The History of the European Union

A series of steps over four decades led to the creation of the EU in 1993

Low Angle View Of European Union Flags

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The European Union (EU) was founded as a result of the Maastricht Treaty on Nov. 1, 1993. It is a political and economic union between European countries that sets policies concerning the members’ economies, societies, laws, and, to some extent, security. To some, the EU is an overblown bureaucracy that drains money and compromises the power of sovereign states. For others, it is the best way to meet challenges smaller nations might struggle with—such as economic growth and negotiations with larger nations—and worth surrendering some sovereignty to achieve. Despite many years of integration, opposition remains strong, but states have acted pragmatically, at times, to sustain the union.

Origins of the EU

The EU wasn't created in one go by the Maastricht Treaty but was rather the result of gradual integration since 1945. The success of one level of union gave confidence and impetus for a next level. In this way, the EU can be said to have been formed by the demands of its member nations.

The end of World War II left Europe divided between the communist, Soviet-dominated eastern bloc and the largely democratic western nations. There were fears over what direction a rebuilt Germany would take. In the West, thoughts of a federal European union re-emerged with hopes of binding Germany into pan-European democratic institutions to the extent that it, or any other allied European nation, wouldn’t be able to start a new war and would resist the expansion of the communist East.

The First Union: the ECSC

Europe’s post-war nations weren’t just seeking peace; they were also after solutions to economic problems, such as raw materials being in one country and the industry to process them in another. War had left Europe exhausted, with industry greatly damaged and defenses possibly unable to stop Russia. Six neighboring countries agreed in The Treaty of Paris to form an area of free trade for several key resources, including coal, steel, and iron ore, chosen for their role in industry and the military. This body was called the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and involved Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Luxembourg. It began on July 23, 1952, and ended on July 23, 2002, replaced by further unions.

France had suggested creating the ECSC to control Germany and to rebuild industry. Germany wanted to become an equal player in Europe again and rebuild its reputation, as did Italy, while the others hoped for growth and feared being left behind. France, afraid Britain would try to quash the plan, didn’t include them in initial discussions. Britain stayed out, wary of giving up power and content with the economic potential offered by the Commonwealth.

A group of "supranational" (a level of governance above nation states) bodies was created to manage the ECSC: a council of ministers, a common assembly, a high authority, and a court of justice to legislate, develop ideas, and resolve disputes. The later EU would emerge from these key bodies, a process that some of the ECSC’s creators had envisaged, as they explicitly stated the creation of a federal Europe as their long-term goal.

The European Economic Community

A false step was taken in the mid-1950s when a proposed European defense community among the ESSC’s six states was drawn up. It called for a joint army to be controlled by a new supranational defense minister. The initiative was rejected after France’s National Assembly voted it down.

However, the success of the ECSC led to the members signing two new treaties in 1957, both called the treaty of Rome. This created the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), which was to pool knowledge of atomic energy, and the European Economic Community (EEC), with a common market among the members with no tariffs or impediments to the flow of labor and goods. It aimed to continue economic growth and avoid the protectionist policies of pre-war Europe. By 1970 trade within the common market had increased fivefold. Also created was the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to boost members' farming and an end to monopolies. The CAP, which wasn’t based on a common market but on government subsidies to support local farmers, has become one of the most controversial EU policies.​

Like the ECSC, the EEC created several supranational bodies: a council of ministers to make decisions, a common assembly (called the European Parliament from 1962) to give advice, a court that could overrule member states, and a commission to put the policy into effect. The 1965 Brussels Treaty merged the commissions of the EEC, ECSC, and Euratom to create a joint, permanent civil service.


A late 1960s power struggle established the need for unanimous agreements on key decisions, effectively giving member states a veto. It has been argued that this slowed union by two decades. Over the 1970s and 1980s, membership in the EEC expanded, accepting Denmark, Ireland, and the UK in 1973, Greece in 1981, and Portugal and Spain in 1986. Britain had changed its mind after seeing its economic growth lag behind the EEC's, and after the United States indicated it would support Britain as a rival voice in the EEC to France and Germany. Ireland and Denmark, heavily dependent upon the UK economy, followed it in to keep pace and attempt to develop themselves away from Britain. Norway applied at the same time but withdrew after a referendum failed. Meanwhile, member states began to see European integration as a way to balance the influence of Russia and the U.S.


On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU and become the first member state to use a previously untouched release clause, but the final Brexit, as the move become known, has yet to occur. As of 2019, there were 28 countries in the European Union (with year of joining):

  • Austria (1995)
  • Belgium (1957)
  • Bulgaria (2007)
  • Croatia (2013)
  • Cyprus (2004)
  • Czech Republic (2004)
  • Denmark (1973)
  • Estonia (2004)
  • Finland (1995)
  • France (1957)
  • Germany (1957)
  • Greece (1981)
  • Hungary (2004)
  • Ireland (1973)
  • Italy (1957)
  • Latvia (2004)
  • Lithuania (2004)
  • Luxembourg (1957)
  • Malta (2004)
  • The Netherlands (1957)
  • Poland (2004)
  • Portugal (1986)
  • Romania (2007)
  • Slovakia (2004)
  • Slovenia (2004)
  • Spain (1986)
  • Sweden (1995)
  • The United Kingdom (1973)

The development of the EU slowed in the 1970s, frustrating federalists who sometimes refer to it as a "dark age." Attempts to create an economic and monetary union were drawn up but derailed by the declining international economy. However, impetus returned by the 1980s, partly because of fears that Reagan’s U.S. was moving away from Europe and preventing EEC members from forming links with Communist countries in an attempt to slowly bring them back into the democratic fold.

Foreign policy became an area for consultation and group action. Other funds and bodies were created including the European Monetary System in 1979 and methods of giving grants to underdeveloped areas. In 1987 the Single European Act (SEA) evolved the EEC’s role a step further. Now European Parliament members were given the ability to vote on legislation and issues, with the number of votes dependent on each member’s population.

The Maastricht Treaty and the European Union

On Feb. 7, 1992, European integration moved another step further when the Treaty on European Union, known as the Maastricht Treaty, was signed. This came into force on Nov. 1, 1993, and changed the EEC into the newly named European Union. The change broadened the work of the supranational bodies based around three “pillars:” the European Communities, giving more power to the European parliament; a common security/foreign policy; and involvement in the domestic affairs of member nations on “justice and home affairs.” In practice, and to pass the mandatory unanimous vote, these were all compromises away from the unified ideal. The EU also set guidelines for creation of a single currency, although when the Euro was introduced on Jan. 1, 1999 three nations opted out and one failed to meet the required targets.

Currency and economic reform were now being driven largely by the fact that the U.S. and Japanese economies were growing faster than Europe’s, especially after expanding quickly into the new developments in electronics. There were objections from poorer member nations, which wanted more money from the union, and larger nations, which wanted to pay less, but a compromise was eventually reached. One planned side effect of the closer economic union and the creation of a single market was the greater co-operation in social policy that would have to occur as a result.

The Maastricht Treaty also formalized the concept of EU citizenship, allowing any individual from an EU nation to run for office in the EU government, which was also changed to promote decision-making. Perhaps most controversially, the EU’s entrance into domestic and legal matters—which produced the Human Rights Act and overrode many member states’ local laws—produced rules relating to free movement within the EU’s borders, leading to paranoia about mass migrations from poorer EU nations to richer ones. More areas of members’ government were affected than ever before, and the bureaucracy expanded. The Maastricht Treaty faced heavy opposition, only narrowly passing in France and forcing a vote in the UK.

Further Enlargements

In 1995 Sweden, Austria, and Finland joined the EU, and in 1999 the Treaty of Amsterdam came into effect, bringing employment, working and living conditions, and other social and legal issues into the EU. By then Europe was facing great changes caused by the collapse of the Soviet-dominated East and the emergence of economically weakened but newly democratic eastern nations. The 2001 Treaty of Nice tried to prepare for this, and a number of states entered into special agreements in which they initially joined parts of the EU system, such as free trade zones. There were discussions over streamlining voting and modifying the CAP, especially as Eastern Europe had a much higher percentage of the population involved in agriculture than the West, but in the end financial worries prevented change.

While there was opposition, 10 nations joined in 2004 and two in 2007. By this time there had been agreements to apply majority voting to more issues, but national vetoes remained on tax, security, and other issues. Worries over international crime, as criminals had formed effective cross-border organizations, were now acting as an impetus.

The Lisbon Treaty

The EU’s level of integration is unmatched in the modern world. Some want to move it closer still, though many don’t. The Convention on the Future of Europe was created in 2002 to write an EU constitution. The draft, signed in 2004, aimed to install a permanent EU president, a foreign minister, and a charter of rights. It would have also allowed the EU to make many more decisions instead of the heads’ of the individual members. It was rejected in 2005, when France and the Netherlands failed to ratify it and before other EU members got the chance to vote.

An amended work, the Lisbon Treaty, still aimed to install an EU president and foreign minister, as well as expand the EU’s legal powers, but only through developing the existing bodies. This was signed in 2007 but initially rejected, this time by voters in Ireland. However, in 2009 Irish voters passed the treaty, many concerned about the economic effects of saying no. By the winter of 2009 all 27 EU states had ratified the process, and it took effect. Herman Van Rompuy (b. 1947), at that time Belgium prime minister, became the first president of the European Council, and Britain’s Catherine Ashton (b. 1956) became high representative for foreign affairs.

There remained many political opposition parties—and politicians in the ruling parties—that opposed the treaty, and the EU remains a divisive issue in the politics of all member nations.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Cini, Michelle, and Nieves Pérez-Solórzano Borragán. "European Union Politics." 5th ed. Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Dinan, Desmond. "Europe Recast: A History of European Union." 2nd ed., 2014. Boulder CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004
  • Member Countries of the European Union. European Union. 
  • Kaiser, Wolfram, and Antonio Varsori. "European Union History: Themes and Debates." Basinstoke UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 
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Wilde, Robert. "The History of the European Union." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). The History of the European Union. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The History of the European Union." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).