A Beginners Guide to the EU #2: Brief History | Autonomy Scotland

A Beginners Guide to the EU #2: Brief History

This is part two of our guide to the EU. Check out part one for a guide to the basic structure of the organisation. These structures will be refered to here.

Here we cover the main points in the history of the organisation. I have embedded a short video at the bottom which covers the same info as the text. 

Pre 1945

Throughout history many people have suggested some form of Union between European states. Some of the more notable individuals to raise the notion have been Victor Hugo, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mills and Tzar Alexander. The main reason for their concern was the frequency and destruction of wars fought between European countries and Empires. Most of the early proposals envisioned a United States of Europe similar to the United States of America.

After the First World War the idea gained momentum. Trotsky proposed a Soviet States of Europe while Austrian Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi founded the Pan-Europa movement which he envisioned as a Christian (Catholic) union of states. A more inclusive idea came in 1929 when French Prime Minster, Aristide Briand, proposed a Federation of European States in a speech to the League Of Nations. This idea was supported by many eminent people including economist John Maynard Keynes. However, soon people became preoccupied by the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. The idea was ultimately put on the backburner with the outbreak of The Second World War.

During the Second World War many thinkers on various sides of the conflict came up with a similar idea. This was that there would never be any peace and security in Europe unless the nations pooled some degree of their sovereignty. This idea was espoused by Hungarian leader Pal Teleki shortly before he committed suicide when Hungary was invaded by the Nazis. It was proposed by German Ministers Joachim von Ribbentrop and Cecil von Renthe-Fink.  It was proposed by Altiero Spinelli, co-author with Ernesto Rossi in their Ventotene Manifesto (named after the internment camp they were in when they wrote it). And it was proposed by Jean Monnet, a member of the National Liberation Committee of the Free French government in Algiers, who many regard as the architect of European Unity. He said:

There will be no peace in Europe, if the states are reconstituted on the basis of national sovereignty … The countries of Europe are too small to guarantee their peoples the necessary prosperity and social development. The European states must constitute themselves into a federation

1945 to 1957

The brutality and devastation of the Second World War really drove home the need for unity in Europe. In 1946 Winston Churchill made a speech calling for a United States of Europe and a European Council. Three years later the first pan European organisation, the Council Of Europe was formed. Article one of its constitution states:

The aim of the Council of Europe is to achieve a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage and facilitating their economic and social progress.

On 9th May 1950, the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman made a statement that has come to be known as the Schuman Declaration. This proposed closer integration between the German and French Coal and Steel industries. The organisation was to be open to all and the idea was to begin to align the interests of the big industrial produces and so reduce the threat of conflict. Schuman said:

Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity. The coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany

On the basis of the speech, in 1951, France, Italy, the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) and West Germany signed the Treaty of Paris  creating the European Coal and Steel Community.  It gave birth to the first European supranational institutions, such as the High Authority which was to become the European Commission and the Common Assembly which was to become the parliament.

On 25th March 1957 Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany signed the treaty of Rome which created the European Economic Community. The treaty proposed the reduction of customs duties and the establishment of a customs union. The creation of a common market of goods, workers, services and capital. And the creation of common transport and agriculture policies and a European social fund. The European Commission was also formed as an executive body of the EEC. The treaty of Rome also resulted in the formation of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Therefore, the EEC, The European Coal and Steal Community as well as Euratrom meant that there were 3 supranational institutions running at the same time. They became known as the Three Communities.


In 1960 Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom established a separate European Free Trade Association. Several of those countries applied for membership of the Three Communities but the applications were suspended as the French Leader Charles De Gaul suspected the UK would act as an American trojan horse. On  8 April 1965 the Merger treaty was signed which combined executive bodies of the Three Communities into one.

Each of the member countries would have 2 members in this body which was to become known as the European Commission. In 1969 Georges Pompidou took over the French Presidency which opened the way for expansion of the Three Communities.  Ireland, Denmark and the UK applied to join. The UK was the only one not to have had a referendum on membership. Norway also had a referendum but voted against.

1973 onwards

From 1973 onwards the story of the organisation has been one of treaties and expansions. Over time the Three Communities became the EU we know today. I have listed the main points here.

  • 1973 Ireland, Denmark and the UK joined the EEC
  • 1979 The European Parliament held its first elections
  • 1981 Greece joined
  • 1985 Greenland left the EEC after gaining independence from Denmark
  • 1986 The single European Act was agreed. This expanded the powers of the EEC most particularly in terms of Foreign Policy. The EEC also adopted the European flag that year
  • 1989 The Berlin Wall fell meaning East Germany became part of the EEC and the door was opened for Eastern European countries to apply
  • In 1993 the Maastricht Treaty came into effect. This officially created the EU. The new organisation was structured as a three pillar system. The first pillar was the EEC (now shortened to EC), the second pillar a common foreign and security body. The last pillar was cooperation in Justice and Home Affairs. The Maastricht Treaty also paved the way for the creation of the euro by enshrining in law the obligation of nations to have: sound fiscal policies, with debt limited to 60% of GDP and annual deficits no greater than 3% of GDP. In 1993 the Single European Market was also launched
  • 1994 Austria, Sweden and Finland joined and several non EU countries gained access to the European Economic Area which allowed them to participate in the Single Market
  • 1995 The Schengen agreement came into force in 7 states allowing free movement of people. By the following year it had expanded to all member states
  • 1999 The Euro currency was launched and the European Central Bank was created. The Amsterdam Treaty came into force which devolved certain powers from governments to the European Parliament. These included powers over immigration, civil and criminal laws and aspects of foreign and security policy. The treaty also laid the ground for expansion
  • 2003 The treaty of Nice came into force. This was designed to streamline the EU for the integration of Eastern European countries. The treaty changed the decision making process within the EU council. Made provisions for enlarging the parliament. Reduced the number of representatives that countries had on the European Commission to one. And created subsidiary courts that were below the European Court of Justice
  • 2004 Ten new states joined taking the total to 25. These were Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia
  • 2007 Bulgaria and Romania join
  • 2009 The treaty of Lisbon entered into force. Changes included the move to qualified majority voting in at least 45 policy areas in the Council of Ministers. A change in calculating such a majority to a new double majority. A shift of power to the European Parliament sharing legislation with the Council of Ministers. A consolidated legal personality for the EU and the creation of a long-term President of the European Council as well as a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The Treaty also made the Union’s bill of rights, legally binding. The Treaty for the first time gave member states the explicit legal right to leave the EU and a procedure to do so
  • 2013 Croatia became a member state taking total to the current total of 28

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