The European Union 101: Historical Development

Lallemand, A. (2021). Some european flags at La Défense in Paris [Photograph]. Unsplash.

Europe rose from the ashes following the disaster of World War II (WWII), and it is now one of the most important players in international affairs. This 101 series will examine the development of the European Union from its beginnings and will shed light on the way in which it functions and exercises influence on the global stage. This series will consist of five articles, each dealing with a crucial component of the European Union which consequently facilitates our understanding of this unique actor. It is useful to look at where it all started to better understand the contemporary dynamics and corresponding actions.

WWII left Europe destroyed and weaker than ever. In this context and also in light of the Cold War that was unfolding, the incentive and desire to live peacefully in a stable Europe were very high. Political and economic cooperation between states was regarded as the main tool for diminishing the chances of another war. The creation of the European Communities (now the European Union) took place in a wider effort of international cooperation and with the aim of reconstructing post-war Europe.

Treaty of Paris

As a response to the horrors of WWII, restraints needed to be put in place to avoid another war. The Treaty of Paris did exactly that, following the ideas of Robert Schuman, who established the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951. With the creation of the ECSC, the French and German coal and steel industries were placed under the control of a supranational body which made it economically impossible for either country to start a war. Additionally, the treaty was tasked with contributing to economic expansion, employment, and better living standards through the common market for coal and steel. The initial six members were France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The ECSC set up four institutions, representing the foundations of the European institutions of today: The High Authority (now the European Commission), The Council of Ministers (now the Council of the European Union), the Court of Justice (now the Court of Justice of the European Union) and the Parliamentary Assembly (now the European Parliament). These institutions were central to the proper functioning of the ECSC. The Treaty of Paris expired in 2002, but the activities of the ECSC were incorporated in subsequent community treaties.

Treaties of Rome

In order to move towards closer political and economic cooperation, the two Treaties of Rome were signed in 1957 and they established two new communities: the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM). The EEC’s goal was to work towards integration and economic growth through trade. EURATOM’s goal was to pool the nuclear industries of Member States so that all could benefit from nuclear energy. The EEC Treaty was amended several times and now it is called the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. EURATOM is still active even though it is not part of the European Union, unlike the ECSC and EEC.

European Parliament. (2008). There’s a first time for everything. . . [Photograph]. European Parliament.

Single European Act

By 1987, the membership was extended and comprised the original six members: Denmark, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Greece, Portugal, and Spain. The Single European Act (SEA) is a treaty that entered into force in 1987, which was crucial to the development of the European Union. It was the first time the concept of the internal market, based on the free movement of goods, people, services and capital, was introduced as a clear goal, which was to be achieved by 1993. Through the SEA, the European economy gained greater competitiveness against the United States and Japan, thus becoming a bigger player in international trade. The three communities shared the four institutions: Court of Justice, Commission, European Parliament, Council of Ministers. The Common Assembly, created by the ECSC, was renamed the European Parliament, and it moved from having a merely consultative role to cooperating with the Council of Ministers in order to increase the democratic legitimacy of the communities. The first direct elections for the European Parliament took place in 1979, and they are still held every five years.

Treaty of Maastricht

The Treaty of Maastricht, signed in 1992, was the first treaty concluded at the European level after the end of the Cold War. It was created to ensure that there would be a strong Europe to compensate for the unification of Germany, which happened in 1990. The Treaty of Maastricht introduced for the first time the term ‘European Union’ (EU) and it brought together the activities and decision-making procedures of the original three communities (ECSC, EEC, EURATOM). It also enhanced the power of the European Parliament which now co-decides with the Council in the legislative process. The basis for the single currency (the euro) was laid down in this Treaty. Moreover, the concept of European citizenship was introduced, allowing every national of an EU member state to travel and live freely anywhere in the EU, a practice that is still prominent today.

Treaty of Lisbon

By the time the Treaty of Lisbon was signed in 2007 (entered into force in 2009), the EU has significantly expanded its membership, comprising 27 states. This Treaty replaced the European Community (maintained since the Treaty of Paris until Lisbon) with the European Union. In addition, the Charter on Fundamental Rights can now create legal obligations and rights for the institutions, member states, and individuals. A central element of the Lisbon Treaty is that it formalizes the co-decision power of the European Parliament, making it equal to the Council in the legislative process. This procedure is used today for most of the legal acts of the European Union. Since the Lisbon Treaty came into force, Croatia joined the EU in 2013 and the United Kingdom left the Union in 2020.

By way of conclusion, the ECSC, signed in 1951, represented the first step towards European integration. The process of integration was continued and finalized through a series of subsequent treaties from the second half of the 20th century up until 2009: Treaties of Rome, Single European Act, Treaty of Maastricht, and Treaty of Lisbon. The increase in the number of member states of the European Union was noted, along with the withdrawal of the United Kingdom in 2020. The development of the European Union as we know it today would not have been possible without the four institutions that create and implement laws: the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament and the Court of Justice of the European Union.


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Gilda Liana Mazilu

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