Background: The legacy of both Roman and Holy Roman Empires has inspired subsequent military leaders from Louis XIV through to Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler to attempt to recreate these old empires or reunite Europe by force.
A different train of thought began to appear after the carnage of the First World War. Why not try to re-unite Europe peacefully? The idea of an United States of Europe was borne out of a desire to avoid a repeat of the carnage of 1914-18. The years following Hitler’s defeat in 1945 gave new impetus to the idea of a federal Europe, with the USA especially supportive, believing that a United States of Europe would be the best way of containing the menace from the Soviet Union.
Europe’s long history of warfare, culminating in the conflicts of 1914-18 and 1939-45, caused a number of eminent politicians and intellectuals to conclude that the existence of individual nation states was the root cause of these wars. The problem they faced was convincing ordinary men and women to give up their national sovereignty.
1946: Winston Churchill calls for a “kind of United States of Europe” in a speech at Zurich University. However, he was adamant, as was noted earlier, that our country’s role was to be a facilitator and not a member of the proposed Superstate. In spite of American pressure, Clement Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister who had succeeded Churchill in 1945, was as adamant as his predecessor. In 1950, he insisted that Britain could never accept that “the most vital economic forces of this country should be handed over to an authority that is utterly undemocratic and is responsible to nobody.” The lack of confidence in the nation state, which afflicted much of mainland Europe after 1945, did not take root in our country.We had not been defeated or subjected to dictatorship.
1946-51: The action plan for what became the European Union owes more to a French civil servant called Jean Monnet than anyone else. He drew heavily from the considerable volume of material produced by supporters of European Union in the inter-war years. The political project was to be disguised as an economic project. Sovereignty was to be surrendered by little by little – and stealthily – to newly-created European institutions including a Council of Ministers, an assembly (later the European Parliament), a court and above all, a “High Authority”. This authority in due course became the European Commission, led by a team of Commissioners who are hand-picked by the leaders of their countries rather than elected. They are required to take an oath in which they state “I do solemnly undertake: to be completely independent in the performance of my duties, in the general interest of the Communities; in the performance of these duties, neither to seek nor to take instructions from any government or from any other body.” In other words, the people who were to be entrusted to drive the European project forward were neither chosen democratically nor accountable to their national governments.
1951: Treaty of Paris signed, which established the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Six nations (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) placed their coal and steel industries under the High Authority.
1957: Treaty of Rome signed. The ECSC evolved into the European Economic Community, containing the same six nations. These developments would not have been possible without the support of politicians from these six countries. In the 1950s, with the Second World War fresh in people’s memories, there is no question that this generation of politicians deliberately kept the people of their countries in the dark as to the long-term objective of the EEC, although some of them at least may have done so in part out of a genuine desire to prevent another war. Unfortunately, they ended up creating a monster.
1973: First enlargement. The UK joined the EEC, along with Denmark and the Irish Republic. Norway also applied to join, but its voters decided against it in a referendum, largely out of concern for the country’s fishing industry, which would have been placed under the control of Brussels.
1978: The European Council establishes the European Monetary System based on a European currency unit (the ECU) and the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). The ECU has some characteristics of a real currency and is used in travellers’ cheques and bank deposits. ERM gives national currencies a central exchange rate against the ECU. All the community’s members apart from the UK join the ERM.
1979: First direct elections to the European Parliament.
1981: In January, Greece became the 10th member of the European Community.
1985: The European Council agrees in Luxembourg to amend the Treaty of Rome and to revitalise integration by drawing up a Single European Act. Greenland became the first country to withdraw from the European project, following a referendum. It had joined the EU when it was regarded as part of Denmark. Once home rule was granted in 1979, it began making plans to organise this referendum which took place five years later. The result was 53% to 47% in favour of withdrawal.
1986: Spain and Portugal join the Community in January. In February, the Single European Act signed, aiming to create a Single Market by 1992, and reforming the legislative process to speed this up. In May, the European flag, adopted by Community institutions, flown for the first time in front of the Berlaymont building in Brussels, the HQ of the European Commission.
1990: The European Council launches two Intergovernmental Conferences, one on Economic and Monetary Union, the other on Political Union.
1992: In February, the Maastricht Treaty (more correctly called the Treaty on the European Union was signed, leading to creation of the euro, and the “pillar” structure of the European Union: the European Community (EC) pillar, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) pillar, and the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) pillar. Denmark voted against ratifying the treaty in a referendum in June, but in May 1993, the country’s voters voted in favour in a second referendum.
1993: in January, the Single European Market entered into force.
1995: In January: Austria, Finland and Sweden join the Union, bringing membership to 15. Norway once again voted against joining. In March, the Schengen Agreement came into force between Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, lifting border control. The UK and Ireland stayed out of the agreement due to fears of terrorism and illegal immigration.
1997: the Amsterdam Treaty signed, emphasising citizenship and the rights of individuals, more powers for the European Parliament, the beginnings of a common foreign and security policy (CFSP).
1998: The European Central Bank was established.
1999: the entire Commission led by Jacques Santer resigns following report by the Committee of Independent Experts on allegations of fraud, mismanagement and nepotism.
2000: Formal proclamation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
2001: in February, the Treaty of Nice was signed, reforming the institutional structure of the European Union to allow for eastward expansion.
2002: on 1st January, the new euro coins and notes enter circulation in the 12 participating member states: Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.
2004: in May, the European Union’s biggest ever enlargement took place. 10 new countries joined – Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic, and Slovenia.
2005: After the Heads of State and Government and EU foreign ministers signed the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe the previous year: referendums in France and the Netherlands both voted against ratification. .
2007: in January, Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, bringing membership to 27.
2008: in June, the Irish people rejected the Treaty of Lisbon, the recycled and repackaged European Constitution, in a referendum. They were forced to vote again in October 2009 and this time, ratified it. This year also the start of the Great Recession, which was to create enormous tensions within the €urozone (see below).
2009: Following the second Irish referendum, the Treaty of Lisbon came into force on 1st December. It abolished the three “pillars” of the EU and replaced unanimity with qualified majority voting in at least 45 policy areas in the Council of Ministers. It also established a consolidated legal personality for the EU and the created the posts of President of the European Council and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The Treaty also made the Union’s bill of rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, legally binding. The Treaty for the first time gave member states the explicit legal right to leave the EU and the procedure to do so (Article 50).
2010: Greece sought a loan from the EU and the IMF as it was unable to meet its debt obligations, plunging the Eurozone into crisis. Although the Eurozone has recovered from the Great Recession, Greece’s debt/GDP ratio still stood at an unsustainable 179% at the end of 2016, in spite of extreme austerity measures imposed on the country by the European Central Bank, the IMF and the European Commission..
2013: Croatia joins the European Union, taking the total number of member states to 28.
2016: On 23rd June, the UK voted to leave the European Union in a referendum. Switzerland also formally withdrew its EU membership application.
2020: On 31st January at 11pm, the United Kingdom left the European Union.