History of the European Union

The founding fathers of the EU

The European Union in which we find ourselves today, a space renowned for its peace and stability, owes a lot to the work, energy and motivation of a number of visionary leaders. From members of the resistance to lawyers, these individuals could see beyond their differences, united by a common ideal: a continent characterised by peace, unity and prosperity. Among the long list of ‘founding fathers’ are:

  • Jean Monnet: French Economist and first president of the European Coal and Steel Community
  • Robert Schuman: Member of the French Resistance, minister and president of the European Parliament
  • Konrad Adenauer: German politician and Chancellor 1949-1963
  • Winston Churchill: British Prime Minister 1940-1945 then 1951-1955
  • AltieroSpinelli: Italian politician and founder of the Union of European Federalists
  • Alcide de Gasperi: President of the Italian Council and President of the European Parliament
  • Paul-Henri Spaak: Belgian Prime Minister and President of the European Parliament

Peace in Europe: the genesis of cooperation (1945-1959)

The European Union was created in the aftermath of a series of conflicts which had bloodied the continent, culminating in the Second World War. From 1950, the European Coal and Steel Community united the European countries on a common political and economic plan which would maintain peace throughout the continent. The six founding were members Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg and the Netherlands.

The 1950s were largely dominated by the Cold War which divided Eastern and Western Europe. In 1956, protests in Hungary were supressed violently by Soviet tanks and the following year the USSR took a lead in the space race, launching the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1.

In 1957 the Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community (EEC), also known as the European Common Market.

The 1960s boom: a period of economic growth (1960-1969)

Led by bands such as The Beatles and their army of adoring fans, the 1960s saw the emergence of “youth culture” which contributed to a cultural revolution throughout the decade and a widening gulf between generations. During this period, the countries of the EEC agreed to lift customs duties on trade, thereby contributing to the decade’s economic prosperity. Likewise, a joint agricultural management system was established, ensuring that each country could meet the alimentary needs of its population. The policy soon led to surpluses of certain agricultural products. The decade will also be remembered for the riots among Paris’ student population (May ‘68) and the subsequent societal and behavioural changes that Generation 68 brought to the continent.

An expanding community: The first enlargement (1970-1979)

Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom joined the European Union on the 1 January 1973, bringing the number of member states to nine. Later that year, the Arab-Israeli war resulted in a global energy crisis and further economic problems across Europe. The 1970s also saw the end of right-wing dictatorships in Europe with the fall of Salazar’s regime in Portugal (1974) and the death of General Franco in Spain (1975). During the decade, the EEC also began to dedicate considerable sums of money to its regional policy, developing infrastructure and employment opportunities in its poorest regions. The European Parliament also increased its influence in European affairs and in 1979 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were directly elected for the first time.

A changing Europe: The fall of the Berlin Wall (1980-1989)

The names Solidarność (Solidarity) and Lech Welesa, the union’s leader, became well known across Europe and the rest of the world following the strikes at Gdansk Shipyeard during the summer of 1980. In 1981, Greece became the tenth member of the EEC and was joined by Spain and Portugal five years later. The Single European Act was signed later that year. This treaty formed the basis of a vast six year programme centred on the removal of barriers to the free movement of goods across the community and gave birth to the European Single Market. On the 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, opening the border between East and West Germany for the first time in 28 years. Germany would be united de jure the following year.

A borderless Europe (1990-1999)

Following the fall of communism, Central, Eastern and Western Europeans became ‘close’ neighbours for the first time since the Second World War. The single market was completed in 1993, enshrining the “four freedoms”: the free movement of goods, services, people and capital. Two treaties were signed during the 90s: The Treaty on the European Union (Maastricht Treaty, 1993) which was later amended by the Amsterdam Treaty in 1999.In 1993, the community was renamed the European Union (EU). The EU also became increasingly involved in environmental protection and the development of common security and defence measures. In 1995, three further states joined the union: Austria, Finland and Sweden. The free movement of people within the union was guaranteed by the Schengen Agreement (named after the small town in Luxembourg in which it was signed), permitting Europeans to travel within the “Schengen Area” without border restrictions. In the spirit of a borderless Europe, the EU enabled millions of young Europeans to study in other member states while the growing use of mobile phones and the internet during the 90s made communication much easier.

New enlargement (2000-2009)

The political division between Eastern and Western Europe came to a symbolic end in 2004 when ten countries joined the union, followed by two others in 2007. Furthermore, the Lisbon Treaty was also ratified by all member states and took effect on the 1 December 2009. The treaty has modernised the EU’s institutions and has increased the efficiency of their work. In the economic field, the EU has responded to the 2008 global financial crisis by reinforcing economic cooperation among its members.

A decade of opportunities and challenges (2010 – today)

The decade started with a severe economic crisis but also with the hope that investments in new green and climate-friendly technologies and closer European cooperation will bring lasting growth and welfare.


Establish priorities

The European Council (not to be confused with the Council of the European Union) sets the EU’s broad priorities but does not have the power to adopt legislation.

Led by a president (currently the former Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk), the Europe Council is composed of the heads of state and government of the 28 member states, along with the President of the Commission.

The legislative process



The “ordinary legislative procedure” (or co-decision) enables these three institutions to adopt policies and legislation which will be implemented across the EU.

Simply speaking, the Commission (led by commissioners nominated by national governments) presents legislative proposals which are then adopted by the Parliament (members elected directly by universal suffrage) and the Council of the European Union. This latter institution is made up of the ministers of the governments of each member state and presided by a different member state every six months.

Once adopted, legislative acts are implemented by member states and the Commission, equally responsible for ensuring that they are applied correctly.

Other institutions

Three other institutions play a vital role

  • The Court of Justice of the European Union, responsible for ensuring that EU law is respected
  • The European Court of Auditors controls the financial management of the EU’s activities
  • The European Central Bank manages the European single currency and directs European monetary policy

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