Throughout history the European family has constantly fought over culture, religion and territory.
But after the devastation of two world wars there were some who dreamed that it need not always be so. These dreamers included, among many others, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill1. who envisaged a "United States of Europe"4.
The first glimmer of the move to replace conflict with cooperation was in 1944 when exiled representatives of three small European countries, Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg, agreed to form a customs union which was named Benelux. In 1951 Benelux together with West Germany, France and Italy came together to form a larger trading bloc, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC)2. The United Kingdom was invited but refused to join3.
In 1957, the six countries became more closely allied with the formation of the European Economic Community (EEC)1, known in the United Kingdom as the "Common Market". The ultimate goal of the EEC was to make Churchill's dream a reality by working towards complete economic and political union between member countries.
Prosperity increased as the EEC managed food production to ensure food security, trade between the member countries increased, and a period began which has been referred to as the "Golden Age of European economic growth."3
At first the U.K. chose not to join the EEC. The economy of the U.K. had prospered because of its beneficial trade relationship with the British Commonwealth, an alliance of former colonies. However, the sun was setting on the British Empire. India had gained her independence, and would soon be followed by many former African colonies. Trade relationships with Commonwealth countries were changing and the U.K. economy was in decline. Her per capita GDP declined from being a third larger than that of the six EEC countries in 1950 to 10% below EEC GDP in 1973.
Witnessing the success of the European experiment, the UK applied for membership in 1961 and 1967, but both applications were vetoed by French President Charles De Gaulle3. Britain's third application, in 1973, was finally accepted along with the applications of Denmark and Ireland. The British electorate seemed generally favorable towards Europe and a 1975 referendum on continued membership resulted in a 67.2 percent favorable vote4.
The community continued to grow as the following countries joined the union:
- Greece (1981)
- Spain and Portugal (1986)
- East Germany: re-united with West Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall (1990)
- Austria, Finland and Sweden (1995)
- Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic, and Slovenia (2004)
- Bulgaria and Romania (2007)
- Croatia (2013)1
The Growth of the European Union
As the Union grew so did the interdependence between member countries and the power of the European Parliament. Funds were transferred to poor regions to build infrastructure and to create employment, and groundbreaking environmental protection legislation was enacted in 1970 which required financial accountability from polluters.
In 1986 the Single European Act was passed and the European flag was adopted.
Based on the Single European Act, a Single Market was complete by 1993 and the EEC changed its name to the European Union (EU). Goods, services, money and labor could now move freely between member countries and there were mutually agreed-upon EU policies on climate, the environment, health, justice, migration, external relations and security1.
Major highlights of European integration4 include:
- 1992: The Maastricht Treaty. This was the basis for the formation of The Central European Bank and a single currency, the Euro.
- 1993: The Schengen Agreement removed national borders between parties to the agreement. The U.K. and Ireland did not join the Schengen area because of security concerns.
- 1997: The Amsterdam Treaty gave more powers to the European Parliament and envisaged a common foreign and security policy.
- 1998: The European Central Bank was established.
- 2002: The Euro came into circulation in 12 EU member states. Sweden, Denmark and the U.K. opted out and retained their own national currencies. As other countries joined the EU they were able to join the Eurozone by meeting specific economic targets5.
- 2012: The EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for advancing democracy and human rights in Europe1.
But as the Union expanded cracks began to appear. In April of 2009 the EU ordered France, Spain, Ireland and Greece to reduce their budgetary deficits. Greek debt continued to skyrocket, and Greece instituted controversial austerity measures mandated by the EU.
The value of the Euro fell as it became apparent that Ireland and Portugal were also suffering economic woes. The EU provided bailout packages to these so-called "peripheral countries" and in return imposed severe austerity measures. The Greek crisis continued to escalate and the EU provided a second bailout in 2011. However, the debt crisis spread, first to Spain and then to Italy.
The European dream was turning into a nightmare. Greece blamed the EU for its economic woes while the EU seemed powerless to reverse the debt crisis. In 2012 Greece was subject to further austerity measures amid fears that there could be a recession, that Greece might leave the union, and that France and Italy might also need bailouts.
In spite of economic union, political conflict continued and the move towards closer political integration reached an impasse. All member states signed a treaty to establish a European Constitution in 2004 but the treaty was rejected in referenda held in France and the Netherlands. A new Treaty, the Treaty of Lisbon, was signed in 2007 but was rejected by Irish voters in 20085.
In the 2014 European parliamentary elections the number of elected Eurosceptics (members opposed to the EU) increased. At the same time Middle Eastern refugees fleeing unrest and religious extremism were able to move freely through the borderless Schengen Zone, while several European cities became the target of terrorist attacks1.
The Eurosceptic movement seemed to be growing, particularly in the U.K, an island nation separated both geographically and culturally from the European mainland.
A Cynical Look at the UK's Relationship to the EU
From the Brilliant 1980's BBC Sitcom "Yes Minister."
The U.K. had previously refused to join the Schengen area because of security concerns, and had also refused to adopt the Euro. Now, with an epic influx of migrants and a series of economic crises impacting the Euro, it is little wonder that, with the miraculous 20/20 vision of hindsight, some British people regarded these as wise decisions.
There were also those who chafed against the increasingly centralized power of the European Parliament and argued that business was hampered by too many EU regulations6.
Many members of the Conservative Party were critical of the EU and party leader David Cameron urged them to stop "banging on" about Europe. As part of his 2015 election campaign he promised to hold a referendum on EU membership if the Conservatives were elected.
Cameron was true to his word and the Brexit (from "British Exit") referendum took place on June 23, 2016. Cameron campaigned passionately for the "Remain" side, predicting that leaving Europe would be a recipe for economic and political disaster. But the result of the referendum was "Leave" by a narrow margin of slightly less than 52%, and a disappointed Cameron resigned as Prime Minister7.
It appears that Europe is at a crossroads. Will Churchill's idealistic dream of a peaceful, united Europe ever become a reality? Will the EU will remain a purely economic union? Will it achieve its ultimate goal of complete political union? Or will it will break apart? We can only wait and see.