A brief history of the European Union (EU)

A brief history of the European Union (EU)

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated May 17, 2023

The European Union (EU) wasn’t exactly born in one day. In fact, it took several decades and institutions for the EU to finally arrive at its current form. The EU now brings together 27 member states, each with its own past, lifestyle, cost of living and even stereotypes

In spite or maybe because of these differences, the EU strives to foster closer ties between its members, both economically and politically. This has led the way to a common currency and a single market in which people are free to move to work or study in any EU country. But it has also come with its challenges, especially since the start of the 21st century. Let’s travel through time to unravel the eventful history of the EU. 

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The origin history of the European Union

Even before the European Union first came to be, a few institutions helped shape it. Let’s explore how they came to be and how they evolved into what we now know as the EU.

The starting point: the European Coal and Steel Community

Following the end of World War II, six countries from Western Europe (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) realized the crucial importance of fostering closer ties to bring military security and economic growth. Having learned the painful lessons of two world wars, they also aimed to ensure a lasting reconciliation between Germany and France. 

Together, these countries signed the Treaty of Paris in 1951, which led to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) the following year. The ECSC set up a free-trade area around five vital economic and military resources: coal and steel, of course, but also coke, iron ore and scrap. Several supranational institutions were also founded to help govern the ECSC.

The follow-up: The European Atomic Energy Community and the European Economic Community

Only five years later, the two treaties of Rome signed on March 25, 1957 allowed the setting up of two institutions. The European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) sought to facilitate cooperation for the development, research and use of atomic energy, while the European Economic Community (EEC) established the basis for  a common market. 

Both institutions continued to grow and evolve in the decades following. In particular, the European Economic Community welcomed new members during the 1970s and the 1980s. The United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark joined in 1973, followed by Greece in 1981 and Spain and Portugal in 1986. From July 1, 1987, the Single European Act (SEA) expanded the scope of the EEC, most notably by defining a timetable for the completion of a common market.

In effect, the European Coal and Steel Community, European Atomic Energy Community and European Economic Community — together known as the European Communities — were to become the main institutions behind the establishment of the EU.

The official birth of the EU

On February 7, 1992, 40 years after the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community, the Maastricht Treaty officially created the European Union. The treaty was based on three pillars. The first promoted the European Communities and along with it the treaty also embraced the ideas of a common foreign and security policy as well as of an enhanced cooperation in national matters. Additionally, people were now free to move within the EU’s borders, which effectively meant the removal of border controls.

The Maastricht Treaty also paved the way for the replacement of national currencies with a single one. Ten years later in January 2002, the Euro was finally introduced to the general public in eleven countries (France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Finland and Ireland). Since then, more countries have adopted the euro, including Greece and several countries in central and eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

Indeed, the EU continued its expansion by welcoming new members. On January 1, 1995, Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the EU. The end of the Cold War also allowed several former communist countries from central and eastern Europe to apply for EU membership. In 2004, ten countries joined the EU: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, followed by Romania and Bulgaria in 2007.

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The European Union in crisis

Since the start of the 21st century, the European Union’s history has become more turbulent, with a succession of economic and political crises. 

The single currency in peril

In 2009, the sovereign debt crisis shook up the so-called Eurozone and the administrative structures of the EU. The economic crisis in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain threatened the very existence of the euro. Eventually, under the joint efforts of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a bailout package was handed to Greece in 2010, then to Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus in the next two years.

The economic crisis may well have contributed to the emergence of Euroscepticism and the growing influence of extreme right-wing parties such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the National Front in France. This trend has also been fuelled by the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe, which led some countries to suspend their participation in the Schengen Agreement and to reinstate internal border controls.

Brexit: A British breakup

In 2016, under growing pressure, British Prime Minister David Cameron organized a national referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the EU. On June 23, 2016, 52% of British voters chose to leave the European Union. After long and intense negotiations over Brexit and a succession of British Prime Ministers, the United Kingdom formally left the European Union on January 31, 2020, launching an 11-month transition period for its implementation.

European security under threat

In 2022, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to recede, Europe suddenly faced the greatest threat to its security since the end of the Cold War. In the early hours of February 24, Putin announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.” Within minutes, cruise missiles started to strike, launching the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. 

The EU immediately reacted by condemning the unprovoked attack and by setting sanctions against Russia and Putin’s inner circle. Various EU countries also chose to support Ukraine by providing humanitarian and military aid. On February 28, only four days after the start of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a document formally requesting that Ukraine be granted candidate status for admission to the EU. 

As the war continues, more than a million Ukrainians have fled their country, leading to a new refugee crisis on the eastern front of the EU.

How will the history of the EU continue to unfold?

From its origins to its recent challenges, the history of the EU has proven eventful, to say the least. Over the decades, the institution has sought to expand by welcoming new members and developing political and economic ties in order to bring greater peace and prosperity. Financial crises, a pandemic and even a war have certainly put the European Union to the test, and only the future will tell how it will continue to evolve.

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Anne-Lise Vassoille

Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries… Settled down in London, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

Anne-Lise Vassoille

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