History of the EU


The European Union was conceived as a solution to the problems caused by European history. Europe's global ascendancy from the Middle Ages onwards was powered by the constant rivalry between its various states. This constant competitiveness stimulated the fields of science, art, and business, and also meant that any talented person or group of people not appreciated in their own land could find a welcome in neighboring states keen to benefit from their skills.

The downside of this rivalry was that it inevitably led to a large number of wars, most of which were limited affairs, fought by small-scale professional or mercenary armies. As the European nations industrialized and competition for territory, markets, and raw materials intensified, the wars became bigger and bigger, with whole populations mobilized and thrown against each other, as in the two World Wars.

It was out of the ruins, devastation, and poverty caused by the last of these great conflicts that the resolve to found the European Union emerged, as political leaders decided that the way to avoid future conflicts was to head towards greater economic and political interdependence.

The first step was the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951. This set out to integrate the coal and steel industries of Western Europe and place control and supervision of them in the hands of an independent, supranational body. This ECSC included six members: Belgium, West Germany, Luxembourg, France, Italy and the Netherlands. Coal and steel, incidentally, were two industries that had been considered vital to the military ambitions of earlier European states.

As Europe recovered from the devastation of the war, the ECSC proved highly successful. Within a few years the basic concept was applied to other sectors of the six nations' economies. In 1957 they signed the Treaty of Rome, creating the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) and the European Economic Community (EEC) which started removing trade barriers and forming a "common market."

The next big step took place ten years later as the three European communities were merged in a single organization with an executive body, the Commission, based in Brussels, a Council of Ministers, with a rotating presidency, and the first European Parliament with its seat in Strasbourg.


A major factor in the success of the EU was the failure of other avenues of economic expansion. After World War II both Britain and France looked to their colonies to provide them with economic opportunities, but, after the 1956 Suez Crisis, in which an Anglo-French attempt to invade and control Egypt and the Suez Canal was rebuffed by international condemnation and the threat of US economic sanctions, decolonization gained speed, creating many new states that were free to trade as they pleased.

France found solace in the EEC, but Britain, a non-member, began to feel increasingly isolated, especially when President Charles de Gaulle of France vetoed its application for membership in 1963 and 1967. De Gaulle's view was that keeping the EEC limited would ensure French domination. This narrow view, however, was overturned in 1973, when the EEC welcomed not only the United Kingdom, but also Denmark and the Republic of Ireland.

This expansion saw the EEC's centre of gravity shift North. The next geographic expansion in the 1980s would see it shift to the South, as Greece, Spain, and Portugal, joined. The EEC played a key role in bolstering young democracies in these nations, all of which had recently experienced authoritarian regimes. Expansion, however, is never easy and new members brought new problems. In particular, countries like Germany, the UK and Denmark, with more efficient farming methods, found fault with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that used up most of the EEC budget to subsidize small-hold farmers, mainly in France, Spain, Portugal, and Greece.

The CAP, which was established to safeguard Europe's food-producing base, was also condemned for its 'butter mountains' and 'wine lakes' as it supported farmers by buying up excess agricultural produce and storing it until it was either 'dumped' cheaply overseas or destroyed so that prices in Europe would remain high and steady.


Despite such difficulties, the EEC continued to evolve. Popular participation was increased in 1979 when elections were held for the first time for the European Parliament. Up until then its members had been chosen by national parliaments. Further integration was introduced by the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, which increased co-operation on defense, justice, and home affairs, and introduced the "Social Chapter" on welfare and labor standards.

The Treaty of Maastricht also changed the EEC to the European Union (EU), recognizing a growing political role that saw the Union developing common policies in areas such as culture, consumer affairs, the environment, energy, transport, trade, and even diplomacy. This change from an economic to a more political role was not without controversy as critics accused the Union of being driven by bureaucrats, special interests, lobby groups, and professional politicians, rather than the will of the voters, many of whom remained indifferent to the changes.

1992 was also a watershed as the EU decided on monetary union and set up the European Central Bank, based in Frankfurt. This led ten years later to the introduction of the single currency – the euro – which replaced the currency of twelve of the 15 member states on 1 January 2002.

While the Maastricht Treaty was being signed, the dust of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc was still settling, as new democracies emerged in Eastern Europe, most of them with an eye on joining the EU as East Germany had by uniting with West Germany in 1990. The next members to join, however, were not ex-Communist states but the affluent nations of Sweden, Finland, and Austria, which acceded in 1995.

While the 90s was a decade of expansion and optimism for the EU, the decade also highlighted the Union's shortcomings as several terrible ethnic wars broke out on its doorstep in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. While the EU seemed powerless to act as a group, several of the member countries, through their NATO membership and with US leadership, contributed troops to create an effective peacekeeping force. This led to calls for a stronger and more united foreign policy.

One of the most momentous events in the EU's history occurred last year with the accession of ten new members, most of them from Eastern Europe. This now means that the EU comprises over 450 million people and is collectively the largest economy in the World.

Colin Liddell
Club Life
February 2005

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