Page 1 of 1  
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
European Union EU)
     The vision
     Since Maastricht

Bookmark and Share
The vision

The origins of the European Union date back as far as 1950, just five years after the end of World War II, when the French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, puts forward a far-sighted plan to merge the coal and steel industries of France and Germany a measure calculated to have both economic and peace-keeping benefits. By 1952 this idea has developed into the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), in which six countries (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg) form a common market, without tariff barriers, in coal and steel.

In 1957, with the Treaty of Rome, the same six countries establish the European Economic Community (EEC). Often referred to in Britain as the Common Market, this extends the level of international cooperation to cover free trade in all commodities, free movement of labour, and a commitment to steadily greater economic integration between the member states.

The European Community is created in 1967 to bring together the EEC, the ECSC and the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM), enabling them to share the same political and administrative institutions. These include the European Commission, which is the executive branch; the Council of Ministers, the main decision-making body; the elected European Parliament; and the European Court of Justice.

Negotiations are begun in 1961 for four countries (United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark and Norway) to join the Community, but this development is vetoed by the French president, General de Gaulle in 1963 and again in 1967. In 1973 the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark do finally join (the people of Norway have decided not to do so in a referendum in 1972). In Britain a Labour government comes power in 1974 and holds in 1975 the country's first referendum, on whether to stay in the EC; the vote goes 2 to 1 in favour of doing so. In subsequent years an increasing number of countries have met the economic standards required to join the union. By 2013 there are twenty-eight member states.

In 1962 the Community introduces a Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to protect farmers against the import of cheaper foodstuffs. The inefficiencies of this system, which leads to vast subsidies and overproduction (the notorious 'butter mountain' being followed by similar surpluses of wheat and wine), dominate Community politics until the mid-80s, when reforms begin to be introduced. Since then the main topic of disagreement has been the speed of advance towards full economic integration.


Part of the original vision has been not only free trade but also close financial links. The EMS (European Monetary System) is introduced in 1979. This is followed by EMU (Economic and Monetary Union), resulting in a European Central Bank (from 1998, in Frankfurt-am-Main) and a plan for a single currency, the future euro.

A broad consensus on the way forward is agreed between member states, with considerable difficulty, at Maastricht in December 1991. A single market is introduced in January 1993, in principle establishing the completely free passage of goods between nation states and the ending of border formalities within the community for EU nationals. The name European Union is adopted instead of European Community at the same period, in 1993.

The single currency comes into everyday existence on 1 January 2002, with the euro as the unit of currency. Each member state can decide whether or not to adopt the currency and enter what becomes known as the Eurozone. In 2013 eleven of the twenty-eight members, including the UK, remain outside the zone.

After the global financial crisis of 2008 the requirement to abide by the single Eurozone-wide valuation of the euro, with no opportunity to become more competitive by individual devaluation, causes severe economic difficulties for some countries (in particular Greece, Cyprus, Ireland, Spain and Portugal) and requires massive bail-outs by the European Central Bank.


Since Maastricht: from 1991

  Page 1 of 1  
Up to top of page EUROPEAN UNION