The process of European integration began shortly after the Second World War with two initial primary objectives: the economic reconstruction of war-ravaged Europe and the gradual creation of a unified region promoting peace, development and democracy which would prevent the rise of totalitarian regimes and the outbreak of armed conflict on the European continent. Since then, the European Union has made great strides. The continuously growing membership, the development of more and more common policies, the adoption of the single currency, but above all the firm will for further European unification serve to confirm the success of the initial venture.
On 9 May 1950, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, inspired by the visionary ideas of Jean Monnet, proposed the creation of a supranational European institution to coordinate coal and steel production. However Schuman’s initiative, which took the form of a ‘Declaration’, actually expressed much deeper aspirations such as “the foundation of a European federation, indispensable to the preservation of peace”.
Six countries – France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – responded to Schuman’s declaration and in 1951 they signed the Treaty of Paris establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).
It was in this initial, deeply unifying climate that the European Defence Community Treaty was signed (May 1952), the aim of which was to gradually unify the defence forces of the ECSC countries and ultimately establish a common European army under joint control. However, conditions were not yet ripe for such a step. The French National Assembly did not ratify the treaty, which led to its abandonment. It was clear that European integration could only progress by taking smaller, concrete steps in fields which were less sensitive for national sovereignty. Nevertheless, the idea of setting up a European military force was by no means forgotten.
In this initial stage, efforts towards integration had to be focused in the economic field. On 25 March 1957, the six ECSC members signed the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). The EEC, ECSC and Euratom were the three European Communities. The main objective of the EEC was to create an economic community based on the free movement of goods, services and workers.
The success of the EEC encouraged the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark to join in 1973. It was during this period that new policies (social, regional etc.) were implemented, while the presence of the European Communities on the international scene became gradually stronger.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis ravaging the continent and the breakdown of the Bretton Woods fixed exchange rate system led to the creation in 1979 of the European Monetary System (EMS), which was intended to bring exchange rate stability to Europe and contain inflationary pressures.
Despite the various economic problems, more and more countries expressed their desire to join the European Communities. Greece was the tenth country to accede. Although the Association Agreement between Greece and the EEC had been signed in 1961, the country’s European course was interrupted by a seven-year dictatorship. Following the restoration of democracy, Greece applied for full membership in 1975. The Accession Treaty was finally signed in Athens in May 1979 and Greece officially became an EEC member on 1 January 1981.
In 1986 the Community welcomed two new countries from southern Europe, Spain and Portugal. The EEC now had twelve members and the different levels of economic development, plus significant economic inequalities among the Member States, necessitated the adoption of structural support programmes.
Despite the increase in the number of EEC members, this period was marked by so-called Euroscepticism, largely as a consequence of the international economic crisis and tough talks within the EEC on the issue of fiscal contributions.
However, this scepticism soon gave way to a new period of impetus and hope for the Community. In 1985, European Commission president Jacques Delors presented a White Paper setting 1 January 1993 as the target date for completion of the internal market. The Commission’s proposals were encapsulated in the Single European Act (1986), which introduced important provisions concerning the decision-making process and – by favouring the approach of national regulatory rules – laid the foundations for construction of the single market.
The prospect of the single market meanwhile highlighted the need for economic and monetary unification. In addition, the significant historical events taking place at the time (fall of the Berlin Wall, unification of Germany, dissolution of the Warsaw Pact) necessitated the radical revision of the founding Treaties of the Community to facilitate its overall adjustment to the new world reality.
The Treaty on European Union (Maastricht Treaty), signed on 10 December 1991, was a milestone in the course of European integration. The twelve Member States decided on an ambitious plan that would lead to monetary union and the establishment of a single currency. At the same time, a common foreign and security policy was developed in order to strengthen the influence of the EU internationally.
The Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997 complemented the Maastricht Treaty by revising and strengthening the Union’s policies and instruments in fields such as employment and foreign policy. Following the accession of Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995, the European Union now had 15 Member States.
In 1999, Economic and Monetary Union became a reality with the participation of eleven Member States. Greece became the twelfth participant one year later. On 1 January 2002, a further major step was taken when the twelve Member States withdrew their national currencies and adopted the new common European currency, the euro.
However, the Union was soon to face another important challenge. The restoration of democracy in countries of Central and Eastern Europe resulted in new applications for EU membership. The Union quickly perceived the necessity and significance of this new challenge. Enlargement would secure both the formal and substantial unification of the greater part of the European continent, eliminating once and for all any remnants of division and antagonism from the post-war period. However, drastic reforms would be necessary before the new members could be accepted into the Union. A Union initially created for only six members would not be capable of functioning properly when its membership had quadrupled.
The Treaty of Nice was concluded by common accord at the European Council in December 2000. The treaty contained a series of reforms aimed at ensuring the smooth incorporation of the new member states in the institutional structure of the Union. However, these reforms were not enough. Faced with the prospect of enlargement and given the need for a thorough examination of unification issues, the Laeken European Council in December 2001 decided to convene a Convention to lead the debate on the future of Europe and, in particular, to make proposals concerning the major institutional reforms which will ensure the effective functioning of the Union in the post-enlargement era. The proposals of the Convention will be discussed at an Intergovernmental Conference that will be convened for final decision-taking.
In October 2002, the European Commission recommended the conclusion of accession negotiations with ten countries: the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. The European Council of Copenhagen, in December 2002, decided that those countries will join the European Union as memebrs, on May 1st 2004.