International History

Evolution of the European Union

Evolution of the European Union

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European Union (EU), international organization comprising 28 European countries and governing common economic, social, and security policies. Originally confined to Western Europe, the EU undertook a robust expansion into central and eastern Europe in the early 21st century. The EU’s members are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The EU was created by the Maastricht Treaty, which entered into force on November 1, 1993.

The treaty was designed to enhance European political and economic integration by creating a single currency (the euro), a unified foreign and security policy, and common citizenship rights and by advancing cooperation in the areas of immigration, asylum, and judicial affairs. The EU was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2012, in recognition of the organization’s efforts to promote peace and democracy in Europe.


The European Union (EU) was created by the Maastricht Treaty on November 1st 1993. It is a political and economic union between European countries which makes its own policies concerning the members’ economies, societies, laws and to some extent security. To some, the EU is an overblown bureaucracy which drains money and compromises the power of sovereign states. For others, the EU is the best way to meet challenges smaller nations might struggle with – such as economic growth or negotiations with larger nations – and worth surrendering some sovereignty to achieve.

Despite many years of integration, opposition remains strong, but states have acted pragmatically, at times, to create the union.

Origins of the EU

The European Union was not created in one go by the Maastricht Treaty but was the result of gradual integration since 1945, an evolution when one level of union has been seen to work, giving confidence and impetus for a next level. In this way, the EU can be said to have been formed by the demands of its member nations.

The end of the Second World War left Europe divided between the communist, Soviet-dominated, eastern bloc, and the largely democratic western nations. There were fears over what direction a rebuilt Germany would take, and in the west thoughts of a federal European union re-emerged, hoping to bind Germany into pan-European democratic institutions to the extent that it, and any other allied European nation, both wouldn’t be able to start a new war, and would resist the expansion of the communist east.

Evolution of the European Union

The First Union: the ECSC

Europe’s post-war nations weren’t just after peace, they were also after solutions to economic problems, such as raw materials being in one country and the industry to process them in another. War had left Europe exhausted, with industry greatly damaged and their defenses possibly unable to stop Russia.

In order to solve this six neighboring countries agreed in The Treaty of Paris to form an area of free trade for several key resources including coal, steel and iron ore, chosen for their key role in industry and the military. This body was called the European Coal and Steel Community and involved Germany, Belgium, France, Holland, Italy, and Luxembourg. It began on 23 July 1952 and ended on 23 July 2002, replaced by further unions.

France had suggested the ECSC to control Germany and to rebuild industry; Germany wanted to become an equal player in Europe again and rebuild its reputation, as did Italy; the Benelux nations hoped for growth and didn’t want to be left behind. France, afraid Britain would try and quash the plan, didn’t include them in initial discussions, and Britain stayed out, wary of giving up any power and content with the economic potential offered by the Commonwealth.

Also created, in order to manage the ECSC, were a group of ‘supranational’ (a level of governance above the nation state) bodies: a Council of Ministers, a Common Assembly, a High Authority and a Court of Justice, all to legislate, develop ideas and resolve disputes. It was from these key bodies that the later EU would emerge, a process which some of the ECSC’s creators had envisaged, as they explicitly stated the creation of a federal Europe as their long term goal.

The European Economic Community

A false step was taken in the mid-1950s when a proposed ‘European Defence Community’ among the ESSC’s six states was drawn up: it called for a joint army to be controlled by a new supranational Defence Minister. The initiative had to be rejected after France’s National Assembly voted it down.

However, the success of the ECSC led to the member nations signing two new treaties in 1957, both called the treaty of Rome. This created two new bodies: the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) which was to pool knowledge of atomic energy, and the European Economic Community. This EEC created a common market among the member nations, with no tariffs or impediments to the flow of labor and goods. It aimed to continue economic growth and avoid the protectionist policies of pre-war Europe.

By 1970 trade within the common market had increased fivefold. There was also the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to boost member’s farming and an end to monopolies. The CAP, which wasn’t based on a common market, but on government subsidies to support local farmers, has become one of most controversial EU policies.​

Like the ECSC, the EEC created several supranational bodies: a Council of Ministers to make decisions, a Common Assembly (called the European Parliament from 1962) to give advice, a court which could overrule member states and a commission to put the policy into effect. The 1965 Brussels Treaty merged the commissions of the EEC, ECSC and Euratom to create a joint and permanent civil service.


In the late 1960s, a power struggle established the need for unanimous agreements on key decisions, effectively giving member states a veto. It has been argued that this slowed union by two decades. Over the 70s and 80s, the membership of the EEC expanded, allowing Denmark, Ireland and the UK in 1973, Greece in 1981 and Portugal and Spain in 1986. Britain had changed its mind after seeing its economic growth lag behind the EEC, and after America indicated it would support Britain as a rival voice in the EEC to France and Germany. However, Britain’s first two applications were vetoed by France. Ireland and Denmark, heavily dependent upon the UK economy, followed it in to keep pace and attempt to develop themselves away from Britain. Norway applied at the same time, but withdrew after a referendum said ‘no’.

Meanwhile, member states began to see European integration as a way to balance the influence of both Russia and now America.


On June 23rd, 2016 the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, and become the first member state to use a previously untouched release clause.

Countries in the European Union

As of the end of the middle of 2016, there are twenty-seven countries in the European Union.

Alphabetical Order

Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden.

Dates of Joining

1957: Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands
1973: Denmark, Ireland, United Kingdom
1981: Greece
1986: Portugal, Spain
1995: Austria, Finland, ​and Sweden
2004: Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovak Republic, Slovenia.
2007: Bulgaria, Romania
2013: Croatia

Dates of Leaving

2016: United Kingdom

The development of the union was slowed in the 70s, frustrating federalists who sometimes refer to it as a ‘dark age’ in development. Attempts to create an Economic and Monetary Union were drawn up, but derailed by the declining international economy. However, impetus had returned by the 80s, partly as the result of fears that Reagan’s US was both moving away from Europe, and preventing EEC members from forming links with Communist countries in an attempt to slowly bring them back into the democratic fold.

The remit of the EEC thus developed, and foreign policy became an area for consultation and group action. Other funds and bodies were created including the European Monetary System in 1979 and methods of giving grants to underdeveloped areas. In 1987 the Single European Act (SEA) evolved the EEC’s role a step further. Now European Parliament members were given the ability to vote on legislation and issues, with the number of votes dependant on each member’s population. Bottlenecks in the common market were also targeted.

Evolution of the European Union

The Maastricht Treaty and the European Union

On February 7th 1992 European integration moved a step further when the Treaty on European Union, (better known as the Maastricht Treaty) was signed. This came into force on 1 November 1993 and changed the EEC into the newly named European Union. The change was to broaden the work of the supranational bodies, based around three “pillars”: the European Communities, giving more power to the European parliament; a common security/foreign policy; involvement in the domestic affairs of member nations on “justice and home affairs”. In practice, and to pass the mandatory unanimous vote, these were all compromises away from the unified ideal. The EU also set out guidelines for the creation of a single currency, although when this was introduced in 1999 three nations opted out and one failed to meet the required targets.

Currency and economic reform were now being driven largely by the fact that the US and Japanese economies were growing faster than Europe’s, especially after expanding quickly into the new developments in electronics. There were objections from poorer member nations, who wanted more money from the union, and from larger nations, who wanted to pay less; a compromise was eventually reached. One planned side effect of the closer economic union and the creation of a single market was the greater co-operation in social policy which would have to occur as a result.

The Maastricht Treaty also formalised the concept of EU citizenship, allowing any individual from an EU nation to run for office in their government, which was also changed to promote decision making. Perhaps most controversially, the EU’s entrance into domestic and legal matters – which produced the Human Rights Act and over-rode many member states’ local laws – produced rules relating to free movement within the EU’s borders, leading to paranoia about mass migrations from poorer EU nations to richer ones. More areas of members’ government were affected than ever before, and the bureaucracy expanded. Although the Maastricht Treaty came into effect, it faced heavy opposition, and was only narrowly passed in France and forced a vote in the UK.

Evolution of the European Union

Further Enlargements

In 1995 Sweden, Austria and Finland joined, while in 1999 the Treaty of Amsterdam came into effect, bringing employment, working and living conditions and other social and legal issues into the EU remit. However, by then Europe was facing great changes caused by the collapse of the Soviet dominated east and the emergence of economically weakened, but newly democratic, eastern nations. The 2001 Treaty of Nice tried to prepare for this, and a number of states entered into special agreements where they initially joined parts of the EU system, such as the free trade zones. There were discussions over streamlining voting and modifying the CAP, especially as Eastern Europe had a much higher percentage of the population involved in agriculture than the west, but in the end financial worries prevented change,

While there was opposition, ten nations joined in 2004 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) and two in 2007 (Bulgaria and Romania). By this time there had been agreements to apply majority voting to more issues, but national vetoes remained on tax, security and other issues. Worries over international crime – where criminals had formed effective cross border organisations – were now acting as an impetus.

The Lisbon Treaty

The EU’s level of integration is already unmatched in the modern world, but there are people who want to move it closer still (and many people who don’t). The Convention on the Future of Europe was created in 2002 to create an EU constitution, and the draft, signed in 2004, aimed to install a permanent EU president, a Foreign Minister and a Charter of Rights. It would have also allowed the EU to make many more decisions instead of the heads’ of the individual nation states. It was rejected in 2005, when France and the Netherlands failed to ratify it (and before other EU members got the chance to vote).

An amended work, the Lisbon Treaty, still aimed to install an EU president and Foreign Minister, as well as expand the EU’s legal powers, but only through developing the existing bodies. This was signed in 2007 but was initially rejected, this time by voters in Ireland. However, in 2009 Irish voters passed the treaty, many concerned of the economic effects of saying no. By the winter 2009 all 27 EU states had ratified the process, and it took effect. Herman Van Rompuy, at that time Belgium Prime Minister, became the first ‘President of the European Council’, and Britain’s Baroness Ashton ‘High Representative for Foreign Affairs’.

There remained many political opposition parties – and politicians in the ruling parties – which opposed the treaty, and the EU remains a divisive issue in the politics of all member nations.

Evolution of the European Union


The roots of the European Commission lie in the High Authority of the ECSC, which consisted of nine members, was headquartered  in Luxembourg and started its work in 1952. Although Jean Monnet, the President of this first Commission, hoped this supranational institution would be independent and powerful, the Member States have decided to create the Council of Ministers, intergovernmental in nature, to counter-balance its powers (McCormick, 2011 B, p.168). I hope you remember that from the discussion on the intergovernmental character of the Council of Ministers.

In 1967, the ECSC High Authority was merged with the commissions for the EEC and the Euratom into a Commission of the European Communities. The European Commission emerged. With the growing membership of the Community in the 1970s and 1980s, the number of Commissioners expanded with two more added for each large Member State joining and one added for a small new member. Under the Nice Treaty (2003), the size of the Commission was changed and since then until the present day each Member State of the EU has only one Commissioner. Since Croatia joined the EU in 2013, the European Commission consists of 28 Commissioners..

The Commission saw its powers declining over the years. First, in the 1960s after the so-called ‘empty chair crisis’. Then in 1974, with the creation of the European Council, and finally in 1979, when direct elections of the European Parliament were introduced.  Only in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the Commission’s position stronger, as it was moving forward with the single market project under Jacques Delors. Today, its powers have been declining again but its visibility has been increasing (McCormick, 2011 B, p.168).

Evolution of the European Union


Berend, Ivan T. The History of European Integration: A New Perspective. (Routledge, 2016).

Blair, Alasdair. The European Union since 1945 (Routledge, 2014).

Kaiser, Wolfram. “From state to society? The historiography of European integration.” in Michelle Cini, and Angela K. Bourne, eds. Palgrave Advances in European Union Studies (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2006). pp 190–208.

Kaiser, Wolfram, and Antonio Varsori, eds. European Union history: themes and debates (Springer, 2016).

Koops, TJ. and G. Macaj. The European Union as a Diplomatic Actor (2015).

McCormick, John. Understanding the European Union: a concise introduction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

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