The Development of the EU

In the aftermath of the Second World War, a set of powerful, and possibly irresistible, historical circumstances came together to support the process of European integration.The most significant of these were

: • The need for economic reconstruction in war-torn Europe through cooperation and the creation of a larger market

• The desire to preserve peace between France and Germany, whose antagonisms had contributed to the outbreak of both the First World War and the Second World War

• The need to incorporate Germany more effectively into a wider Europe in order to prevent further bouts of expansionism • The desire to safeguard Western Europe from the threat of the Soviet Union, which had emerged as a superpower in the post-1945 period and had extended its control throughout Eastern Europe

• The wish of the USA to establish a prosperous and united Europe, both as a market for US goods and as a bulwark against the spread of communism.


The earliest form of integration was the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which was formed in 1952 by France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg (the ‘Six’). The same countries formed the European Economic Community (EEC), established by the Treaty of Rome, which they signed in 1957. The EEC was committed to the establishment of a common European market and the broader goal of an ‘ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’. Although many of the early supporters of European integration favoured a ‘federal’ Europe, in which the sovereignty of the European nations would be ‘pooled’, the more powerful tendency turned out to be a ‘functionalist’ one, based on incremental steps towards integration, particularly in the area of economic cooperation.

However, the UK refused to participate in these developments, despite being invited.This occurred for a number of reasons:

• Having fought alongside the USA and the Soviet Union and having emerged victorious in the Second World War, the UK saw itself as one of the ‘big three’, not as a minor power.

• Many in the UK felt culturally and historically distinct from ‘Europe’ having, for example, more in common with the Commonwealth and with the USA

The UK was more concerned with preserving its ‘special relationship’ with the USA than with forming alliances with ‘Europe’.

• Not having been defeated or invaded, the UK was less affected than many continental European powers by the Second World War.

Nevertheless, attitudes to what in the UK was called the ‘Common Market’ gradually changed, at least among leading politicians. This was largely due to growing anxiety about the UK’s loss of great power status (caused, among other things, by the end of empire and events such as the 1956 Suez crisis) and concern about the UK’s economic decline relative to EEC states. Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government was the first to apply to join the ‘Common Market’ in 1961, followed by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1967. Both attempts were rejected by President de Gaulle of France, who feared that the UK was still too closely aligned with the USA, and that the UK would, anyway, threaten the Franco-German alliance that had come to dominate the EEC. Edward Heath’s Conservative government finally succeeded in joining (along with Ireland and Denmark) in 1973. The EEC formally merged with the ECSC and Euratom in 1967, forming what became known as the European Communities (EC).

However, through the 1960s and 1970s the EEC/EC remained what it had in origin been: an organisation to facilitate economic cooperation among member states. The integration process was relaunched as a result of the signing in 1986 of the Single European Act (SEA), which envisaged an unrestricted flow of goods, services and people throughout Europe (a ‘single market’), to be introduced by 1993. The Treaty on European Union (TEU) (or the Maastricht treaty), which was negotiated in 1991, ratified in 1992 and took effect in 1993, led to the creation of the European Union (EU). This committed the EU’s 15 members (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Austria, Finland and Sweden having joined) to both political union and monetary union. The centre piece of this proposal was the establishment of a single European currency, the euro, which took place in 1999 with notes and coins being introduced in 2002. (By 2015, the ‘eurozone’ had grown to include 19 member states.) In 2004, the EU began its most radical phase of enlargement as ten countries of central and eastern Europe and the Mediterranean joined, bringing about the reunification of Europe after decades of division by the Iron Curtain. Bulgaria and Romania subsequently joined in 2007, and Croatia joined in 2013, bringing the total number of EU states to 28.

Single European Act and the Four Freedoms

However, the enlargement project ran counter to the desire for further integration in important ways. In particular, a larger number of member states made it more difficult, and sometimes impossible, for EU bodies, and especially the Council of Ministers, to make decisions. This led to moves to establish a constitution for the EU. The first attempt to do this, the Constitution Treaty, was abandoned after the defeat of referendums in 2005 in France and the Netherlands. Many of the features of the Constitution Treaty nevertheless resurfaced in the Treaty of Lisbon, which was ratified in 2009. The Lisbon Treaty confirmed the power of the EU to act in areas of human rights, judicial and foreign policy, and strengthened EU independence by giving it a legal personality.

The EU is a very difficult political organisation to categorise. It is no longer a confederation of independent states operating on the basis of intergovernmentalism (as the EEC and EC were when they were created). The sovereignty of member states was enshrined in the so- called ‘Luxembourg compromise’ of 1966. This accepted the practice of unanimous voting in the Council of Ministers, granting each member state a national veto. However, as a result of the SEA, the TEU and other treaties, the practice of qualified majority voting has been applied to a wider range of policy areas. This narrows the scope of the national veto and allows even the largest state to be outvoted. This trend has been compounded by the fact that EU law is binding on all member states and that the power of certain EU bodies has expanded at the expense of national governments. The EU, therefore, hovers somewhere between intergovernmentalism and supranationalism .

The EU may not yet have created a federal Europe, but because of the superiority of European law over the national law of member states, it is perhaps accurate to talk of a ‘federalising’ Europe. As an economic, monetary and, to a significant extent, political union brought about through voluntary cooperation among states, the EU is a unique political body. The transition from Community to Union, achieved via the TEU, not only extended intergovernmental cooperation into areas such as foreign and security policy, home affairs and justice, and immigration and policing, but also established the notion of EU citizenship (members of the EU states can live, work and be politically active in any other member state). In the UK in particular, such developments have been highly controversial.

Often dubbed Europe’s ‘awkward partner’, the UK struggled to come to terms with its European identity. ‘Euroscepticism’ remained strong, especially in the Conservative Party, fuelled by the fear of a European ‘superstate’ that would threaten both national sovereignty and national identity. This, and the growing threat posed by UKIP, led to the calling of the EU referendum in June 2016, which resulted in the decision to leave the organisation, beginning the process of Brexit. Nevertheless, although the EU has done much to realise the Treaty of Rome’s goal of establishing ‘an ever closer union’, it stops far short of realising the early federalists’ dream of establishing a ‘United States of Europe’. This has been ensured partly by respect for the principle of subsidiarity, which, in the TEU, expresses the idea that EU bodies should only act when matters cannot sufficiently be achieved by member states. Decision-making within the New Europe is increasingly made on the basis of multilevel governance, involving subnational, national, intergovernmental and supranational levels, with 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.