met, van Middelaar said, by a willingness to tell voters — and not just Wilders supporters — something they may not want to hear.
“Politicians will have to find a discourse in which they convince the electorate that Europe is a deeply political project without stirring fears that it will become the United States of Europe,” he said.