European Union

A short history of the European Union

The European Coal and Steel Community

At the end of World War II, several western European countries sought closer economic, social, and political ties to achieve economic growth and military security and to promote a lasting reconciliation between France and Germany. To this end, in 1951 the leaders of six countries — Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and West Germany — signed the Treaty of Paris, thereby, when it took effect in 1952, founding the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The ECSC created a free trade area for several key economic and military resources: coal, coke, steel, scrap, and iron ore. To manage the ECSC, the treaty established several supranational institutions: a High Authority to administrate, a Council of Ministers to legislate, a Common Assembly to formulate policy, and a Court of Justice to interpret the treaty and to resolve related disputes.

The two Treaties of Rome

On March 25, 1957, the six ECSC members signed the two Treaties of Rome that established the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), which was designed to facilitate cooperation in atomic energy development, research, and utilization, and the European Economic Community (EEC). The EEC created a common market that featured the elimination of most barriers to the movement of goods, services, capital, and labour, the prohibition of most public policies or private agreements that inhibit market competition, a common agricultural policy (CAP), and a common external trade policy.

The treaty establishing the EEC required members to eliminate or revise important national laws and regulations. In particular, it fundamentally reformed tariff and trade policy by abolishing all internal tariffs by July 1968. Also, like the ECSC, the EEC established four major governing institutions: a commission, a ministerial council, an assembly, and a court. 

Expansion and further integration

Throughout the 1970s and '80s the EEC gradually expanded both its membership and its scope. In 1973 the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Ireland were admitted, followed by Greece in 1981 and Portugal and Spain in 1986. The community's common external trade policy generated pressure for common foreign and development policies, and in the early 1970s the European Political Cooperation (EPC; renamed the Common Foreign and Security Policy by the Maastricht Treaty), consisting of regular meetings of the foreign ministers of each country, was established to coordinate foreign policy. In 1975 the European Regional Development Fund was created to address regional economic disparities and to provide additional resources to Europe's most deprived areas. Members also made several attempts to manage their exchange rates collectively, resulting in the establishment of the European Monetary System in 1979.

Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty

The Single European Act (SEA), which entered into force on July 1, 1987, significantly expanded the EEC's scope. It gave the meetings of the EPC a legal basis, and it called for more intensive coordination of foreign policy among members, though foreign policy decisions were made outside community institutions. The SEA set out a timetable for the completion of a common market, as, at the time, a variety of legal, technical, fiscal, and physical barriers continued to limit the free movement of goods, labour, capital, and services.

The Maastricht Treaty (formally known as the Treaty on European Union), which was signed on February 7, 1992, created the European Union. The treaty met with substantial resistance in some countries, but an amended version of the treaty officially took effect on November 1, 1993. About a year later, on January 1, 1995, Sweden, Austria, and Finland joined the EU, leaving Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland as the only major western European countries outside the organization. Two subsequent treaties revised the policies and institutions of the EU. The first, the Treaty of Amsterdam, was signed in 1997 and entered into force on May 1, 1999; the Treaty of Nice, was signed in 2001 and entered into force on February 1, 2003.

Expanding east

Despite opposition from those who feared that expansion of the EU would stifle consensus and inhibit the development of Europe-wide foreign and security policies, the EU in 2004 admitted 10 countries (Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia), all but two of which (Cyprus and Malta) were former communist states; Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007.

Under the leadership of Germany, work began in early 2007 on a reform treaty intended to replace the failed constitution. The resulting Lisbon Treaty, signed in December 2007, required approval by all 27 EU member countries in order to take effect. The treaty failed, at least in the short term, in June 2008 after it was rejected by voters in a national referendum in Ireland. However, in a second referendum, in October 2009, Irish voters—apparently concerned that another “no” vote would imperil Ireland's ailing economy—overwhelmingly approved the treaty. Having been approved by all 27 member countries, the treaty entered into force on December 1, 2009.


European Union. 2010. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved January 12, 2010, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online:

Europa: The History of the European Union: