+44 (0)20 7799 6677

History of the European Union

A PDF of this resource can be accessed here.


The history of the European Union has been marked by periods of rapid change followed by periods of uncertainty: European integration has been an unpredictable process.


The European project was an attempt to overcome the nationalist conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century, especially the rivalry between Germany and France that had contributed to both world wars. After 1945, there was a strong will to ensure that war between Germany and France could never again occur. This led to a series of schemes that culminated in the establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957, which eventually became the EU. Led in the early 1950s by Frenchmen Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet, the initial plan was for a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) that would make France, Germany, Italy the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg co-operate by forcing them to share their coal and steel resources in the rebuilding of western Europe after the war. This created the organisational model of a Commission, Council and Parliament that was adopted by the EEC.

Founding the EU

The EEC was established under the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Primarily, the EEC aimed to extend the principle behind the ECSC to other areas of trade by creating a customs union. However, it also had more political ambitions for European integration – described at the start of the treaty as creating ‘an ever closer union between the peoples of Europe’.

Yet this mixture of economic and political union was not the only option open to European countries in the 1950s. Britain, Switzerland, Austria and the Scandinavian countries were at this time engaged in the European Free Trade Area (EFTA): a looser organisation based on a zone of free trade without an external tariff barrier.

The early years of the EEC were principally focused upon developing the customs union. During this period, a huge economic boom, led by a dynamic West Germany, created much greater prosperity in western Europe and drove forward the liberalisation of the EEC economy. In 1963, Britain made its first attempt to join, but was rebuffed by the French President Charles De Gaulle. De Gaulle dominated the European Community in the 1960s, fuelling conflict between those who wanted to push forward a political union and those, like himself, who wanted to maintain their national identities.

By the 1970s, when Britain, Ireland and Denmark finally joined the EEC, the project had slowed down considerably. Although the 1970s saw the first proposals for monetary union, the EEC of nine states found it more difficult to reach agreement than the original six had.

Faster integration

It was not until the mid-1980s, at the time when Spain, Greece and Portugal joined, that the pace of European integration really picked up again with the agreement of the Single European Act (1986). This laid down a timetable for the completion of the single market while looking towards creating monetary union and driving forward the agenda for political union.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Germany in 1990 provided a huge boost to thisprocess. In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty transformed the European Community – turning it into the European Union (EU), giving it new roles in the areas of foreign and domestic policy, and setting a timetable for the creation of the Euro. Subsequently, the treaties of Amsterdam (1997) and Nice (2001) expanded these powers.

The EU Today

A Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, drafted in 2004, was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005. The ‘constitutional project’ was then revived in the form of the Lisbon Treaty, which was signed by the leaders of EU nations in 2007. The treaty was hugely controversial because it was very similar to the failed constitution. The treaty was rejected by Ireland in a referendum in 2008, however Ireland eventually ratified the treaty following a second referendum in October 2009. The Lisbon Treaty finally came into force in December 2009.


The solidarity between the two countries established by joint production will show that war between France and Germany becomes not only unthinkable, but materially impossible.” – Robert Schuman, 1950.

Our community is not a coal and steel producers association. It is the beginning of Europe.” – Jean Monnet, 1970.

Creating a single European State bound by one constitution is the decisive task of our time.” – Joschka Fischer, German Foreign Minister 1998-2005.

Technical Terms

Customs Union: a group of economies with no internal barriers to trade and a common external tariff.

Free Trade: international trade when there is no restriction on the import or export of goods.

Ratify: to approve an agreement and make it legal.

External Links

European Union history

A timeline of the EU – BBC


Keep up-to-date with all of our latest publications

Sign Up Here