History of the European Union

by Brian Bedlow

The concept of an integrated Europe goes back many centuries. The Roman Empire constituted the first great effort to integrate an important section of the European continent. In times past historical personalities such as Charles V, Napoleon and Karl Marx pursued an idea for Europe. Even Adolf Hitler had his grand design for Europe.

In his book Pan–Europa written in 1923, Count Richard Coudenhove–Kalergi stated, “The biggest obstacle to the accomplishment of United States of Europe is the one thousand years old rivalry between the two most populated nations of Pan–Europe: Germany and France” (“The History of the European Union—The European Citizenship”). In 1926 Count Coudenhove–Kalergi of Austria was able to bring together diverse political figures in the First Pan–European Congress which met in Vienna.

That same year French Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, gave a speech before the Assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva in which he articulated the idea of a unified Europe based on economic prosperity and political and social cooperation. His speech was well–received by the Germans; however, with the deep economic depression of the 1930’s Briand’s concept of a federation of European nations was swept away. Those promoting a European Union found themselves very much in the minority (Ibid).

Adolf Hitler ascended to power in 1933 on a wave of violently extreme German nationalism. Over the next decade, peaceful alliances were pushed aside by aggressive military action. In such a climate the concept of a cooperative, unified European federation could not survive. Europe and the world were now facing a new crisis—World War II.

The central partnership

For France and Germany, which had been at war with each other three times in the preceding 80 years, finding a way to live together in a lasting peace became a political priority. It became evident to Western Europe that the Second World War had put a definite end to the traditional European supremacy in the world, and that it was necessary for a new approach to European integration to counteract nationalistic rivalry which had brought about untold suffering and misery. Confrontation between European states must not be repeated. This hinged around finding a suitable accommodation between France and Germany. At the same time there was a desire for a more prosperous continent that would be freer and fairer and lead to harmony and agreement with other nations. In 1946 Winston Churchill gave a speech in Zurich, Switzerland which was considered by many as the first step towards European unity. He said, “We must now build a kind of United States of Europe…the first step must be a partnership between France and Germany…France and Germany must take the lead” (The European Union. John Pinder and Simon Usherwood. p 5).

The first attempt after the Second World War to use European integration to prevent further conflict was the Brussels Treaty. It was drafted and signed in 1948 by France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, agreeing on military, economic, social and cultural cooperation. A year later the same countries set up the Council of Europe—a forum for all European countries to discuss informal cooperation.

Common markets

The next initiative in Western Europe was the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) established by the Treaty of Paris in 1951. On May 9, 1950, Robert Schuman, the French Foreign Minister called Europe’s founding father, proposed that France and Germany’s coal and steel production should be pooled to avoid European countries waging war on one another. Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands joined France and Germany in setting up the ECSC.

Another major milestone was reached in 1957 when the Treaty of Rome was signed by the six founding nations, France, Germany, Italy and the three Benelux countries, and so the European Economic Community (EEC) was born. It was a market for goods and services, known as the “Common Market.”

European integration proceeded step by step: “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single, general plan. It will be built through concrete achievements, which first create a de facto solidarity. With these words, the Schuman declaration accurately predicted the way in which the Community has become the Union of today. The institutions and powers have been developed step by step, following the confidence gained through the success of proceeding steps, to deal with matters that appeared to be best handled by common action” (The European Union, p 9).

The United Kingdom—in or out?

The absence of the United Kingdom presented a political problem that the EEC had to face in its early years. The British had a number of different reasons for not participating, including their commercial and political bonds with colonies and former colonies, most of them in the Commonwealth. Britain also wanted to defend the establishment of a free trade area, and was totally opposed to surrendering the sovereignty of national states to supranational European institutions. Instead they proposed the foundation of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) along with Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Austria and Portugal.

In 1961 Britain, realising its mistake, sought membership of the EEC; however, France under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle vetoed British accession to the EEC. Six years later Britain again requested to join the EEC, but again was vetoed by France. However, eventually the UK along with Denmark and Ireland joined the EEC in 1973. This enlargement brought the membership to nine.

In 1975 the UK held a national referendum on withdrawal, where 67.2% said “yes” to remaining in the Community. The UK is the only member state to hold a referendum on withdrawal from the European Community. The Norwegian people, contradicting their own government’s opinion, voted against entering EEC. Norway has since stayed apart from the Community.

A further enlargement took place in 1981 with Greece joining, followed by Spain and Portugal in 1986. In the first major revision of the Treaties, EEC leaders signed the Single European Act in the same year. The main objectives of the Act were a market without frontiers, more economic and social cohesion and a stronger European Monetary System. In 1995 Austria, Finland and Sweden became members, bringing the number to 15 countries in the EEC.

The Euro—a new standard?

The next major step in Europe’s march towards unity and co–operation was the signing of the Treaty on the European Union, known as the Maastricht Treaty, in 1992. This Treaty changed the official name of the EEC to the European Union. One of the very important steps taken was the introduction of a European currency, known as the Euro, which came into use on January 1, 2002.

The Euro is managed by the Frankfurt–based European Central Bank, whose main objective is to maintain price stability and keep inflation low, primarily by controlling interest rates. With over 730 billion in circulation as of November 2008 (equivalent to over US$ 1,000 billion), the Euro is the currency with the highest combined value of cash in circulation in the world, having surpassed the US dollar. The Eurozone is the second largest economy in the world. The sixteen countries that are in the Eurozone are Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Austria, Finland, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Slovakia, Malta and Cyprus. The EU member states that have not adopted the Euro are the UK, Denmark and Sweden, plus eight other countries.

On February 26, 2001 the Nice Treaty was signed by European leaders and came into force on February 1, 2003. The Treaty reformed the institutional structure of the EU to accommodate the nations of Eastern Europe becoming members. This led to ten more states being added to the EU in 2004: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Then in 2007, Bulgaria and Romania were granted membership to the EU, making the membership 27 nations with close to 500 million citizens. The three main cities where the European Union institutions are located are Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg.

Brussels is the capital of Belgium…[and] is often regarded as the unofficial capital of the European Union. “Brussels” is also a convenient and sometimes a negative label for all matters relating to the EU because it is the home to many European Union institutions and other organisations. The Council of Ministers, the European Commission, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions are all based in Brussels. Most European Parliament committee meetings are held in Brussels and, since 1993, a number of two–day plenary sessions have been held in the Parliament’s new complex.

Brussels is also home to the national representations of the member states, including the UK Permanent Representation to the EU (UKREP) and the many diplomatic missions accredited to the union. Many European–wide lobbying organisations are based in Brussels, together with many hundreds of journalists. Numerous local authorities and regional authorities have offices in Brussels. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is also located in Brussels.

Strasbourg…is often seen as the parliamentary capital of Europe as it is the seat for most European Parliament plenary sessions and is home to the Council of Europe. Members of the European Parliament (MEP) spend one week a month in Strasbourg in line with the decision of national governments reached at the EU summit in Edinburgh in 1992. A protocol annexed to the Treaty of Amsterdam confirmed the Edinburgh decision which is: “The European Parliament shall have its seat in Strasbourg where the twelve periods of monthly plenary sessions, including the budget session, shall be held. The periods of additional plenary sessions shall be held in Brussels. The committees of the European Parliament shall meet in Brussels. The General Secretariat of the European Parliament and its departments shall remain in Luxembourg.”

Luxembourg…is a well–known international banking centre as well as home to a number of EU bodies, including the Courts of Justice and Auditors. The European Investment Bank, the administrative headquarters of the European Parliament and a number of European Commission services are also found…on the outskirts of the city (“History of the EU”).

What next?

In 2004 the EU leaders signed a Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. However, ratification failed. Two member states, France and the Netherlands, rejected it in referenda. The rejection by these countries sent shock waves through Europe since they had been regarded as committed Europeans. In the wake of the rejection, the German presidency proposed a Reformed Treaty instead of the Constitution. This led to the Treaty of Lisbon, designed to streamline the workings of the EU with amendments to former Treaties which were far–reaching. It is considered that the Lisbon Treaty is almost identical to the EU Constitution.

In 2008 the EU was thrown into chaos once again, this time by the people of the Republic of Ireland. By their constitution a referendum was required to approve the new treaty. On June 6 the Irish electorate voted 53.4% to 46.6% against ratification. But on October 2, 2009 a second referendum showed a surprising turnaround in Irish opinion, with the treaty being approved 67.1% to 32.9 %.

In over 60 years since the end of World War II, Europe has made tremendous strides in unity and co–operation. It will continually move forward, slowly but surely, to become a giant European Superstate which is destined to have a profound and dramatic effect on the rest of the world.

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