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Europe at War:
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1945 and after
Rebuilding Europe:
Unifying Europe:
European Union
Further reading

Unifying Europe:
1970s - 2000

Western Europe’s ‘golden age’ of economic growth came to an end during the 1970s for a number of reasons. Increased global competition from the Far East cut into Western Europe’s share of world exports. The ‘oil shocks’ – substantial increases in the price of oil in 1973 and 1981 distorted non-oil producers’ balance of payments, forcing states to reduce imports and hindering global trade. Economic stagnation and higher unemployment were coupled with the inflationary rise in oil prices to produce the new phenomenon of ‘staglflation’.

Meanwhile, the slower birth rates of these years led to pessimistic projections of social welfare costs. Under these strains the Western European political consensus began to break. The application of monetarist economic theory, in which unemployment could be tolerated as a weapon to contain inflation, was pursued with particular enthusiasm in Britain. To politicians on the Right, such as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, it was the interventionist state itself which disrupted the natural efficiency of free markets and impeded economic growth. 

Economic polarisation – a widening gap between the richest and the poorest – was experienced in many countries including Britain, though not Germany. Heavy industry declined in relative size and importance to other (technological, service) sectors of the economy and accelerated the fragmentation of the traditional unionised working class.

At the same time, greater social and geographical mobility broke traditional ‘tribal’ political allegiances and challenged political parties to seek new methods of attracting support. European states had welcomed mass immigration during the boom years to make up the labour shortage, but as jobs became scarce there was an increase in racial tension and indeed violence, encouraged by overtly racist political parties. The role of women continued to develop as the greater numbers of women in employment asserted demands for equality. The legalisation of abortion was achieved in Germany in 1975 and Spain in 1985. Growing evidence of man-made environmental degradation led to the emergence of Green politics, with the Green Party in Germany achieving electoral successes in the 1980s.

Western European states faced the challenges of violent terrorist organisations during these decades. ETA in Spain carried out a campaign of murder and bombing in the name of Basque nationalism. In West Germany, the extreme left Red Army Faction/Baader-Meinhof Gang attacked the state through ideological motives. Western Europe remained dependent on the USA for its defence and it was through NATO that military security was maintained. The 1970s saw a relaxation of Cold War tensions. The German version of detente was to pursue the Ostpolitik strategy of Willy Brandt and establish relations with the GDR. The superpowers reached agreements on arms reduction, and through the Helsinki Agreements of 1975 accepted each other’s spheres of influence, recognised borders, and established international standards of human rights – on paper at least.

European Integration

The project of European integration has advanced unevenly, with periods of great activism in broadening (accepting new members) and deepening (increasing the co-ordination of policies, laws, and economies) interspersed with periods when progress has stalled. Supporters of ever closer union have likened the project to a bicycle; it must keep moving forward or it will fall. However, it can only progress by maintaining the support of the member governments, each of which in turn must maintain the support of their voters. The European Community has sought to develop a clearer democratic mandate for its institutions through the introduction of direct voting to the European Parliament from 1979. This assembly has only gradually assumed powers from the unelected European Commission, and elections are notable for low voter participation and the narrow national lines on which they are contested. The blocks of like-minded parties that constitute the European Parliament are a long way from forming any genuinely Europe-wide political parties. The size of the project, which at an economic level allows great economies of scale, at a political level has often led to unsatisfactory complexity. However, whatever weaknesses this system has, it should be remembered that it has helped Europe achieve an extended period of peace in which conflict between members is resolved by negotiation rather than violence.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been representative of some defining aspects of European integration. The CAP established a system of subsidies and protection for food producers. It guaranteed minimum prices for farmers, funded investment, and encouraged increases in production. However, the policy has been expensive, sometimes corrupt, with funds being transferred from European taxpayers to farmers in member states with large agricultural sectors, mainly France. Consumers also endure higher food prices while producers in developing countries face trade barriers and the ‘dumping’ of surplus production on their domestic markets.

The policy represented a compromise between German industry which was allowed access to French markets in return for German financial support for French farmers. The higher ideal of Franco-German partnership could be served and at the same time France could use its leading role to shape policy in the French national interest. Given Europe’s troubled history, no reasonable observer could oppose the reconciliation of France and Germany but the process has at times exposed divisions between European states. For UK politicians, having missed the chance to participate from the start, there was a sense of frustration as European integration developed without British influence. The finalisation of the CAP and the equally controversial Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) immediately prior to UK entry significantly raised the price of membership. The short term financial benefit which France could squeeze from the outcast British demandeurs must be balanced against the negative effect the resulting longer term discord had on the loftier notions of the European project.

UK entry to the EEC was achieved at the third attempt in 1973, by which time De Gaulle had died and Britain was led by a committed pro-European Prime Minister, Edward Heath. Heath’s election defeat in 1974 brought the more sceptical Harold Wilson to power at the head of a Labour Party that remained divided on the issue of Europe. The following year, in a referendum on the question, “Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community?” British voters responded 2:1 in favour. However, this did not bring an end to the European argument within British politics. The particular problem with the European issue is that the argument cut across party lines with pros and antis on both sides. Margaret Thatcher (UK Prime Minister 1979-1990) took reluctant steps towards ‘Europe’, signing the Single European Act in 1985 but indulged in increasingly anti-Europe rhetoric culminating in her Bruges speech of 1988 at which she declared that her Government had “not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level.” This association of ‘Europe’ with socialist themes such as state intervention contrasts with earlier Labour Governments which mistrusted ‘Europe’ as intrinsically capitalist. UK inconsistency continued. For Margaret Thatcher, her hostility towards the pro-European wing of the Conservative Party was a factor in her downfall in 1990.

John Major (UK Prime Minister 1990-97) pursued a moderately pro-European policy but faced opposition from ‘Eurosceptics’ within the Conservative Party, a group which he was moved to describe as ‘bastards’. The Major Government ratified the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 which introduced the rebranded “European Union”, established European citizenship, increased the powers of the European Parliament, and created a European Central Bank.  The Social Chapter guaranteed workers’ rights including minimum holiday entitlements, right to free association in trade unions, health and safety standards. John Major negotiated an opt out of this clause. German participation was more wholehearted; according to Helmut Kohl, “At Maastricht we laid the foundation stone for the completion of the European Union....which within a few years will lead to the creation of what the founding fathers of modern Europe dreamed of after the last war: the United States of Europe.” Quoted in This Blessed Plot, H. Young. P. 389

A prominent pillar of integration throughout this period has been European Monetary Union (EMU). The stability of the Bretton Woods system of exchange rates fixed against the dollar which had lasted until 1971, had contributed to the successful growth of European economies. The collapse of that system and the ensuing disruptive fluctuations of Europe’s currencies encouraged EC member states to establish co-coordinated monetary policies. The Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) fixed exchange rates between European currencies but devaluations continued caused by governments seeking to redress trade imbalances and boost employment, and by speculators wary of artificially over-priced currencies. The final expression of EMU, the introduction of the single currency (the Euro) in 1999 has provided stability and simplicity to member states’ economies. On the other hand, not all members’ economies were judged ready to join the ‘Eurozone’, and others, such as the UK, preferred to retain national control over their currencies. The different speeds at which member states have adopted such new projects has led to a situation tolerated as the ‘variable geometry’ of Europe.

Despite these difficulties, the European Community expanded to include Greece in 1981, and Spain and Portugal in 1986. Moves to deepen political integration were more problematic, but the European Community endured as a force of stability while the opposing Eastern Bloc crumbled. It was this collapse of the Soviet Empire from 1989 that ended Europe’s division; bringing East and West back together and facilitating German reunification in 1990. The historical fears aroused by this were given expression by Margaret Thatcher who reportedly told a former German ambassador it would be “at least another 40 years before the British could trust the Germans again.” Quoted in H. Young, This Blessed Plot; P. 359 This characteristically British invocation of the War ignored the Community’s achievement in preventing the development of ‘a German Europe’ by nurturing ‘a European Germany’. For the newly free countries of Eastern Europe, the European Union became something to aspire to, a guarantor of stability in a turbulent era. Moreover, the expansion to include these countries created new alignments and diluted the ability of any one member to dominate. In the final decade of the century, the EU faced a series of challenges. The end of the Cold War removed one of the external reasons for the EU’s existence, reducing the grand vision to a narrower pursuit of commercial advantage. The war in Yugoslavia exposed the EU’s inability to pursue an effective, coordinated foreign policy.

Difficulties remain for the EU in its efforts to retain the consent of EU citizens. Well-intentioned critics of the EU are often marginalised by a political correctness which categorises them with the less reasonable nationalist groups throughout Europe opposed to any form of international cooperation. A persistent criticism remains that the EU has removed power from nation states to a remote, centralised and undemocratic centre, diminishing national sovereignty. However, this argument ignores the multiple ways in which national sovereignty is compromised in a globalised world of overlapping alliances, multi-national companies and mass communications, in which markets hold sway over government policy. Others argue that Europe’s nations are being forced to conform to a bland Europe–wide culture, imposed from above. However, at a cultural level, France remains as distinctly ‘French’ as it ever was – the EU has not eroded the essential characteristics of Bordeaux and Blackpool. Where culture has been internationalised it has been as much a result of an enthusiastic consumption of America’s cultural output as anything emitting from Brussels.       

Key dates in European integration

1973 – The UK, Denmark and Ireland join the European Community

1979 – The European Monetary System (EMS) is established. A step towards a common currency in which member states (not including the UK) agreed to maintain the value of national currencies against a notional European Currency Unit (ECU).

1979 – The first direct elections to the European Parliament.

1981 – Greece becomes the tenth EC member.

1985 – The Single European Act moves towards the completion of a Common Market. The Schengen Agreement abolishes passport controls and opens borders between France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg. Other European countries have since joined the Schengen group – though not the UK.

1986 – Spain and Portugal join the EC.

1991 – The Treaty of Maastricht. The EC becomes the European Union (EU). The Treaty sets out a timetable towards monetary union.  European citizens gain freedoms to live and work throughout the EU. 

1995 – Austria, Finland and Sweden join the EU.

1999 – Introduction of the Euro.

  • Have the aims of the European Union changed since its establishment?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership?
  • Explain the differences in French, British and German attitudes regarding European integration.
  • Helmut Kohl described the creation of a United States of Europe as an entirely positive ambition. Do you agree?

Verdicts on the EU

  • Sometimes I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empires. We have the dimension of Empire but there is a great difference. Empires were usually made with force with a centre imposing diktat, a will on the others. Now what we have is the first non-imperial empire.”
    Commission President J-M Barroso, The Brussels Journal, 11 July 2007

To what extent is the EU a “non-Imperial Empire”?

  • The European Community was a heroic endeavour, undertaken against great odds, which built a record of assisting peace and prosperity among European nations that has not been surpassed.” H. Young, This Blessed Plot, P. 510

To what extent do you agree?



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