Factors that have fostered European integration and the major developments

The ‘European idea’ (broadly, the belief that, regardless of historical, cultural and language differences, Europe constitutes a single political community) was born long before 1945. Before the Reformation of the sixteenth century, common allegiances to Rome invested the Papacy with supranational authority over much of Europe. Even after the European state-system came into existence, thinkers as different as Rousseau, the socialist Saint-Simon (1760–1825) and the nationalist Mazzini (1805–72) championed the cause of European cooperation, and in some cases advocated the establishment of Europe-wide political institutions. However, until the second half of the twentieth century such aspirations proved to be hopelessly utopian. Since WWII, Europe has undergone a historically unprecedented process of integration, aimed, some argue, at the creation of what Winston Churchill in 1946 called a ‘United States of Europe’. Indeed, it has sometimes been suggested that European integration provides a model of political organization that would eventually be accepted worldwide as the deficiencies of the nation-state become increasingly apparent

The EU is an example of a regional bloc whose member states have integrated so deeply (in terms of the EU’s functions and powers) that it can arguably be seen as an example of federalism.

In a federal system, power is shared between a central authority above nation-state level (in this case, where member states have given up power over some decisions to central institutions of the EU, such as the European Commission) and state-level authority (in this case, where states retain power over other decisions in their national governments).

Regionalism grew in significance in the late twentieth century. Just as states have looked for means of global governance at international level, for example through the United Nations (UN), states have also tried to find ways of working.

The driving forces behind regionalism can derive from economic, security and/or political grounds. The European Economic Community (EEC), the forebearer to the EU, is a clear example of economic regionalism. The whole justification for the EEC was to enhance economic growth and development within the European continent. The economic success of the organisation in its early years managed to attract countries around it who soon sought membership. For instance, the United Kingdom was drawn towards the European project partly due to the relative economic success of the EEC.

The EU is the most significant example of regionalism, due to the unique level of integration among its member states and its expanding membership. It is a collection of 28 European countries (pre-Brexit) and both intergovernmental and supranational institutions, and is designed to promote cooperation centred on its shared values, aims and agreements.

1949 Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)

Created a mechanism for human rights to be agreed and protected above nation-state level, enforced by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The ECHR and ECtHR were founded as part of the Council of Europe, which now has 47 members, including Russia and Turkey, and is separate to the EU.

1951 Treaty of Paris, founding the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC)

Created a common market for coal and steel between Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. One of its founders, former French foreign minister Robert Schumann, said that it would ‘make war [between its member states] not only unthinkable but materially impossible’.

1957 Treaty of Rome, founding the European Economic Community (EEC)

The six members of the ECSC signed a treaty creating the EEC, which committed its members to making ‘ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’. The treaty formed the main institutions of today’s EU, the European Commission, the European Court of Justice, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.

1963 Founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)

The first attempts to create regional governance in Africa. The OAU was founded as former colonies gained their independence and was designed to strengthen and defend newly independent states’ sovereignty.

1967 Founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

The first members of ASEAN were Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. ASEAN’s aim was to enhance economic cooperation in the region.

1992 Maastricht Treaty — the European Community becomes the EU

By now, the EU had developed into a common market of 12 members (the UK joined in 1973), with free movement of people, goods and services. The treaty began the process for creating a single European currency. The euro came into circulation in 2002 in 13 member states.

1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)

Agreed between Canada, Mexico and the USA in order to eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade in the North America region.

2001 Organisation of African Unity becomes the African Union (AU)

The AU has seen African states cooperate on both security and development issues. It has sent peacekeepers to Somalia and, as a bloc, has also threatened to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC), stating that the ICC is biased against Africans.

2007 Treaty of Lisbon

Created a constitution for the EU and included moves to make decision making simpler (by reducing the policy areas where unanimous agreement was needed), given that the EU had seen its biggest enlargement in 2005 with ten new members states, including many former Soviet states in eastern Europe. The treaty also created the position of President of the European Council (as of 2017, Donald Tusk) and a High Representative for Foreign Affairs, designed to strengthen the EU’s independent voice on the world stage.

To some extent, the drift towards European integration was fuelled by an idealist commitment to internationalism and the belief that international organizations embody a moral authority higher than that commanded by the state. This was evident in the federalist dream of an integrated Europe that was espoused by, for example, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman (1886–1963). Early dreams of a federal Europe in which the sovereignty of the European states would be pooled came to nothing, however. Instead, a functionalist road to unity was followed. This is why the European project tended to focus on the means of promoting economic cooperation, seen by states as the least controversial but most necessary form of integration. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was founded in 1952 on the initiative of Monnet, advisor to the French foreign minister, Schuman. Under the Treaty of Rome (1957), the European Economic Community (EEC) came into existence. This was committed to the establishment of a common European market and the broader goal of an ‘ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’. The EEC was incorporated into the European Community (EC) in 1967 and eventually into the European Union (EU) in 1993.


As well as deepening integration (which considers the loss of sovereignty for the wider interests of the EU), there has been much discussion in relation to the widening integration of the EU, in particular to its expansion to include additional member states. As the timeline of the EU’s formation demonstrates there have been various waves of enlargement throughout the regional bloc’s history. When it was first established, the EU had only six original members (known as the Inner Six), in contrast to the 28 members of today (pre- Brexit). Since then it has seen several waves of enlargement:

■ Inner Six (1951): Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands

■ First Enlargement (1970s): Denmark, Ireland, the UK (including Gibraltar)

■ Mediterranean Enlargement (1980s): Greece, Portugal and Spain

■ Northern Enlargement (1990s): Austria, Finland and Sweden

■ Post-Communist/Eastern Enlargement (2000s): Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia (2004), Bulgaria, Romania (2007), Croatia (2013)

There are many states that are still waiting to join the EU, with the Balkan states, in particular those of the former Yugoslavia, being the main contenders. In 2022 Ukraine was granted candidate status in response to the Russian invasion.

Some argue that it would be easier for the EU to absorb these states, given that EU funding already makes contributions towards their development. One of the more controversial applicants is Turkey, which has been under negotiation to join since 1987 Enlargement on this grand scale has been controversial — Russia, in particular, has seen the EU’s growth as antagonistic, given that the EU's border looks increasingly similar to that of NATO’s and many of the newer eastern European members were former Russian allies or satellite states. Therefore, the EU, designed to promote peace and security in the region, has had to consider the wider impact of allowing eastern European countries to join and how has contributed to the war in Ukraine.

Furthermore, newer members often have weaker economies, putting pressure on the existing members’ economies. Another issue relates to the significant cultural differences of possible new EU members. Given that the EU has grown to have more of a collective cultural identity, accepting countries that have quite different outlooks (such as Turkey) could prove to be problematic.

Finally, there is the issue of effectiveness — the larger the EU, the larger the base of interests it needs to coordinate. This may make it harder for the EU to form cohesive policies, especially in regards to foreign policy. This is especially problematic when unanimity is called for, for example in the Council of Europe.

The Economic and Monetary Union

The process of European integration broadly followed three stages:

1 economic union

2 monetary union

3 political union

As the middle stage of integration, the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) clearly had both economic and political elements. The origins of the EMU go back to 1978, when the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) was established. The ERM was designed to tackle one of the biggest issues with trade in the EU: fluctuating exchange rates. The ERM would reduce exchange rate variability and achieve monetary stability in Europe. In 1992, the pathway to EMU was agreed under the Maastricht Treaty. It represented a clear move beyond stabilising exchange rates to establishing a single currency. In practice, the EMU is a group of policies aimed at converging the economies of EU member states in three stages (the euro convergence criteria), with each stage designed for progressively closer economic integration. Only once a state participates in the third stage can it adopt the euro as its official currency. Some EU member states opted out of the single currency (namely Denmark and the UK), but those who qualify today have to meet the euro convergence criteria set out by the Maastricht Treaty as, after the enlargement of the EU in 2004–7, all new EU member states must commit to participate in the third stage in their treaties of accession. As part of the 1996 Dublin Summit, the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) was established, which was designed to ensure that EMU members had a strict budgetary discipline and to maintain the EMU’s stability. However, the SGP was non-binding and some member states did not comply with the need for budgetary discipline.

What kind of organization is the EU, and how much influence does it exert?

The EU is a very difficult political organization to categorize. Is it a state, perhaps even a ‘superstate’? Is it an international organization, and, if so, what kind of international organization? Is the EU merely an arena or space within which member states can interact, or has it become a meaningful actor in its own right? These questions are best considered by examining, first, the internal structure of the EU and then its relationship with the outside world. One of the difficulties with understanding the structure of the EU is that it has been substantially reshaped and institutionally redesigned on a number of occasions since the establishment of the ECSC in 1952. Not only has the ECSC given way to the EEC, the EC and, in due course, the EU, but other changes have, for example, seen the creation of a single market (through the Single European Act (SEA) in 1986), monetary union (agreed by the TEU in 1993) and the establishment of the EU as a single legal entity (through the Lisbon Treaty in 2009). Most significantly, the EEC/EC/EU has gone through a substantial process of widening and deepening. It has widened as the original Six (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) became, over time, 27 and it has deepened as successive waves of integration have transferred certain areas of decision-making authority from member states to EU bodies.

As time progressed and the economic ties became deeper through the adoption of the Single Market and monetary union, it was clear that the EU was increasingly taking on more of a political role. Various treaties, especially the Maastricht Treaty (1993), saw developments in the EU’s key institutions and systems of governance. Increasingly there was a common political agenda and a growing feeling that its institutions should be acting on behalf of the EU as a single entity. During this period, questions of sovereignty were up for debate, with measures such as subsidiarity (the idea that a central authority should perform only those tasks that cannot be performed at local level) demonstrating the clear adoption of a more political role.

The EU has also increasingly taken on more of a security role. After the Treaty of Lisbon (2009) the External Action Service was established, which is the EU department that formally implemented the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), later called the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). This covers EU defence and military aspects, as well as civilian crisis management, and falls under the jurisdiction of the EU itself.

Furthermore, particularly since the early 2000s, the EU has been increasingly involved in humanitarian work, and has performed operations in Europe itself (the former Yugoslavia), Africa and Asia. While the EU has no standing army, it does have the European Union Force (EUFOR) and the European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR), both of which have been involved in interventions with a military focus.

Increasingly, the EU’s various intelligence services and armed and police forces are also working collectively in response to the increased terrorism threat. For example, the 2016 attack on Berlin’s Christmas market saw Italian police authorities arrest the perpetrator within Italian borders. Furthermore, this has led to a growing and symbolic sense of a shared European identity, with various landmarks across Europe being lit in the colours of the national flags of those nations affected.

In strict terms, the EU is no longer a confederation of independent states operating on the basis of intergovernmentalism, as the EEC and the EC were at their inception. The sovereignty of member states was enshrined in the so-called ‘Luxembourg compromise’ of 1966. This accepted the general practice of unanimous voting in the Council of Ministers (now known as the Council), and granted each member state an outright veto on matters threatening vital national interests.

However, this confederal image of the EU has become difficult to sustain for at least three reasons. In the first place, starting with the SEA and continuing with each of the subsequent major treaties – the TEU, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon – the practice of qualified majority voting, which allows even the largest state to be outvoted in the Council, has been applied to a wider range of policy areas. This has progressively narrowed the scope of the national veto, which, in turn, circumscribes state sovereignty.

Second, this trend has been compounded by the fact that EU law is binding on all member states. This, indeed, is one of the key differences between the EU and other international organizations. The EU has a body of law which supersedes national law in areas where the EU has ‘competence’, a position backed up by rulings from the European Court of Justice. The creation of this body of law has involved the voluntary surrender of powers by member states in a broad range of policy areas, and the development of a new level of legal authority to which the member states are subject.

Third, and linked to this, the powers of certain EU bodies have expanded at the expense of national governments. The result is a political body that is a complex blend of intergovernmental and supranational features. Nevertheless, although the EU has done much to realize the Treaty of Rome’s goal of establishing ‘an ever closer union’, moving well beyond Charles de Gaulle’s and Margaret Thatcher’s vision of a confederation of independent states, it stops short of realizing a ‘United States of Europe’.

While the EU has not created a federal Europe, still less a European ‘superstate’, the superiority of European law over the national law of the member states perhaps suggests that it is accurate to talk of a ‘federalizing’ Europe. A major check on centralizing tendencies within the EU has been respect for the principle of subsidiarity, embodied in the TEU, and the pragmatic approach to integration adopted by key states such as France and Germany. Decision-making within the ‘New Europe’ is increasingly made on the basis of multilevel governance, in which the policy process has interconnected sub national, national, intergovernmental and supranational levels, the balance between them shifting in relation to different issues and policy areas. This image of complex policy-making is more helpful than the sometimes sterile notion of a battle between national sovereignty and EU domination. The desire to bring greater coherence and formality to this complex and sometimes inefficient policy process nevertheless gave rise to the idea of an EU Constitution, which would codify major rules and principles, incorporating and superseding all previous treaties. However, although the Constitutional Treaty, which would have established this Constitution, was approved by heads of state or government in 2004, it was not ratified because of referendum defeats in the Netherlands and France in 2005. Although many of the elements of the Constitutional Treaty were incorporated into the Lisbon Treaty, which was ratified in 2009, this episode highlights the extent to which, despite decades of institutional deepening, EU member states continue to function as states, still orientated around issues of national interest.

The EU and the world

.How much political power does the EU really have on the global stage? Can it be seen as a superpower? Many have argued that it cannot, given that there is a lack of a central authority or a clear figurehead in the same way as exists in superpower nation-states.

The former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger (in office as secretary of state between 1973 and 1977) once asked the question, ‘Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?’ on a matter of international importance. Traditionally, the USA has relied heavily on France, Germany and the UK as the most powerful voices in Europe and therefore the most reliable and influential European governments to work with on issues of major significance.

The EU has increasingly attempted to expand its role from a regional body coordinating policy within Europe to a regional body with power and influence as a global actor in its own right. For some, the idea that the EU acts as a spokesperson for the peoples and governments of EU member states is a controversial one, and represents a threat to individual member states’ sovereignty and their ability to conduct their own, independent foreign policy. Others see a useful role in the EU gaining influence as a more independent and unified voice on the world stage, perhaps at last answering Kissinger’s famous question.

The most crucial area here has been foreign and defence policy. In its early incarnations, foreign policy, and, for that matter, the wider issue of political union, played little part in the developing European project.

One of the EU’s most significant weaknesses is its lack of a central military power. The EU employs forces primarily for humanitarian intervention, but it does not have a central standing army. The EU relies on NATO (which has a very similar membership to the EU) for defence, but this has led to some seeing the EU as the USA’s military puppet. This was highlighted during the war in the former Yugoslavia, and especially in Kosovo, during which NATO had to step in to end the conflict. The EU was largely seen as weak for allowing the largest genocide since the Second World War to happen in its own back yard.

The Treaty of Rome made no mention of foreign policy and the EEC focused essentially on economic policies and issues. Such initiatives as there were to promote political integration tended to be piecemeal and had little impact. For example, the European Defence Community was proposed in 1950, most actively by France, but it was widely viewed as a threat to the authority of NATO, and the idea was abandoned in 1954 when it was rejected by the French National Assembly.

The idea of an EU foreign and defence policy resurfaced through the Treaty of Amsterdam, and the new position of High Representative for foreign affairs, and by the high-profile appointment of Javier Solana, the former Secretary General of NATO, to this office. The Common Foreign and Security Policy has had a number of achievements. These include the deployment of over two dozen missions of peacekeepers, police officers and civilians to troubled parts of the world, including Bosnia, Chad, Eastern Congo and the Aceh province of Indonesia. It has also engaged in international diplomacy, particularly the EU3’s (The EU together with France, Germany and the UK) efforts to persuade Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment programme. However, failures have been more prominent than successes.

However. when it comes to the most pressing international problems, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Korea, the EU has either been largely invisible or absent. Although the EU’s presence in Bosnia and Kosovo has helped to ensure peace, EU policy in the Balkans has become less resolute and coherent over time. Lacking a military force of its own, the EU was forced to leave the resolution of the 1999 Kosovo crisis to US-led NATO forces. When the USA and most EU states recognized the independence of Kosovo in 2008, five EU states failed to, shattering the hard-won united approach to the Balkans that had been forged in the 1990s. Similarly, Slovenia is blocking Croatia’s accession to the EU because of a border dispute, while Greece is thwarting Macedonia’s progress towards membership because of its name (Macedonia is also a region in northern Greece).

There are many impediments to developing an effective common foreign and defence policy within the EU. In the first place, there are permanent tensions between member states that have an ‘Atlanticist’ approach to foreign policy, such as the UK, and those that have a ‘Europeanist’ approach, especially France. For the former, any EU defence policy, particularly the development of an EU military arm, must occur within, not outside or as an alternative to, the framework of NATO.

Second, member states have generally been much more reluctant to support political integration, rather than economic integration, and this especially applies in the case of foreign and defence policy. As the core purpose of the state is to ensure the ‘high politics’ of security and survival, independent control over foreign and defence affairs is widely viewed as the most important dimension of state sovereignty.

Third, Europe’s ability to develop an effective external presence has long been hampered by confusion about who represents the EU. As Henry Kissinger put it, ‘Who do I call when I want to call Europe?’ In the case of foreign and defence policy the EU has traditionally been represented by the ‘troika’, made up of the High Representative for foreign affairs, the European Commissioner for External Affairs and the foreign minister of the state currently holding the presidency of the Council. The confusions implicit in this arrangement were recognized by the creation, in the Lisbon Treaty, of the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. However, the appointment of the relatively inexperienced Catherine Ashton as the first post-holder suggests that this office may not fulfil the expectations of those who devised it.

Fourth, an effective common defence policy requires levels of funding that few member states are prepared to support, particularly since the global financial crisis of 2007–09. It also needs a standardization of equipment and, ideally, a single, harmonized defence industry, which is a long way from being achieved and may, anyway, be impossible.

Fifth expansion has created an economic strain on EU countries because the newer members tend to have weaker economies, thereby creating an economic burden on the stronger states. Additionally, not all EU member states have accepted the euro and of those that have, there have been winners and losers. Germany has done well from having a devalued currency, which has made its exports more appealing to the global market, while other countries, such as Italy, which would ordinarily have used methods such as devaluation to overcome recession, have been prevented from doing so. There has also been significant disagreement over policies such as the CAP,( Common Agricultural Policy) demonstrating the difficulty in an organisation of 28 member states (pre-Brexit) of reaching agreement on matters of trade.

However, beyond the implications of the war in Ukraine for energy resources, migration, food security and value chains, it has led to major shifts in the EU’s security and defence orientation. In terms of military assistance, EU member states have provided lethal equipment to the tune of €2 billion via the EU’s European Peace Facility for the very first time. In line with a flourishing “Team Europe” logic, EU member states have also sold, leased and/or provided arms on a bilateral basis with the purpose of strengthening Ukraine’s relative positioning vis-à-vis Russia in the current war.

Most EU member states have contributed in some way to the delivery of anti-aircraft systems, grenade-launchers, machine guns and ammunition. The European Union has formally approved the Strategic Compass

Can the EU be considered to be a superpower?


■ Economic power: the EU has significantly increased its economic power by unifying its currency and establishing the largest free-trade area in the world.

■ Structural power: the EU has been highly influential in global institutions, particularly in relation to certain issues such as human rights and the environment.

■ Soft power: the EU has a significant influence over other states, with many countries still very keen to join it (e.g. other Balkan states, Turkey).

■ Organisation: the EU has made changes to its structure in efforts to become more efficient, strengthening the role of its institutions and giving it a clear figurehead (Donald Tusk).


■ Economic: the EU has not been immune to fluctuating global markets and was a major victim of the global financial crisis.

■ Lack of military power: the EU has no standing army and has been seen as the USA’s puppet, given its reliance on NATO for defence.

■ Lacks cohesion: given its diverse range of members and therefore interests, the EU does not have a clear foreign policy, which also hampers its structural power within global organisations.

■ Lack of central authority: arguably there is no clear central authority and its ‘leaders’ act more as chairpersons or managers.

  • It can also be argued that the UK’s decision to leave the EU has proved detrimental to the EU’s structural power, especially when seeing Europe as a counterbalance to the USA in organisations such as the World Bank and the IMF. The UK is one of the key EU powers, and its ‘special relationship’ with the USA has helped to bolster the EU’s overall influence on the international stage.

Nevertheless, the EU’s external presence in economic affairs, particularly in trade matters, is much clearer. Because the EU is a customs union with a common commercial policy and a common external tariff, the Commission, rather than member states, conducts trade relations with outside parties. These include trade agreements with virtually all parts of the world and negotiations with GATT and, more recently, the WTO. The Commission also negotiates economic cooperation arrangements with other regional trading blocs as well as with individual states, an example being the biennial Asia-Europe Meeting.

An additional aspect of the EU’s external presence is over aid and development. Motivated both by the fact that key EU member states – notably the UK, France and Belgium – were once major imperial powers, and an awareness that the global South constitutes a particularly important market for EU exports, the EU has become the single biggest source of official development assistance in the world, collectively accounting, for instance, for just over half the total of $52 billion given in 2001. Most EU aid goes to sub-Saharan Africa, but an increasing proportion is going to Latin America. The EU also provides extensive emergency humanitarian aid and is, after the USA, the second largest provider of food aid in the world.

Ukraine Could Become an EU Member. What Would That Mean?

On February 28, 2022, four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested his country’s immediate admission to the European Union (EU). The European Commission responded by recommending Ukraine be elevated to candidate status (along with Moldova), and in June, the twenty-seven EU leaders unanimously approved that recommendation. While the path to full membership is likely to be long and arduous, gaining candidacy has clarified the stakes of the conflict for the Ukrainian people Matching the EU’s rigorous conditions to join the bloc can take years, especially for a country in a state of war. Demands range from creating a competitive market economy to guaranteeing democratic rule. Ukraine, a country with 40 million people, would be a massive addition to the EU. For example, the European parliament’s 750 seats are divided based on population, and it would lead to other countries losing seats, and thus, power.

The EU in crisis?

Pronouncements about the stalling of the European project, and even predictions about the EU unravelling, have occurred throughout the history of the EEC/EC/EU. For some, the failure of the EU has always been just a matter of time. In this view, the level of diversity within the EU, in terms of history, traditions, language and culture, means that the EU can never match the capacity of the nation-state to engender political allegiance and act effectively on the world stage. However, two issues have proved to be particularly problematical in the early twenty-first century. The first is EU enlargement and its implications. A significant part of the success of the early process of European integration stemmed from the fact that the original Six were bound together by powerful historical, political and economic factors, not least the overriding desire to ensure peace and stability between France and Germany and the wish of smaller, neighbouring states to participate in the benefits that might flow from Franco-German rapprochement.

However. enlargement has reshaped the European project at each stage, sometimes through the incorporation of countries that had a weaker commitment to the European ideal (such as the UK and Denmark) and, on other occasions, through the incorporation of economically less prosperous countries of southern Europe (Spain, Portugal and Greece). Nevertheless, no enlargements have been as ambitious and significant as those that saw the eastward expansion of the EU during 2004–07 . In some respects, these enlargements were the crowning achievement of the EU, in that they underpinned and, in a sense, completed the politico-economic transformation of central and eastern Europe, marking the Europe-wide triumph for liberal democracy. However, they also caused profound difficulties, not least by permanently shifting the balance between unity and diversity within the EU firmly in favour of diversity. If the EU can no longer be ‘managed’ through deals done between a relatively small number of large states (notably France and Germany, but also, to some extent, the UK), the prospect of effective decision-making and coherent thinking within the EU has perhaps been lost forever. If the EU has a future, it may be less as an economic and political union, and more as a ‘multispeed’ Europe or a two-tier or even three-tier Europe.

The second key challenge facing the EU is economic rather than political. Although economic union has, by common consent, been more successful than political union, there are reasons to believe that the EU’s continued economic success is by no means assured. The EU’s share of world trade and production are set to diminish, a trend widely associated with the determination of influential member states to maintain social protections and welfare provision in the face of growing global competitive pressures. These long-term problems have been compounded by the 2007–09 global financial crisis, which had more serious implications for EU economies than it did, for instance, for emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil. The global recession led to spiralling deficits in many parts of the EU, but particularly in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and, to some extent, Italy within the eurozone, and in the UK outside the eurozone. The crisis in Greece was so severe in May 2010 that it precipitated a massive German-led eurozone bail-out, backed up by the IMF, with other vulnerable economies in danger of being sucked into the crisis. A similar EUIMF bail out was agreed for Ireland in November 2010. This eurozone crisis threatens to have profound and far-reaching implications, however. In the first place, it highlighted lax regulation within the eurozone itself, which, far from making weaker economies more competitive, had served as a kind of shelter under which Greece, and others, used the benefit of low interest rates to fuel asset bubbles without reforming their economies. At the very least, this implied a much greater emphasis, within the eurozone but also beyond, on fiscal rectitude, cutting levels of government spending, particularly by scaling back welfare and reducing the size of the public sector. Such retrenchment, nevertheless, will be impossible to achieve without bringing social and political tensions to the surface, possibly creating problems for years to come. A further implication of the euro crisis is its effect on Germany. Germany is both the largest economy within the EU and the lynchpin of integration, in that, perhaps more than any other state, Germany has traditionally viewed EU interests as identical with its national interests. However, Germany’s role in bailing out Greece in 2010 raised serious questions in Germany about its responsibilities within the eurozone and even about its commitment to the single currency. To the extent that these matters are thrown into question, the European project itself may be put at risk.

Did Brexit harm or strengthen the EU?

The United Kingdom left the European Union — now an economic and political partnership of 27 countries — on January 31, 2020 under the terms of a negotiated divorce deal (the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, bringing to an end 47 years of British membership of the EU and the institutions that preceded it.

At the time of the referendum, there were concerns that Britain’s exit from the EU would lead to a mass exodus of other member-states and the eventual break-up of the Union. However, it seems as if most Europeans feel like the unity of the EU countries has not been affected by Brexit. In the wake of the UK's vote to withdraw, opinion polls showed that support for the EU surged across Europe. Surveying shows that the EU has the highest support in 35 years. The UK's departure from the EU's Single Market and Customs Union has brought significant disruption to trade, particularly to UK exports to the EU, due to new border rules and red tape. In the UK, an exodus of European workers and tighter immigration rules have contributed to a shortage of people to fill jobs.

However, the impact of Brexit on shortages has at times been difficult to distinguish from that of the coronavirus pandemic. As of January 2022 the UK has begun introducing some import controls on EU goods, having repeatedly delayed imposing border checks, citing supply chain issues.

EU-UK relations have continued to be strained. London and Brussels have clashed over several issues including diplomatic representation, coronavirus vaccine exports — and above all, new arrangements for Northern Ireland, where post-Brexit negotiations are ongoing over the divorce deal protocol setting out the rules.

Has Brexit worked for the UK?