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European Union:

European integration

In the immediate post-war years, in the ruined capitals of Western Europe, leaders could look back at the traumatic decades of conflict, depression and political extremism, they could look East to the hostile Soviet Bloc, they could look within their states at the numbers enticed by indigenous communist parties, and they could reflect on their own diminished status. There could be no return to the discredited ways of the past, but each country’s way forward would vary according to its unique circumstances.  The key partnership in this new Europe was that of the old enemies France and Germany. For Germany, greater economic and political integration with neighbouring states, in particular France was a strategy for overcoming the destructive legacy of nationalism and hostility and a route towards political rehabilitation and economic recovery.

The relationship with France was a key aspect of West Germany’s recovery. Adenauer agreed to French proposals to join the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in order to co-ordinate production in the coal and steel industries. Politically, the agreement aimed to break the pattern of hostility between France and Germany by identifying and developing areas of mutual interest. The Treaty obliged members (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg) to agree to the principle of supranationality – handing over control of the industries to an international body. For West Germany, being welcomed into an international organisation alongside neighbouring states, the Treaty represented a confirmation of the new state’s legitimacy and rehabilitation. As Adenauer remarked, “Das ist unser Durchbruch” (this is our breakthrough) quoted in T. Judt, Post War, p.127

Adenauer found common ground with his fellow European leaders; the foreign ministers who signed the Treaty all represented Christian Democratic parties. The continental experience of invasion, occupation and liberation fostered a shared determination to work towards unity. The Treaty included the declaration that the ECSC was “a first step in the federation of Europe”. In 1957 ‘the Six’ member states took the further step, with the Treaty of Rome, of creating the European Economic Community through which West Germany integrated its economy with its Western European neighbours. The Franco-German partnership was to be the engine of this European project, a relationship in which German economic power was harnessed to French political leadership.  Trade between member states grew rapidly to their mutual benefit.

Not all West European states were ready to commit to the process of integration. In particular, Britain’s experience of War, undefeated and triumphant, vindicated a confident nationalism and an insular sense of security based on standing apart, some might say aloof, from the troubles of the continent. The proven strength of British ties with the British Commonwealth and with the USA further diminished the appeal of European integration. At an instinctive, emotional, historical level there was a sense that the ‘Island Nation’ did not quite belong to ‘Europe’ and so Britain passed up the opportunity to provide leadership.

The British attitude was not without reason; economically, Britain relied less on European markets than on its extensive commercial links overseas. In 1947, British exports were greater than the combined exports of ‘the Six’ who predominantly traded with each other – Britain didn’t need Europe to the extent that it was prepared to surrender any degree of sovereignty. Furthermore, the UK Labour Government (1945-51) had no wish to join an organisation that might limit its scope to pursue the development of a socialist ‘New Jerusalem’ in Britain.   

However, Britain’s military triumph had come at a heavy price, a quarter of the national wealth had been lost – a greater proportion than any other country, gold reserves were nearly exhausted, and only American loans were preventing economic collapse. Added to this were the costs of maintaining an overseas Empire, policing the defeated countries of Europe and striving to justify ‘Great Power’ status along side the USA and the Soviet Union. Though the British economy recovered, industrial production rose more slowly than in its European neighbours. 1958 was the crossover year between the War’s winners and losers when the German economy became bigger than the British.


Annual Average Growth Rates 1950-60









 Source: H. Young, This Blessed Plot, Overlook Press, New York, 1999, p. 106

For Franco’s Spain, relations with Europe were always coloured by mutual suspicion, Franco regarded the EEC to be a ‘fief of freemasons, liberals and Christian-Democrats’. (Preston p700) The technocrats who oversaw Spain’s economic transformation in the 1960s (see below) successfully persuaded a reluctant Franco to begin negotiations for Spanish membership in 1962. The EEC agreed to begin discussions about economic issues but Franco’s refusal to contemplate major changes to the Spanish constitution meant that any movement to full membership was not on the agenda until after the dictator’s death in 1975.

The need to secure long term peace in Europe, both between historic enemies within Western Europe such as France and Germany, and against the Soviet threat was the motivation for the establishment of common security structures. Western Europe’s alliance with the USA was formalised within NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in 1949, confirming America’s military commitment to defend Europe. In the words of the first NATO General Secretary, Lord Ismay, the original purpose of the alliance was “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” However, in 1955 West Germany was accepted into NATO and began to share the burden of defending Western Europe against Soviet communism. The enduring strength of NATO contrasts with failed European attempts at establishing common defence structures and reflects Europe’s reliance on American military power. The most notable attempt at creating a Western European military entity – the EDC (European Defence Community) – failed due to concerns about German rearmament, opposition to the idea of ceding military control to an external organisation, and fears that the EDC might diminish America’s commitment to European security. The French Government formally rejected the EDC project in 1954. As NATO developed, with the USA’s continued security guarantee, the need for an EDC came to be seen as unnecessary duplication.

Western Europe’s military weakness was exposed by the humiliation of Suez in 1956. Egypt’s General Nasser had asserted Egyptian national control of the strategically vital Suez Canal against British and French wishes. In response, Britain, France and Israel had seized control of the Canal but were forced to withdraw under intense diplomatic and financial pressure from the USA. Suez demonstrated that neither nation could project its power globally without the support of the Superpowers. For France the EEC offered an alternative sphere of influence. For the UK Suez triggered a painful reassessment of Britain’s global role. Economic projections were also pessimistic and eventually resulted in an acceptance that Britain could no longer afford to be excluded from ‘Europe’. Belatedly, and from a position far weaker than previously, the British Government applied to join the EEC in 1963. France’s President Charles De Gaulle rejected the application. The reasons for this infamous “Non” were De Gaulle’s concerns that Britain remained too pro-American and lacked commitment to European integration. At a more basic level, Britain’s entry might threaten France’s leading role in Europe. Both Britain’s combination of wounded pride and disdain as well as De Gaulle’s vain grandeur were summarised in the British press with the popular metaphor, ‘there cannot be two cocks on the dung-hill’. A second British application was rejected by De Gaulle in 1967 citing the weakness of the British economy.

Key dates in European integration

1949 – NATO established. The original members were The USA, Canada, the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Iceland, Italy, Denmark and Portugal

1951 – European Coal and Steel Community established. “The Six” (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg) agree to co-ordinate their coal and steel industries.

1954 – France rejects plans for a European Defence Community.

1955 – West Germany joins NATO.

1957 – The Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community (EEC) agreeing to work towards a common market in which members would remove trade barriers and allow the free movement of labour, capital and goods.

1960 – The European Free Trade Association (EFTA) established offering an alternative European vision. A grouping of peripheral states, the UK, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Portugal and Switzerland formed a free trade area without the EEC’s ideals of political integration.

1963 – UK application to join the EEC rejected following De Gaulle’s veto.

1967 – Second UK application to join the EEC vetoed by De Gaulle.


  • What were the aims of the founders of the European movement?

  • Was European integration more concerned with avoiding the mistakes of the past or fulfilling the vision of a united Europe?

  • The idea of the EU as a peace project ensuring Franco-German reconciliation has been criticised on the grounds that war between individual members of either Cold War bloc was impossible. To what extent do you agree?

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?


Contact Richard Jones-Nerzic