The march of European unification began with six countries, pioneers starting out on an unknown road. Some European states did not want and some could not participate in the march. Some states advocated another way forward. Others stood by as spectators and joined the march when they ascertained that it was going along the right path. Finally, after half a century of continuous progress, all European nations are following or want to follow the common march, even if some are dragging their feet and trying to check the speed of the vanguard.
World War II had left Europe clearly divided into two very distinct groups of states. In the East, the Soviet Union with Russian land and population supremacy and with a unifying ideology appealing to impoverished people could annex its neighbouring countries and install friendly regimes. Moreover, it could offer them a kind of security (although under totalitarian regimes), a large market for their imports and exports (although under Russian domination) and a certain safeguard for the most basic interests of their populations - food and shelter. In Western Europe, in the 1950s, the welfare of the populations was not much better than in the East. Although in most Western European countries people lived under democratic regimes and could enjoy some basic human rights and some liberty of speech, the economic situation of the vast majority was not much better than that of their Eastern neighbours. Moreover, these fragile democratic regimes were at threat both from outside - the arrogant superpower that was quickly becoming the Soviet Union - and from inside - the political parties friendly to it.
Was this threat the prime stimulus for European unification? It certainly was a reason for cooperation, but not the primary factor of integration. To face the Soviet threat, most Western European nations had placed themselves, already since 1949, inside the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and hence under the American nuclear umbrella. This umbrella could be a much better deterrent from outside menace than a unification of their inadequate armies. But, this umbrella could not safeguard the fragile democratic regimes from the unrest of people living under subsistence levels. To curb this threat, the stagnating economies of these countries would have to be revamped to absorb the jobless and penniless populations. These economies were separated from each other and from the rest of the world by high tariff and other barriers, which allowed some inefficient public and private companies to survive in the protected national market, but effectively excluded foreign trade and competition and, hence, the expansion that they could provide. To stimulate the development of Western European economies, the barriers between them had to be torn down. But, again, the stimulus of trade liberalisation was not enough in itself to start European unification. A political decision was needed to pursue this liberalisation by multinational integration rather than by intergovernmental cooperation.
The simple way to trade liberalisation in Europe was the creation of a free trade area through intergovernmental cooperation. This course was advocated mainly by the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries. According to this view, trade liberalisation in Western Europe could accelerate and exceed the work begun in 1947 at international level by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). It could thus lead to total abolition of tariff barriers, without any concession of national sovereignty. In parallel, an intergovernmental cooperation for economic development, without legal obligations, could be pursued between Western European nations and the United States of America inside the European Organisation for Economic Cooperation. This organisation was set in place in the 1950s in order to manage the Marshall Plan of the USA for the reconstruction of Europe and was later transformed into the actual Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which includes most European countries, the USA, other Anglo-Saxon countries and Japan.
But some politicians in continental countries, which had been devastated by the wars between themselves, wanted to go beyond trade liberalisation. They wanted to tie their economies so close together as to make a new civil war in Europe impossible. They wanted to try a method which would combine trade liberalisation with economic integration. As the word integration implies, they wanted to unify their separated economies into a whole. Multinational integration was, at the time, a revolutionary and risky enterprise. It was revolutionary, because it clashed with the well established concept of the nation-state and the national sovereignty that emanated from it. It was a risky enterprise, because it required the setting up of supranational institutions that would prevail over national authorities with unknown consequences. However, it promised to transform the former enemies into partners and, moreover, to make their partnership irrevocable. Six States were ready to take the plunge: France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. But, they did not want to gamble all their economies. They decided, first, to bet on their coal and steel sectors.
The choice of coal and steel was not fortuitous. These industries were, in the 1950s, the core of the industrial sectors of the original Member States. The combination of coal, the major energy at the time, with steel, the prime industrial product of the Ruhr valley, had built the might of the Third Reich and helped it to conquer almost all of continental Europe. In post-war Europe, these industries were composed of few and large companies, which were often subsidised, protected from international competition by high tariff and other barriers and were allowed to conclude among themselves agreements leading to national cartels. If these industries were put together in a multinational project managed by supranational authorities, Germany could, from a potential enemy, become a partner with its neighbouring countries. By participating in a scheme, which would control its war industries, Germany would pledge not simply by words but by deeds that it had abandoned forever any intentions of expanding its "Lebensraum". Moreover, if economic integration could work in these highly protected industries, it could work in other sectors. Therefore, the sectors of coal and steel were chosen as a model of European integration for both economic and political reasons.
This, in a nutshell, was the brilliant idea of Jean Monnet, inspired by his business and political activities with the Allies during the war. It was proclaimed by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Robert Schuman, on 9 May 1950, a historical date for European unification. The Schuman declaration was quite explicit on the road to be followed by European integration: "Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity." The ECSC was to be the first achievement. The French idea was immediately welcomed by the German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, and by the Prime Ministers of Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Less than a year after the Schuman declaration the founding fathers had negotiated the details of this novel project and were able to sign the ECSC Treaty, in Paris, on 18 April 1951. The institutions that they set up at that time - a High Authority (integrated in 1967 into the European Commission), a Council of Ministers, a European Assembly (which developed into the European Parliament) and a Court of Justice - are still there today, with, of course, extended functions [see chapter 4]. The durability of the institutions demonstrates how well the original project was designed.
In fact, the very first years of the functioning of the customs union of coal and steel showed that the ECSC model worked and could be extended to all economic sectors. Already in June 1955, the Ministers for Foreign Affairs of the Six discussed the possibility of creating a common market embracing all products and a separate Community for nuclear energy. Speedy negotiations conducted by the Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Paul-Henri Spaak, were concluded in April 1956 and on 25 March 1957, the Six were able to sign, on Capitol Hill in Rome, the Treaties establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC).
The United Kingdom proposed then to the Six the creation of a vast European free trade area between the European Economic Community and the other Member States of the OECD, but the discussions were interrupted during the autumn of 1958 owing to intractable differences of opinion between France and the United Kingdom. The separation between states, which wanted to try the Community method and those, which preferred the intergovernmental cooperation for trade liberalisation took shape in 1959 with the creation of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), to which the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Portugal, Iceland and Switzerland acceded, with Finland joining at a later date.
Having been impressed, however, by the early successes of the European Community, it was not long before the British Government was rethinking its refusal to play an active role in the work of European unification. It was aware that the United Kingdom could not maintain its political influence in Europe and the world through the intergovernmental cooperation of the EFTA. So in August 1961, the United Kingdom submitted an initial official application to become a full member of the European Community. UK candidature of the EEC was followed by two other EFTA member countries, namely Denmark and Norway, and also by Ireland.
Accession of those countries initially met with the opposition of the President of the French Republic, General de Gaulle, who, being very distrustful of the United Kingdom's intentions, declared, right in the middle of the negotiations in 1963, that he wished to discontinue them. The second British application for accession, in 1967, with which Ireland, Denmark and Norway were yet again associated, was not examined for much time owing to France's misgivings. The issue of the accession of those countries could not be resolved until, following General de Gaulle's resignation in April 1969. After laborious negotiations, the Treaties of Accession were finally signed on 22 January 1972. The accession of the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark took effect on 1 January 1973, following favourable referenda (Ireland and Denmark) and ratification by the national parliaments. Norway's accession was prevented, however, after 53.49% of the Norwegian population opposed accession to the European Community in a referendum. The membership of the EEC was thus increased to nine, while that of the EFTA was reduced to six.
Once democracy was restored in Greece, Portugal and Spain, these countries submitted applications for accession to the European Community, in 1975 in Greece's case and in 1977 in the other two cases. These countries thus chose to join the novel and hence risky experiment of the EEC rather than the secure but limited refuge of the EFTA. They considered that multinational integration could not only better promote their economic development, but would also uphold their frail democratic regimes, since it required the good functioning of democratic institutions in the participating countries. Greece acceded to the Community on 1 January 1981 and Spain and Portugal on 1 January 1986. Thus, for a brief moment in its history, the EEC was known as "the Twelve".
With the signature of the Single European Act, in June 1987, the Twelve Member States of the EEC decided to complete their internal market on 31 December 1992. One year before that date, in December 1991, they decided in Maastricht to develop within the single market an economic and monetary union, a judicial and home affairs policy and a common foreign and security policy, thus transforming the European Economic Community into a European Union (EU), including a refurbished European Community (EC).
Since the 1st January 1995, the Europe of Twelve became the Europe of Fifteen, with the accession of Austria, Finland and Sweden, the people of Norway having again voted against membership of the Union by a majority of 52.8%. These three nations had weighed the economic advantages of European integration against the political disadvantage of a loss of some sovereign rights and had decided to take the train of integration despite the cost of the fare. The remaining countries of the European Free Trade Area (minus Switzerland), i.e., Norway, Iceland and the Liechtenstein signed with the European Community a Treaty on the European Economic Area (EEA), which came into force on 1 January 1994, creating a large free trade area involving several common policies of the EC/EU [see section 25.1]. The political elite of Switzerland had applied for EEA membership, but ratification of the Treaty was blocked by referendum. They have also flirted with the idea of EC/EU membership, but have been put off by the negative stance of the population, led by isolationist mass media.
After the fall of the iron curtain in 1989, one after the other the countries of Central and Eastern Europe applied for membership to the EU, thus clearly opting for multinational integration rather than for intergovernmental cooperation inside EFTA. Their preference was guided both by expectations of faster economic development and by hopes of increased political stability inside a Union of democratic countries. The EU encouraged their application by political and financial means [see section 25.2] and started accession negotiations with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania plus Cyprus and Malta. After conclusion of the negotiations, these ten countries signed the Treaty of Accession in Athens on 16 April 2003 and have been full members of the EC/EU since 1 May 2004. Bulgaria and Romania acceded to the EU on 1 January 2007. We, therefore, now speak of the Union of Twenty seven.
The enlargement of the EC/EU is still in progress. In December 2004, the EU accepted to start accession negotiations with Croatia and Turkey. On 9 December 2011, EU leaders signed the Accession treaty, which, after its ratification, will allow Croatia to become the 28th Member State on 1 July 2013. As soon as their economic and political situation allows, all Balkan countries are expected to seek a safe haven inside the Union, which, in the next decade, could thus number more than thirty members [see sections 25.2 and 25.3].