The foundations of the EU were laid after the Second World War, when Europeans wanted to ensure that they would never again be subject to the destructive and murderous madness that had plagued the continent during years of conflict. The plan was to guarantee lasting peace, rebuild European economies and restore prosperity in Europe through economic cooperation and integration.
Originally established between six European countries and limited to coal and steel production, cooperation was progressively reinforced, first with the creation of the internal market, then with the creation of the single currency (the euro) and finally with the implementation of a common foreign and security policy. Progress has also been marked by successive enlargements to include new Member States: having started out with six founding members, the European Union now comprises 28 Member States.
In 2008, a major financial crisis hit the world's economy with full force, spreading to the European banking system and causing a public debt crisis in several EU Member States. These successive crises led to further economic integration between EU countries and its progressive reinforcement, particularly for countries with the single currency - the euro.
The following sections summarise the chronology of the construction of the EU and the key dates in its history.
1950-1952 - The Schuman Declaration and the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC)
Shortly after the Second World War and on the eve of the Cold War that would last for 40 years, Europe was divided into East and West. Within this context, in 1949 the Western European nations founded the Council of Europe, as the first step towards a new form of cooperation between European States.
Six countries (Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) rapidly wanted to go further, taking their inspiration from French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman's declaration on 9 May 1950. He proposed the creation of the European Community of Coal and Steel, in which member states would pool their production of these two industries, which were essential for armed conflict, thus making any new conflicts between historic rivals France and Germany "not only unthinkable but materially impossible".
Basing themselves on the "Schuman plan", these countries signed the treaty establishing the European Community of Coal and Steel (ECSC) on 18 April 1951, placing their heavy industries under a single, higher authority. The ECSC became the first supranational European institution, and would eventually become today's European Union through the signature of new treaties.
1957 - The Rome Treaties
In 1957, the same six States decided to extend their cooperation to other economic sectors. To reach this objective they approved two new treaties (known as the "Treaties of Rome"), which respectively established the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM). The former set out the creation of a customs union between the signatory Member States - customs between the six countries were completely abolished in 1968, and a common market based on the "Four Freedoms", i.e. the free movement of capital, goods, services and people. The latter implemented a framework for coordinating Member State research programmes with a view to the peaceful use of atomic energy.
1965 - The Merger Treaty
In 1965, the six founding Member States signed the Merger Treaty (also known as the "Brussels Treaty") to modernise the European Institutions. It created a unique framework and merged the independent institutions established by the ECSC, the EEC and EURATOM. 1967, the date on which the treaty came into force, witnessed the birth of the European Communities, which now shared a single Commission and a single Council.
1979 - Election of the European Parliament by universal suffrage
Following decision of the Heads of State and Governments of the Member States at the Paris Summit in December 1974, the first elections using direct universal suffrage to the third European institution - the European Parliament - were held in 1979. Members of the European Parliament were no longer members of the national parliaments, but representatives elected directly by European elections held every five years in every Member State.
1986 - The Single European Act
Despite the removal of customs in 1968, obstacles to the freedom of exchange were still present within the Community. These were largely differences between national legislation that the Single European Act, signed in 1986, planned to remove within six years so as to establish the single market. It also aimed to reform European Institutions to prepare for Spain and Portugal's membership of the EU, notably by extending qualified majority voting in the Council so as to limit the ability of one country to block proposed legislation with its own veto. It also increased the influence of Parliament and reinforced the powers of the European Community in environmental matters.
1992 - The Maastricht Treaty
Signed by the 12 Member States in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty sought to prepare the creation of the Economic and Monetary Union and to establish the foundations for a political union that went beyond the economic domain. It therefore established clear rules for the planned single currency, foreign and security policy, as well as reinforcing cooperation in justice and home affairs. The treaty also introduced the codecision procedure, giving the European Parliament more weight in the decision making process, and it transformed officially the European Community into the "European Union".
1997 - The Treaty of Amsterdam
In order to reform the European Institutions, given that new countries were joining the Union, the Fifteen Member States concluded the Treaty of Amsterdam. It set out the terms for reforming the European Institutions through increasing recourse to the codecision procedure, notably lending more weight to Europe's role in the world and consecrating resources to employment and human rights. It proposed implementing an area of freedom, security and justice. The Schengen Agreement, which allowed for the free movement of people, removed border controls, and organised police cooperation between the 15 'old' Member States (except for the United Kingdom and Ireland) as well as three countries outside the European Union, was integrated into the new treaty. The treaty also established the principle of reinforced cooperations which allowed countries wishing to do so to proceed faster and outlined institutional reform while postponing key decisions to a later date. A mechanism of political sanctions for Member States which fail to respect fundamental rights was also established.
2001 - The Treaty of Nice, 2001
Signed in 2000, the Treaty of Nice reformed the Union's voting rules in order to ensure effective decision making given the planned enlargement of the EU to include 10 new Member States in 2004.
2007 - The Treaty of Lisbon
Signed in 2007 by the Twenty-Seven Member States and coming into force on 1 January 2009, the Treaty of Lisbon was drafted to strengthen EU democracy, efficacy and transparency and therefore to improve its ability to meet global challenges such as climate change, security and sustainable development. Specifically, it strengthened the powers of the European Parliament and the role of national parliaments in the EU's decision making process, while creating the European citizens' initiative (internal LINK) to allow people to directly request draft legislation from the European Commission.
It also simplified the decision making process by modifying the voting procedures for the Council and created the position of permanent President of the European Council. The treaty also reinforced the EU's foreign policy by creating the European External Action Service (EEAS) and a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy who can speak and act for the EU at international level. It also made the Charter of Fundamental Rights part of European Law.
The treaties were modified due to the EU's need to adapt to regular increases in the number of Member States from six to 28:
- 1973: the first enlargement saw the entry of Ireland, Denmark and the United Kingdom
- 1981: Greece
- 1986: Portugal and Spain
- 1995: Austria, Finland and Sweden
- 2004: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia
- 2007: Bulgaria and Romania
- 2013 : Croatia
Turkey, Montenegro, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Albania are officially candidates for EU membership.
On 1 January 1999, 11 countries (joined by Greece in 2001) adopted the single currency, the euro, as their sole currency for commercial and financial transactions. Coins and notes came into circulation on 1 January 2002, when the euro replaced national currencies in these 12 Member States. The countries were Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. Denmark, Sweden and the UK decided not to adopt the euro.
Seven new Member States have now joined the countries participating in the single currency, also known as the "eurozone", which now has 19 members. These are Slovenia, (1 January 2007), Cyprus and Malta (1 January 2008), Slovakia (1 January 2009), Estonia, (1 January 2011), Latvia (1 January 2014) and Lithuania (1 January 2015). To adopt the euro, Member States must meet conditions concerning their interest rates, national deficits, inflation, sovereign debt and monetary stability. The European Central Bank sets interest rates and regulates inflation in the eurozone.
The Financial Crisis
In 2008, a major financial crisis stemming from the US sub-prime loans market in 2007 spread to several European banks before affecting sovereign debt in some European countries, badly affecting the global economy. In order to prevent the complete collapse of the banking system, Member States came to the rescue of their banks, granting unprecedented levels of emergency aid. From 2008 to 2011, 1,600 billion euros – equivalent to 13% of the EU's annual GDP – was injected into the system in the form of guarantees or capital.
These crises forced several Member States hit by the debt crisis to ask for a variety of financial rescue packages tied to structural adjustment programmes and led to the implementation of financial support mechanisms, notably the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), with an effective lending capacity of up to 500 billion euros.
It also led to further economic integration between EU countries, notably through the introduction of processes to coordinate the economic policies of the Member States (the European Semester) in 2010, and its progressive reinforcement, particularly for countries in the eurozone, through measures including the implementation of tools to control and prevent banks defaulting, i.e. a Banking Union, which has been under construction since 2012.