How did the European Union Come Into Existence?

The European Union was created as a result of post-war cooperation in Europe to ensure peace, prosperity, and stability on the continent.

Feb 17, 2022By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations
how did the european union start
On 18 April 1951, the representatives of the Six welcome the signing of the Treaty establishing the ECSC in Paris, 1951, via Europeana


World War II left Europe with millions of civilian casualties, a devastated economy, and weak security. The only way to achieve peace between countries was through economic and political integration. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was the first to propose European integration in the form of a United States of Europe. However, the idea did not materialize until Robert Schuman’s initiative, the Schuman Plan. In 1951, Europe’s integration began when the European Coal and Steel Community was formed with a supranational authority to regulate the production and sale of heavy materials. The economic integration gradually turned into the political one. Currently, the European Union consists of 27 democracies working together to create peace, prosperity, and freedom for its citizens.


Beginning of the European Union: Robert Schuman & the European Coal and Steel Community


Many believe that the history of the European Union began after the end of World War II when European political leaders realized that the only way to maintain peace was through the economic and political integration of the countries.


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“The inventor’s pride and joy: let’s hope it holds things together better than the safety pins did,” by Klaus Pielert, 1950, via Europeana


Launching the Schuman Plan, elaborated by Robert Schuman in 1950, was the first step towards forming a lasting peace. However, Franco-German reconciliation seemed necessary to re-establish peace on the European continent as rivalry and enmity between both nationalist states, often called the “hereditary enemies” in Western Europe, led to two World Wars. One of the major obstacles to the reconciliation remained the issue of coal and steel production. Coal was Europe’s leading energy source, accounting for about 70% of total fuel use. Steel was a critical commodity for industry, and its production required a considerable amount of coal. Both minerals were also required for the production of weaponry. West Germany’s Ruhr Valley and the Saarland had the highest concentrations of coal mines and steel production.


After World War II, the Allies separated the Saarland from West Germany and granted it semi-autonomy. The Allies imposed limits on the production, ownership, and sale of coal and steel in the Ruhr Valley to limit German economic expansion. The Ruhr Valley’s coal and steel output was also limited as a promise to Germany’s neighbors (France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands) that Germany would not use these vital resources to rebuild the military. In addition to the eventual separation of the Saarland from West Germany, France wanted ownership of and access to the Ruhr Valley.

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There was particular concern that West Germany might be able to initiate another war against France using its large coal and steel reserves. West Germans, led by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who was elected in 1949, sought to restore the Saarland to Germany and protested the strict regulations imposed on heavy industry. The Franco-German conflict over coal and steel endured. A rapprochement between the two former adversaries seemed improbable.


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Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman leaving the seat of the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in Luxembourg together after a ceremony commemorating the Schuman Declaration by Théo Mey, 1950, via Europeana


The solution to the coal and steel problem appeared in the Schuman Plan, initiated by the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman. At a press conference on May 9, 1950, Robert Schuman announced the plan proposed by French economist and European integration ideologue Jean Monnet. The plan was to establish a joint institution for the collective production and management of coal and steel, which would also be accessible to other European countries. It would be possible to revive German industry without violating French security interests.


On the other hand, Robert Schumann’s plan was acceptable to Germany as well. As it still had limited sovereignty, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer believed that joining such a union would gradually pave the way for the full restoration of German sovereignty and the international recognition of the state. The proposal was shared by four other countries: Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (BENELUX).


As a practical follow-up to Robert Schuman’s idea, the Coal and Steel Community was established in 1951, bringing together six European nations’ coal and steel resources: France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The creation of the new intergovernmental institution officially marked the beginning of European integration, which would later transform into the European Union.


A Period of Economic Growth: Treaty of Rome & the European Atomic Energy Community

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Poster produced in 1950 by the French section of the European Movement welcoming the Schuman Plan, from Private Collection, 1950, via Europeana


The stable and progressive nature of relations between the six countries in the European Coal and Steel Community led to the decision to establish the European Economic Community (EEC), based on the Treaty of Rome. The treaty was signed on March 25, 1957, by Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, France, and Italy, with the main goal being to support integration through economic growth and to set up a common market with free movement of goods, people, services, and capital. These goals required aligning the economic policies of signatories and creating a single economic area with less restrictive measures. The Customs Union was established, which abolished quotas and customs duties and launched a common external tariff on imports outside the European Economic Community.


The EEC, with its transformative economic policy of common market and unique trade conditions, strived for the tighter political integration of the countries, while the Treaty of Rome laid the foundation for the institutions of the modern European Union. The Council of Ministers, the Commission, the Parliamentary Assembly (later the European Parliament), and the Court of Justice supported the member states in realizing their national and common European interests through the joint policies of agriculture, trade, and transport.


European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) was established by the same countries on the same day as the Treaty of Rome. Its main goal was to reduce the dependence on the external oil market and to support the building of nuclear power stations as a safe alternative.


Political Integration of the 1970s

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Between 1952 and 1957, the Common Assembly of the ECSC holds its plenary sessions in the chamber of the House of Europe in Strasbourg, via Europeana


Economic integration had a spillover effect on the political dimension. Consequently, the development of intergovernmental cooperation between the European countries in the field of foreign policy began in the 1970s. On January 1, 1973, three new members joined the European Communities: Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. Regular meetings of heads of state at least twice a year were formalized in 1974, and the European Council was established, strengthening the intergovernmental element of European integration.


However, besides intense economic and political integration processes, the 1970s came with international challenges as well. The Arab-Israeli War of 1973 created an oil crisis, negatively affecting the whole of Europe. The EEC leaders launched the European Regional Policy and the European Regional Development Fund to address the crises. Large sums of money were redirected towards the poorer regions of the European continent to support the development of infrastructure, economy, and the overall environment.


At the same time, democracy began to thrive in Europe. In 1974, Greece, Portugal, and Spain overthrew their dictatorships, installed democracies, and prepared to be integrated into the European democratic family. In 1979, for the first time, members of the European Parliament were directly elected by the citizens, strengthening the intergovernmental nature of the new Union.


The Maastricht Treaty & the Formation of the European Union

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Towards European Union. Maastricht: Commission européenne, 7/02/1992 by Lambiotte Christian, European Commission Audiovisual Library, 1992, via Centre Virtuel de la Connaissance sur l’Europe


The end of the 1980s marked the collapse of communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. Hence, greater political and economic integration was on the agenda. In 1985, the Schengen Agreement was signed by Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Members agreed to gradually abolish border controls and implement freedom of movement for their citizens, those of member states of the Schengen Agreement, and other European countries.


The next year, on February 28, 1986, the member states signed the Single European Act. This act became the first comprehensive revision act to institutionalize European political cooperation, namely: the European Council was created as one of the institutions of the Union, a court of the first instance was established, and the Parliamentary Assembly was formally renamed European Parliament. The powers of the Commission increased. In many other fields, the decision-making procedure by majority vote had been applied (the decision was only made by unanimity previously). During the 1980s, Greece, Spain, and Portugal joined the Community.


On February 7, 1992, the Treaty of the European Union, known as the Maastricht Treaty, was signed. By signing this agreement, the EU was formally established and acquired a wider political aspect along with its economic authority.


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A woman holds up euro notes from an ATM moments after midnight on January 1, 2002, in Maastricht, the Netherlands by Michel Porro, 2002, via The Guardian


The Maastricht Treaty stipulated that the EU should be based on three main pillars:


  1. The first pillar united the existing European communities (European Community, the European Coal and Steel Community, and the European Atomic Energy Community). At a supranational level, the European Commission and the European Parliament, along with the Council, played a key role in the decision-making process;


  1. The second pillar included common foreign and security policy.


  1. The third pillar included cooperation in the fields of justice and internal affairs.


For the last two pillars, decisions were made at the national level by the leaders and ministers of the member states and required the consent of all member states. The reason behind the distinction was that the states did not want to entrust issues of strategic importance–security, foreign policy, internal affairs, and justice–to the Commission and the Parliament. Given that it was the duty of these bodies to act in the common European interest and not to protect national interests, the representatives of the Member States could not, in their interests, influence the decision-making processes.


The Maastricht Treaty established the Economic and Monetary Union with close economic policy coordination and introduced a single currency – the Euro. The European Central Bank was set up for this purpose. In 1993, the single market was launched with the “4 freedoms” of free movement (people, goods, services, and money). Austria, Finland, and Sweden joined the EU in 1995. To address the challenges of a growing community, an agreement known as the Amsterdam Treaty was signed in 1997. The intergovernmental conference aimed to create an institutional system that would ensure the future enlargement of the European Union and the smooth integration of Eastern European countries into the European institutions.


Modern Europe: The European Union 

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1957-1997 Treaties of Rome: 40 years of peace and cooperation, European Union, 1996, via the University of Kentucky, Lexington


The beginning of the 21st century and the fear of intensified international terrorism after the attacks of 11 September 2001 pushed European countries to greater economic and political integration. Consequently, when ten new countries (Cyprus, Malta, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) joined the European Union in 2010, the split between Eastern and Western Europe was finally abolished. Previously, in 2007, Bulgaria and Romania were the only two Eastern European countries to join the team. In 2013, Croatia became the 28th member of the EU.


When the global recession of 2008 hit the world, the Treaty of Lisbon tried to provide modern institutions and more efficient working methods for the member states of the Union. With the Lisbon Treaty signed in 2008, the EU has finally reached a constitutional settlement after 15 years of extensive discussions among member states and, at times, persistent resistance from different parts of European society. A significant number of changes have been made to the European construction under the new Treaty, including the expansion of common policies and the establishment of the strong position of the President for the European Council, an enhanced framework for foreign policies, and a more transparent and effective decision-making process.


The European Union proved to be a successful construction of a supranational system of governance so far. In a relatively short period, it transitioned from a community of 6 to 27 member states (The United Kingdom left the EU in 2020), from an economic union to a political one. Unlike the EU, none of the previous organizations have resulted from a free and equal alliance of states, as opposed to a framework that developed around the notion of a nation-state.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.