Explore the Tumultuous History of the European Union on Its 60th Anniversary
Despite challenges to its authority, however, the EU and its governing branches remain some of the most powerful voices in Europe today, regulating everything from trade to foreign visas.
To evaluate the successes and failures of the EU in its current form and to envision what is in store for the future, readers need to go back to its very foundations, which took place in the wake of World War II.
Following the Paris Peace Treaties in 1945 that ended years of war among neighboring nations in Europe, the continent was grieving the loss of its dead while struggling to rebuild entire towns and even cities that had been practically leveled to the ground.
Lawmakers throughout the continent and throughout the world searched for preventive solutions to stop anything nearing the bloodshed of the recent war.
While the EU began as a group of trade unions, some have argued that from the start it always aimed to be much more: It sought to serve as a safeguard against World War III.
1946: Winston Churchill Delivers the 'United states of Europe' Speech
In September of 1946, a little over a year after the end of World War II, Former U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered an impassioned speech in Zurich, arguing for a “united states of Europe.”
"If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance there would be no limit to the happiness, prosperity, and glory which its 300 million or 400 million people would enjoy,” he said.
Churchill reinforced that this union would support and work with existing international organizations, such as the United Nations.
“What is this sovereign remedy? It is to recreate the European fabric, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, safety, and freedom,” he said.
1957: The Treaty of Rome
The signing of this treaty is what we now celebrate as the founding of the European Union, though at that time it was not given that name and functioned more specifically as a trade organization.
This treaty established the European Economic Community (EEC), which created a common market and set out the goal of creating an "ever closer union." Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands served as the six initial signatories of this original treaty.
1965: Signing of the Merger Treaty a.k.a the Brussels Treaty
This agreement set up an inter-governmental entity more closely resembling the EU as it stands today. Member states signed a treaty that merged three communities, replacing them with a single commission and a single board of council members. From then on, the entire entity became known as the European Community (EC).
1973: Denmark, Ireland, and the U.K. Join the EU
After much debate concerning the U.K.’s desire to join the EC — as well as France’s will to allow them in — Great Britain joined Ireland and Denmark in becoming members of the community.
Four years later, the first direct elections to European Parliament would take place.
1985: Adoption of the European Flag
After European Parliament established the European Union in 1984, continuing in the goal of “forging an ever closer union,” authorities unveiled its flag in 1986.
The blue flag with a circle of 12 gold stars is meant to represent the "ideals of unity, solidarity, and harmony," according to the European Commission.
1989: Berlin Wall Falls
The Berlin Wall separating east and west Germany fell in 1989, leading to the reunification of the two regions in 1990, and subsequently enlarging the EU.
1992: Maastricht Treaty
This agreement created European citizenship and began to pave the way for the freedom of movement that most people who have resided or visited Europe in the past 20 years take for granted. It allowed residents of any EU member state to live, work, and study in any other EU member state without needing a visa.
The Maastricht laid the foundation for the later Schengen Agreement that essentially erased borders between member states (the U.K. opted out of both of these pacts).
1999-2002: Roll-out of the Euro Currency
The EU established the euro currency during this period, replacing and phasing out local currencies throughout 12 participating countries.
2014: Scottish Independence Referendum
Scotland held a referendum to decide whether to remain part of the U.K. or to become its own sovereign nation, and the remain camp won by a margin of nearly 400,000 votes, according to the BBC.
As part of the agreement to remain in the U.K., British parliament promised Scotland more authority for Scottish parliament as well as increased sovereignty concerning welfare and tax programs.
2015: Refugee Crisis
More than 1 million people fled their native countries in the Middle East and North Africa in 2015, seeking refuge on the shores of Europe. The vast majority of the people who fled places like Syria and Eritrea are considered bona fide refugees under the U.N. definition provided in 1951.
The sheer number of asylum-seekers in 2015 put a strain on various countries’ infrastructure, particularly in so-called first arrival countries such as Greece and Italy. As hundreds of thousands of people attempted to walk to northern European countries to seek asylum in Germany or the U.K., the principles of freedom of movement were thrown into question when some eastern nations including Hungary and Slovenia erected border fences attempting to prevent asylum-seekers from crossing.
July 2015: ‘Oxi’ Vote and ‘Grexit’ Discussion
In July 2015, the Greek people voted against further austerity measures such as capital controls and higher taxes in a referendum that came to be known as the “oxi” vote, meaning “no” in Greek.
Many European leaders considered the high level of Greek debt a threat to the euro currency as a whole and discussed whether the country should leave the union for the sake of the rest of the member states. Greece's debt load has continued to plague the country and the EU into 2017, with talks of a Grexit renewing.
June 2016: Brexit Vote
U.K. nationals voted to leave the EU in a landmark vote in June that surprised much of the global community and caused major uncertainty in international markets.
Many of those who voted to leave cited their longing for more national sovereignty as well as a desire to stop paying high EU membership fees.