History of the European Union

by Arnav Singh

“Nationalism is war, and war is the past. But it is not only the past. It could be our future. You are the guarantors of peace and our security.”

-Francois Mitterand (French President) in an address to the EU (1995)

Today, the European Union is a political force to be reckoned with - an economic powerhouse comprising 27 nations with a combined GDP of $18.8 trillion. What started out as an effort to bring peace to Europe has evolved and branched out into 35 different policy areas spanning from foreign affairs to justice, migration, and the environment.

Currently, the news surrounding the European Union in mainstream media has been largely centered around the exit of Britain and the steep rise in levels of Euroscepticism - skeptical or negative attitudes towards the EU and the process of European integration - due to rising nationalism and the perception that the EU lacks democracy.

In this article, we’ll be taking a look into the history of the EU, and examining why and how it was formed.

The aftermath of World War II. (1945-48)

Europe was torn apart by two bloody and disastrous World Wars, leaving people with no jobs and no homes. Hundreds of millions of lives were lost, and an Iron Curtain divided Europe in two. The economic and human costs of the wars crippled the entirety of the European continent.

It was clear that for peace, justice, and prosperity to prevail, nations needed to come up with a solution that would safeguard them from future wars on such a scale.

Winston Churchill was one of the first prominent political figures to push for European Integration post the horrors of the Second World War.

“There is a remedy which ... would in a few years make all Europe ... free and ... happy. It is to recreate the European family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety, and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”

-Winston Churchill, University of Zurich,1946.

As a result of his efforts, paired with those of some other prominent world leaders, on May 7th, 1948, a Congress of Europe was called at the Hague, attended by 800 delegates from several European countries, as well as observers from Canada and the United States, with Winston Churchill as the honorary President. This event marked the first federal moment in European History and rallied public opinion for unity.

The Hague Congress resulted in a proposal for the creation of a European Assembly, a customs and economic union, and a proposal of creating a European charter of human rights.

Treaty of London and Formation of Council of Europe (1949)

Thus, it was decided that a Council of Europe would be formed, consisting of a Parliamentary Assembly and a Committee of Ministers consisting of Foreign Ministers of each member state. The Treaty of London (1949) established the Council of Europe and was signed by ten countries: United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, and Luxembourg.

The organization still exists today, with 47 member countries. The EU and the Council share similar ideals about democracy, human rights, and justice. The difference lies in the fact that the Council of Europe cannot make binding laws - it only has the power to enforce some existing international agreements through its European Court of Human Rights, like the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which is aimed at preventing crimes against humanity such as those that occurred during World War II, and to raise awareness of human rights.

A country has to join the Council of Europe and ratify the ECHR to qualify for becoming a member of the EU. The Council of Europe brought together countries that were still struggling with the devastation from World War II and heralded the start of an era of cooperation among European countries.

Schuman Declaration (1950)

"Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity. The coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and [West] Germany".

-Robert Schuman, French Foreign Minister

The Schuman Declaration was a statement made by the French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman on 9th May 1950, that laid out a plan to unite Europe in a step-by-step process.

The first step was to bring the production of steel and coal under a common higher authority and create a common market for countries to trade these resources. The rationale behind this was that since coal and steel were required to build ships, planes, and armories, tying the war production of one country with others would make it impossible for European countries to go to war with each other. This formed a crucial element in European integration and induced collaboration on a global scale.

Treaty of Paris and the Formation of the European Coal and Steel Community (1951)

The Treaty of Paris was signed on 18th April 1951 between France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands as a result of the Schuman Declaration, establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).

The Community set up a High Authority, a Parliamentary Assembly, a Council of Ministers, a Court of Justice, and a Consultative Committee.

The central institution of the ECSC, the High Authority, fixed prices and set production limits, and removed all trade barriers between member states in coal, coke, steel and scrap iron.

As a result, trade in these commodities increased drastically, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process. The ECSC showed the people that cooperation between historic rivals, France and Germany, was possible and beneficial for all.

Treaties of Rome (1957)

On 25th March 1957, the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community (EEC Treaty), and the Treaty establishing the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom Treaty), were signed by 6 nations: France, Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and West Germany. Together, these two treaties are known as the Treaties of Rome.

1) EEC Treaty - The aim of the European Economic Community was to establish a common market based on the four freedoms of movement (goods, persons, capital, and services).

The EEC created a common market by eliminating trade barriers, border controls, and established a common external trade policy. This allowed companies to easily expand their operations across Europe and sell their goods and services, sparking an economic boom. The EEC also regulated the prices of various agricultural products making them more accessible to people.

2) Euratom Treaty - The European Atomic Energy Community oversaw the nuclear energy market, coordinated the supply of fissile materials, and initiated research programs into the development and peaceful uses of atomic energy. The Treaty established a nuclear energy industry on a European scale rather than a national one.

Merger Treaty (1965)

The Merger Treaty which laid down the foundations of the European Union was signed on 8th April 1965 and established a single Council, a single Commission of the three European Communities (ECSC, EEC, and Euratom) and a common parliament.

Although these three communities remained separate legally, they were run by the common set of institutions -

  1. Council of European Communities

  2. Commission of European Communities.

  3. European Parliament

  4. Court of Justice of European Communities (Ensured Compliance of rules and regulations by member states).

1973 - Seeing the economic benefits of European Communities, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Ireland join the Council of Europe and the European Communities.

1981 - Greece becomes a member.

1986 - Portugal and Spain join as well, hoping to accelerate their economic growth.

Single European Act (1986)

By 1986, there was growing discontent among European Communities’ member nations regarding the lack of internal free trade and expansion of the power of the European Parliament in other policy areas.

After numerous discussions and proposals, the Single European Act was signed by nine member states on 17th February 1986, with Ireland being the last nation to sign the Act on 1st July 1987.

The main provisions of the Single European Act (SEA) were -

1) Creation of a European Internal Market

The market was to be fully operational by 1 January 1993, with the objective of broadening the Common Market earlier created through the EEC to non-EU countries: Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway.

2) Expansion in Multiple Policy Areas: Monetary, Economic and social cohesion, Research and Technological development, environment, and Foreign Policy.

3) Increase in the legislative powers of the European Parliament

Schengen Agreement and Schengen Convention (1985-90)

The Schengen Area was established by the Schengen Agreement signed on 14 June 1985, by 5 members out of the then 10 members of the European Communities.

The agreement proposed the abolishment of border checks, allowing residents to cross borders and collaboration on Visa policies.

In 1990, the Schengen Convention was introduced which completely abolished all border checks, controls, restrictions and brought a Common Visa Policy.

The Schengen Area acts as a single country for international travel with external border controls but free internal borders. Currently, 26 European nations are part of the Schengen Area and have a common visa known as the Schengen Visa.

The Maastricht Treaty, Creation of European Union ( 1992), and Eurozone

The Maastricht Treaty, signed on February 7, 1992, gave birth to the European Union. The treaty reorganized the existing institutions and their powers and functions and created new ones.

This was primarily due to the wish of member nations to formally extend cooperation in the spheres of criminal justice, asylum, immigration, and monetary policy.

-The memorial (on the right) commemorating the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, in Maastricht, Netherlands.

A single institutional structure was created for governance, consisting of the Council, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the Court of Justice, and the Court of Auditors.

The powers of the institutions of Europe were divided into three pillars -

1) European Communities

The EC included the three European Communities: ECSC, EEC, and Euratom

2) Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP)

The second pillar of the EU was tasked with the responsibility of defining and implementing a common foreign and security policy.

3) Cooperation in the fields of justice and home affairs

As the name suggests, the third pillar’s objective was to increase intergovernmental cooperation in the fields of Terrorism, drugs, crime, creation of the European Police Office (Europol), and common asylum policy.

The treaty formalized planning to replace national currencies with a common currency for the whole of Europe.

The Maastricht Criteria were specified conditions required to be met by a state to qualify for adopting the common currency, Euro.

Countries were required to have annual budget deficits not exceeding 3% of the Gross Domestic Product, public debt under 60% of GDP, stability in their currency’s exchange rates, and inflation rates lower than 1.5% added to the average of the three lowest inflation rates of member states.

To ensure the stability of the monetary system, these criteria only allowed countries that were fiscally responsible to join the Eurozone.

January 5, 1995 - Sweden, Austria, and Norway join the EU.

On 1st January 1999, after intense discussions, eleven countries (Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain) adopted the currency while Denmark, UK, and Sweden decided to opt-out. Greece joined the Euro in 2001 and the currency was introduced to the general population on January 1, 2002.

Together these countries form the Eurozone, making it easier for trade and goods to pass borders easily by eliminating the need to exchange money.

The Maastricht Treaty established three financial institutions to govern the Eurozone: the European System of Central Banks, the European Central Bank, and the European Monetary Institute.

The Amsterdam Treaty (1997) and the Treaty of Nice (2001)

The treaty made the EU responsible in areas such as employment, improving quality of life, social protection, granting asylum, and judicial policy. A High Representative for EU Foreign Policy was appointed to represent the EU at international summits.

The Treaty of Nice, increased seats on the Commission to 27 (preparing for the entry of Eastern European Nations, previously under the Iron Curtain) and made it easier for the Parliament to pass laws.

In 2004, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia were admitted to the EU taking the total membership to 27.

The Treaty of Lisbon

The Lisbon Treaty gave the EU powers to sign international treaties or to join an international organization with approval from member states.

Furthermore, the treaty also lists the procedure to leave the EU in Article 50, which was invoked by Britain when it decided to leave the EU.

The treaty also expanded the number of Members of European Parliament (MEPs) and increased legislative powers to include a variety of new relevant subjects.

The modern-day European Union is a culmination of efforts of great leaders from Winston Churchill to Robert Schumann and Francois Mitterand. The EU has remarkable achievements under its belt such as the establishment of a single market and reuniting Eastern European countries previously under an Iron Curtain. And, of course, the EU is subject to its flaws.

For good or ill, the EU has shaped European politics, economics, and culture for the past seven decades and will likely continue to do so in the future.


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