“A day will come when you, France, you, Russia, you, Italy, you, Germany, you, all nations of the continent, without losing your distinctive qualities and glorious individuality, will be merged within a superior unit.”
- Victor Hugo in 1849
Last September, as the Syrian refugee crisis escalated, parliamentarians from Germany, France, Italy and Luxembourg gathered in Rome to sign a declaration calling for the creation of a “federal union of states” from the countries of the European Union. The document read: “We are convinced that new impetus must be given to European integration. We believe that more, not less, Europe is needed to respond to the challenges we face. It should include all matters pertaining to the European ideal – social and cultural affairs, as well as foreign, security and defense policy.” This plan came on the heels of United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement that the UK would never be part of a European “super state,” the term used, usually as a pejorative, to refer to an EU with one centralized power and the elimination of national sovereignty.
This past Tuesday, amid post-Brexit hysteria, there was speculation that EU leaders were formalizing the September declaration into a blueprint for a consolidation of more power, or what objectors call one massive super state. It is reported that the controversial plan would potentially require individual member states (countries in the EU) to do away with national armies, their own criminal law procedures, their own taxation systems and their own central banks. Instead, all of that power would be transferred to Brussels, the de facto capital of the EU. EU member states would also forfeit any remaining control over their own borders and procedures for admitting and relocating refugees. If this were to happen, the EU would finally hold ultimate political, social and economic control over its member states.
This move brings to mind the oft-repeated notion of never letting a crisis go to waste. The crisis being Brexit, the United Kingdom’s historic vote on June 23 to depart the EU. While this is not the first time EU leaders have pushed for a United States of Europe, where member states would resign sovereignty to a new EU nation, the timing of this current plan might suggest panic in Brussels. To the technocrats and bureaucrats running the EU and its supporters, Brexit is the biggest threat to their dream of a unified Europe to date.
Although it would not get its current name until 1992, the European Union was a project launched in the aftermath of World War II. It was born as an urgent call for peace and to preclude any more European wars and world wars. The thinking was that by intertwining economic fates, European nations would naturally ally. Peace would then result.
This dream of a unified Europe dates back not to the 1940s, but to the Roman Empire, when a united Europe was at its greatest geographic expanse under one authority. The centuries-long desire since to reunify has been driven by multiple conflicting visions, motivations and theories, with several attempts at a restored European continent failing throughout the course of history.
As the question of a one sovereign EU nation is raised again, what is really at stake is a long-held dream for power, peace and preeminence. As tensions intensify between European politicians and citizens on either side of the issue, one has to wonder just how much power, peace and preeminence can be maintained. Supporters of the EU believe that its member states are stronger economically and politically, more globally influential and safer as a union. Opponents believe that democracy and sovereignty are imperiled when unelected bureaucrats make consequential decisions about their lives. And everyone might be wondering if, as Victor Hugo imagined, individual characters of nations can withstand a full EU unification.
In this TLV, we will look at the millennia-long roots of the EU, what it means to national sovereignty of European countries, what drove Brexit and what the future might hold for Europe.
Six Pivotal Attempts to United the European Continent: 27 BC to Modern Day
To advocates of a unified European continent, the Roman Empire is the origin story. Since that “golden age” of Europe, five notable attempts have been made to reunify Europe, with myriad rulers invoking the Roman Empire along the way. Dozens of other empires, tribes and rulers coincided the six overt efforts to unite Europe. For our purposes here, and in interest of your time, we will address what is most relevant to the vision many hold for the EU today.
The Roman Empire (27 BC - 476 AD)
The roots of the modern day vision that some hold of a united Europe date back to the Roman Empire. In fact, the Roman Empire remains a strong influence on those who seek a unified Europe today. Multiple European leaders, past and present, have cited it as inspiration to their vision of an integrated European continent.
The Roman Empire was born from the ashes of the Roman Republic, which collapsed due to internal strife and civil wars, culminating in the assassination of “emperor for life” Julius Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 BC.
In the wake of Julius Caesar’s death, his great nephew-cum-adopted-son Gaius Octavius Thurinus, later named Octavius Julius Augustus Caesar, aligned with Julius’ supporters, Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, to form the Second Triumvirate. They set out to avenge the murder of Julius Caesar, killing any of his political rivals and supporters of the assassination, and eventually, the assassins themselves, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, by 42 BC.
Through 30 BC, Octavian (as historians refer to him during the years of 44 to 22 BC) oversaw a series of crucial victories over those who wished to weaken Roman rule and his authority. But his relationship with Antony deteriorated when Antony left his wife, Octavia Minor, who was Octavian’s sister, for Cleopatra VIII of Egypt (former lover of Julius and mother to their son, Caesarion). To Octavian, Antony’s relationships with Cleopatra presented a threat to Rome. Thus, Octavian went to war against Antony and Cleopatra, defeating their forces at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Antony and Cleopatra eventually committed suicide. Octavian had Caesarion strangled to death and Antony’s eldest son executed, removing any chance they would threaten Rome.
Having officially defeated all of his nemeses, real or imagined, Octavian was now the supreme ruler of Rome. An avid student of history, Octavian sought to avoid his adoptive father’s mistake of allowing his quest for power to be so naked. Instead, Octavian positioned all of his political schemes as in the best interests of Rome. He restored the façade of a republic while retaining autocratic rule. In a carefully crafted move in 27 BC, Octavian resigned his powers, only to have the senate, grateful for his defeat of all enemies of Rome, return them to him and give him the name Augustus, meaning “the illustrious one.” This title made official his power as Imperator (from which the English word “emperor” is derived) over every province in what would become known as the Roman Empire.
Though the Roman Empire was born of bloodshed and war, Augustus ushered in a golden age known as the Pax Romana, or Roman peace. While wars were fought to extend empire borders, the empire itself saw little in fighting for 200 years.
Thanks to Augustus’ vision, the economy, arts and agriculture thrived and would continue to do so for two centuries. Augustus became the leader against whom all future emperors would be measured. He was named Pater Patriae, or father of his country, and is considered father to one of the greatest – and perhaps to many in Europe today, the greatest – political and cultural powers in history. Augustus ruled until his death in 14 AD.
The ensuing four emperors, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, would make up the Julio-Claudian dynasty, named for the families from which they descended, those of Julius Caesar or Claudius. Tiberius was successful in maintaining much of Augustus’ policies, but lacked his vision and strength of character, rendering him unpopular. Although history remembers Caligula as a depraved, brutal monster, his early reign saw numerous architectural, structural and social advancements. Claudius expanded the empire to territory in Britain. And Nero’s reign ended in his suicide in 68 AD, unleashing a period of social unrest marked by a series of unstable rulers with brief reigns.
Stability was restored when Nerva Trajan, the first of the Nervan-Antonin Dynasty (96 - 192 AD), took power. Trajan was the first of what is called the Five Good Emperors: Nerva (96 - 98 AD), Trajan (98 - 117 AD), Hadrian (117 - 138 AD), Antoninus Pius (138 - 161 AD) and Marcus Aurelius (161 - 180 AD). Under their collective rule, the Roman Empire grew to its largest and strongest.
At the Roman Empire’s geographic height in 117 AD, it was the most extensive political and social structure the west had ever seen. Its domain included most of the nations of the modern day EU, including Italy, France, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands and parts of Germany.
The Roman Empire at its geographic height in 117 AD
(Click here for a clearer view)
Marcus Aurelius would be known as the last of the “good” emperors. His son Commodus succeeded him and was one of the most disgraceful rulers the empire had seen. He is known to have indulged his every whim at the expense of the empire. Commodus’ reign, the last of the Nervan-Antonin Dynasty, would officially mark the end of the 200-year Roman golden age.
The Severan Dynasty (193 - 235 AD) followed and was characterized by costly battles to expand the empire, namely in Britain and Africa, and consequent financial issues. Eventually, all free men in the empire were granted Roman citizenship as a means to increase tax revenues amid financial destabilization. The assassination of Emperor Alexander Severus in 235 AD pushed the empire into the chaotic Imperial Crisis, lasting until 284 AD. During this time, civil wars, battles for power, economic instability and social unrest plagued the empire.
By 285 AD, the empire had grown unwieldy and too large for efficient rule. To simplify administration, Emperor Diocletian bisected the empire into the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire (also called the Byzantine Empire). Although historians distinguish between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, at the time, all citizens continued to view it as one Roman Empire with two administrative halves. The western half took Europe and parts of Northern Africa. The eastern half spanned from the Balkans to the Euphrates and included the Middle Eastern areas of the empire.
Diocletian named general Maxentius successor of the western half and Constantine successor of the eastern half. Each took power when Diocletian stepped down in 305 AD. Despite Diocletian’s wishes for administrative cooperation, Maxentius and Constantine went straight to war for power. Constantine defeated Maxentius in 312 AD and became the sole ruler of the empire.
In a departure from the historically pagan empire, Constantine credited Jesus Christ for his victory and issued edicts protecting tolerance of Christians throughout the empire. In addition to being the first Christian emperor in the world, he stabilized the region, increased the value of its currency and reformed the military. He moved the Roman capital to Byzantium, which would become known as Constantinople (and is today Istanbul). This strengthened the eastern and weakened the western half of the empire.
When Constantine died, his three sons fought over control of the eastern half. Eventually all three died and one of their cousins, Julian, became emperor. A pagan, Julian set out to scrub Christianity from the Empire, banning the teaching of Christianity and barring Christians from joining government and military. (During and following Julian’s reign, the western half would toggle between the rule of its own emperor and the rule emperor of the eastern half.) After his death, Julian was succeeded by a series of Christian emperors, the last of whom, Theodosius I, took reign in 379 AD. Theodosius spent so much time trying to restore and propagate Christianity throughout the empire that all manners of infrastructure and administration deteriorated.
Around this time, the western half came under repeated assault from the Goths, a Germanic tribe, in what would become known as the Gothic Wars. In 378 AD at the Battle of Adrianpole, Western Roman Emperor Valens was defeated.
Over the next two decades, the western half was under the rule of a series of de facto emperors until Theodosius was elevated to emperor of both the western and eastern halves in 392 AD. He was unable to thwart the Goths, who gained yet more control of northern Europe. Theodosius was deposed in 395 AD and was the last to rule both halves of the empire. The Goths continued to chip away at the western side of the empire until its few remaining scattered domains fell in 476 AD.
Historians disagree over what caused the fall of Rome (which refers to the fall of the Western Empire, as the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire, would survive a thousand years longer, until 1453 AD). Some historians point to how Christianity undermined the longstanding social mores of paganism. Others argue it was paganism itself that triggered the fall. Corruption among the governing elite, the sheer vastness of the empire, the growing power of Germanic tribes and their persistent attacks on the empire are also commonly cited factors of the fall. Others point to the fact that the Western Roman Empire could no longer safeguard its borders, weakening their defenses against invasion.
It was likely a confluence of factors that made the Western Roman Empire particularly vulnerable when Germanic King and warlord Odoacer forced the last western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, to abdicate the throne in 476 AD.
The Roman Empire introduced a period of tremendous invention and advancement. In addition to being an innovative people, the Romans were also skilled at taking inspiration from prior inventions and inventions of the indigenous people they conquered and improving upon them. Among the long list of inventions or advancements from the Romans are: improvements in construction of roads and buildings, indoor plumbing, aqueducts, fast drying cement, apartment complexes, public toilets, locks and keys, newspapers, socks and shoes, a postal system (modeled after the Persian postal system), cosmetics, the magnifying glass and satirical literature. The empire also made notable progress in the areas of medicine, law, religion, government and warfare.
Charlemagne’s Frankish Kingdom (800 - 814 AD)
Given the rich legacy of the Roman Empire and the 200-year golden age of peace after its inception, it is no wonder that many Europeans look longingly at what was achieved during that period. It also makes sense, then, why many in the EU romanticize the brief rule of Charlemagne, who attempted to reunite European territories with an over-arching political and social structure.
The Franks, a confederation of Germanic tribes that settled between the Rhine and Weser Rivers (both in modern day Germany), first appear in Latin sources in 257 AD. They were noted as enemies of Rome, as they made several attempts to encroach on Roman territory. Under Emperor Maximianus, in 287 BC, the Romans signed a treaty with the Franks, which required several Franks to enlist in the Roman army. The integrated army fought to resist invasion from Attila the Hun in 451 AD. Subsequently, the Franks continued to support the Romans against imperial raids from the Visigoths and Saxons.
After the fall of Rome in 476 AD, the Franks came under the rule of Clovius, who founded the Merovingian Dynasty and exploited the demise of the Western Roman Empire. Clovius pushed the Frankish kingdom into Gaul (modern day France) and consolidated power under his dynasty in the late 400s. His descendants would maintain rule of the Frankish Kingdom for 200 years, and many would further expand the borders of the kingdom.
Frankish territory in 555 AD
(Click here for a clearer view)
In 561 AD after the death of Frankish King Clothar I, the kingdom was divided into four parts. Each one came under the rule of the sons of the prior king, King Theudebald (548 - 555 AD), Clothar’s great nephew. This political structure proved unstable and prone to territorial and civil wars. Eventually, the four subkingdoms merged into three subkingdoms called Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy. These three subkingdoms would continue to clash and war, until each was so enfeebled that Pope Zachary deposed the last Merovingian ruler in 752 AD.
The Carolingian Dynasty would rise in its place, under the inaugural rule of Pepin the Short in 754 AD. His son Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, succeeded him as King of Franks in 768 AD.
Most of Charlemagne’s reign was spent battling to expand the boundaries of his kingdom. In removing the Lombards from power in northern Italy, attacking Muslim Spain and waging a successful campaign against the Saxons to the kingdom’s east (forcing them to convert to Christianity or be penalized by death), Charlemagne was able to unite most of Western Europe for the first time since the fall of Rome.
A map showing Charlemagne’s additions (in light green) to the Frankish Kingdom
Charlemagne’s power culminated in 800 AD, when Pope Leo II crowned him Emperor of Romans, restoring the title for the first time in the west since the fall of Rome. The title was symbolic, as the Western Roman Empire had long since devolved into rival states and the legal Roman emperor ruled from Constantinople. But the coronation signaled an alliance between the pope and the ruler of the confederation of Germanic tribes and the new realities for Western Europe. It also set the stage for the Holy Roman Empire, which would formalize in the next century.
By naming Charlemagne Emperor of Romans, the longing for another golden age of Rome is apparent. The move revealed the desire for a restoration to a powerful, unified Europe, and it celebrated Charlemagne for his significant conquests that grew the empire. Charlemagne’s rule earned him the name Pater Europae, Father of Europe. He died in 814, after just 13 years of empirical reign, leaving the empire to enter the medieval era (sometimes called the Dark Ages) with power over most of Western Europe.
Advocates of a unified Europe invoke Charlemagne’s legacy to this day. Since 1949, individuals who have worked to advance the idea of a united Europe have received the Charlemagne Prize, awarded in Charlemagne’s capital city Aachen, located in modern-day Germany. Recipients have included German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Trichet, the former head of the European Central Bank.
The Holy Roman Empire (800 - 1806 AD)
Charlemagne’s vision of a vast, unified Europe was short lived. By 888 AD, just 74 years after his death, the Carolingian Dynasty was already breaking apart, with modern day France, Germany and Italy all siphoning off into separate states. England and France took issue with Germany’s claim to the “holy empire.” The title of Roman Emperor was then contested, and the fractured kingdom fell to civil wars over the question of rule. Would the pope, who was himself a puppet of the Italian aristocracy, nominate a ruler? Or would the emperor be a rightful heir of Charlemagne? Or would it simply be the strongest king from western European states? These questions incited a debate over the rightful heir to European leadership that remains today.
After 888 AD, a series of emperors took power by various means, each of whom ruled only briefly. It was not until 936 AD, when Otto I was crowned as the successor to Charlemagne, that the title Emperor of Romans was resurrected. While some historians mark the start of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD when Charlemagne was crowned, others cite Otto’s coronation as the official start of the Holy Roman Empire. Either way, Otto’s empire was far more limited in scope and influence than was Charlemagne’s. Neither Otto nor his successors made any claim to the West Frankish lands. Thus, the “empire” was only a union between modern day Germany and northern Italy. But because it was a papal state, its preeminence remained secure. German kings would assume power and rule the empire through its demise in 1806.
While the Holy Roman Empire never achieved power, influence and territory on par with the golden age of the Roman Empire or Charlemagne’s Empire, it kept the idea of a united European continent alive.
The Napoleonic Empire (1799 - 1815)
Born in French-controlled Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte rose to acclaim while serving the French army as a supporter of the French Revolution. He quelled revolt from royal insurgents, and by age 26 had launched a campaign against the Austrians. He also conquered the Italian Peninsula for France, making him a national hero.
In 1799, Napoleon masterminded a bloodless coup that effectively ended the French Revolution, putting him in power as First Consul of the Republic of France. Not accidentally, the title of consul was an invocation of titles used in the Roman Republic.
From 1803 to 1806, Napoleon defeated an alliance between the Holy Roman Empire and Russia. This put an official end to the Holy Roman Empire. So decisive were his victories that Pope Pious VII crowned him Emperor of the French at Notre Dame in 1804. It is said that at the coronation, Napoleon was surrounded by statues and tapestries depicting Charlemagne and was presented with a Roman-style laurel wreath crown, sword and scepter, all of which were said to have belonged to Charlemagne himself.
Meanwhile and throughout Napoleon’s reign, he had a near obsession with defeating Great Britain. His entire foreign policy, referred to as the Continental System and to which Napoleon held his territories and allies, hinged upon weakening the ever-strong Britain. Member states of the Continental System were barred from trading with Britain. However, with trading partners in the Middle East and Latin America and with a stronger navy than France’s, Britain continually withstood France’s imposed economic restrictions.
In what historians refer to as the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon would extend the rule of the First French Empire to most of Western Europe and some of Poland. At the height of its power in 1811, the empire had 130 departments (akin to counties), ruled over 70 million subjects, had a military presence in Germany, Italy, Spain and the Duchy of Warsaw (a Polish state established by Napoleon) and had allies in Austria and Prussia.
The 1807 Treaties of Tilsit ended war, creating an alliance between Russia and France. France agreed to help Russia defeat the Ottoman Turks as they sought to expand their Ottoman Empire, and Russia agreed to join Napoleon’s Continental System. However, Russia would eventually back out of the System because it proved destructive to their economy.
Furious at this betrayal, Napoleon invaded Russia, marking the start of his slow demise. Organizing the largest army Europe had ever seen, Napoleon marched 680,000 members of his Grand Armée, by one estimation, into Russia in 1812. The Russian army repeatedly retreated to avoid battle, all the while burning the land to make it uninhabitable to French military. With Napoleon’s troops decimated, his winter quarters burned, his supply line underprepared and overextended and the Russian countryside destroyed, Napoleon had no choice but to withdraw from Russia.
Once he retuned to Paris, with only one-fifth of his army left, Napoleon’s allies began to abandon him, forming coalitions with Britain to fight wars to push back France’s borders. These new coalitions offered France peace if Napoleon would restore her natural borders. Notorious for his Napoleon complex and fragile ego, Napoleon rejected the offer. His enemies closed in on Paris, which fell in 1814.
Napoleon was briefly exiled to Elba, before he was able to flee on a ship and return to France. In 1815, he managed to rally France, appealing to hope of a restored, strong French Empire. Thus began the brief resurgence of his reign known as the Hundred Days. This short-lived rule ended at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon finally accepted defeat and was exiled to Saint Helena, where he remained until his death in 1821.
The Bourbon monarchy (the house that ruled France from 1268 through the French Revolution, when Napoleon assumed imperial power) was reinstated, with King Louis XVIII once again taking the throne. Napoleon’s remaining conquests were deposed of in the Congress of Vienna.
Hitler’s Germany (1939 - 1945)
In the most horrific attempt to consolidate power in Europe, Adolf Hitler looked to the German controlled Holy Roman Empire as inspiration for his vision of German dominance. His ally in Italy, Benito Mussolini, drew inspiration from the Roman Empire.
In 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, after which he and his Nazi party began eliminating all opposition. When President Hindenburg died in 1934, Hitler merged the powers of chancellor and president and became the dictator of Germany. A national referendum was held, which confirmed Hitler’s power as sole leader (führer) of Germany. Interestingly, as a consequence, Germany remains to this day wary of popular plebiscites at the federal level, which are a vote on a proposition, not an election of a candidate. It is thought by some that the residual fears of Hitler’s referendum mean Germany has little to no appetite for a referendum on the EU.
As the Nazis made ruthless territorial demands in the 1930s, they killed anyone and everyone who did not give Hitler what he wanted. In 1938, Germany seized Austria and Czechoslovakia and then invaded Poland in 1939, marking the start of WWII. Given that racism and anti-Semitism were core to Hitler’s vision of a unified Europe, the Nazis also killed anyone who did not fit their perceptions of racial purity, as well as anyone who opposed its views and objectives. By 1940, Hitler had conquered most of Europe and was threatening Great Britain. Despite an earlier pact with Joseph Stalin, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. This would cause the tide to turn against them, but not before Hitler’s policy of anti-Semitism had turned into all out Jewish genocide, with the Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews.
Allied powers, now with the military and financial support of the United States, which joined the war after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, were able to push back German occupation from the west. Meanwhile, Russia pushed back Nazi control from the east, until Germany had no choice but to surrender in 1945.
The European Union (1951 - Present)
The modern day European Union was born in a sobered post-WWII Europe. In an earnest move to, once and for all, create lasting peace on a continent of nations and peoples that had warred with each other for millennia, European leaders looked to centralizing power to prevent too much power from being forcibly seized again, as it so brutally was under Hitler. The idea was that by conjoining economic interests of European nations, there would be a natural alliance and effort to support, not feud with, each other.
1946: In 1946, after the end of the war, Winston Churchill says in a speech at Zurich University: “We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living.”
1949: The Council of Europe is established as the first pan-European organization.
1951: In response to a speech from French Foreign Minster Robert Schuman about integrating the continent’s coal and steel industries (the two elements necessary to make war weapons), West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg sign the Treaty of Paris. This marked the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Its aim was to make war between France and Germany and other European nations not only inconceivable, but also materially impossible. The treaty created a common market for coal and steal among its member nations, which enhanced cooperation and nullified competition around natural resources. The High Authority, composed of independent appointees, and the Common Assembly, composed of national parliamentarians, were formed to run the ECSC. The High Authority would eventually give way to the European Commission, and the Common Assembly would become the European Parliament.
During this time, two other European communities were proposed that would increase political unity amongst member states and move closer to the vision of a United States of Europe, a single, sovereign federation of states akin to the United States. The French Parliament rejected these proposals in an effort to resist political integration with other European nations.
1957: The six member states of the ESCS sign The Treaty of Rome, which formed the European Economic Community (EEC), the European Commission (EC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). The treaty proposed progressive reduction of customs duties and a customs union. It also set forth a plan for a common market of goods, workers, services and capital and shared transport and agricultural policies among EEC members.
The continental territories of the European Communities in 1957
(Click here for a clearer view and a moving map that shows Community /
EU expansion through 2013)
1958: The Parliamentary Assembly replaces the Common Assembly and holds its first assembly in Strasbourg, France. Robert Schuman is elected President of the Assembly. In an unprecedented move, members sit according to political, not national, allegiance.
1960: Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom establish the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) as a trade-bloc alternative to countries either unwilling or unable to join the EEC. Today, only Norway and Switzerland remain in EFTA (and are not part of the EU).
1961: The UK, Ireland, Denmark and Norway apply for membership to the EEC, while the neutral countries Austria, Sweden and Switzerland ask for economic association agreements.
1963: French President Charles de Gaulle suspends the UK’s membership application, seeing it as a Trojan horse for American influence, highlighting tensions amongst European nations. No other nations are submitted.
1965: The Merger Treaty is signed in Brussels. It merges the executive bodies of the three communities, the ECSC, EEC and Euratom, under one commission and refers to them collectively as the European Communities (EC), also called the Community. Belgian politician Jean Rey is appointed head of the first commission (the Rey Commission). Brussels becomes the de facto capital of the EC.
1967: The UK, Ireland, Denmark and Norway all reapply for membership into the EC. French President Georges Pompidou is open to UK membership. Negotiations begin in 1970 and last two years.
1972: All applicant states are submitted into the EC. Norway, Ireland and Denmark call for a referendums; the UK does not. Norway votes to reject membership.
1973: The UK, Ireland and Denmark join the EC, marking the first enlargement of the EC.
1974: British foreign secretary James Callaghan calls for fairer methods of EC financing and budget, as well as solutions to monetary problems facing the EC. The EC’s heads of state or government decide to hold meetings three times a year as the European Council. (The European Council, not formalized until 2009, is comprised of member heads of state or government and is responsible for defining the EC’s political direction and priorities.) They also agreed to direct elections to the European Parliament and commit to establishing the European Regional Development Fund to advance economic and monetary union amongst EC states.
1975: The UK holds a referendum on EC membership; membership is maintained by 67.2% of the voting populace.
1978: The European Council establishes the European Monetary System based on a European currency unit (the Ecu) and the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). The Ecu showed some characteristics of a real currency and was used in travelers’ checks and bank deposits. ERM gave national currencies a central exchange rate against the Ecu, which linked member currencies and served to mitigate large fluctuations relative to other member currencies. All EC members, save for the UK for the time being, joined the ERM. Over the course of the Ecu’s use, periodic adjustments raised the value of strong currencies and weakened the value of weaker currencies, causing dissatisfaction with the system and paving the way for the euro.
1979: The first direct European Parliament elections are held, and 410 members are elected. They elect the first female President of the European Parliament, French liberal Simone Veil. This new Parliament felt emboldened and began working full-time, making them far more active in EC matters than all prior assemblies.
1981: Greece becomes the tenth member of the EC.
1985: Greenland votes to leave the EC after gaining home rule from Denmark. Until Brexit, Greenland is the only member to leave the EC. (Given the small size and economic force of Greenland, its exit was not significant.)
1986: Spain and Portugal join the EC. Newly appointed Commission President Jacques Delors (Delors Commission (1986 - 1994), regarded as the most successful of the EC to date) presides over the adoption to the European flag. The Single European Act is signed, marking the first major revision to the treaties since the Merger Treaty. The act imposed institutional reforms, mainly around expanding EC powers in the area of foreign policy and eventually completing the single market, which guarantees the free movement of goods, capital, services and people between member states.
1992: The Maastricht Treaty is signed, which formally establishes the European Union. The Treaty created of the euro (not to be implemented for 10 years), as well as the "pillar" structure of the European Union: the European Community (EC) pillar, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) pillar and the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) pillar. Pillars refer to the three legal bodies of the EU.
1995: Austria, Finland and Sweden join the Union, bringing membership to 15. The Schengen Agreement goes into effect between Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. It essentially ends border controls amongst these countries. Wary of terrorism and illegal immigration, the UK and Ireland abstain from the agreement.
1997: In response to the conflict in the Balkans, The Amsterdam Treaty is signed, in which member states would transfer certain powers from their national governments to the European Parliament across assorted areas, including legislating on immigration, civil and criminal laws, and foreign and security policy. The treaty formally established the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), which is the agreed upon foreign policy of the EU. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is the chief coordinator of EU foreign and security policy.
2001: The Treaty of Nice is signed, which proposed EU structural shifts to make way for eastward expansion as Eastern Bloc countries set to join following the fall of the Soviet Union.
2002: The euro is circulated for the first time and used in 12 member states: Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.
Today, 19 of the 28 European Union member states have adopted the euro. These countries are referred to as the Eurozone. Since 2002, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia have joined the Eurozone. All other members, except for the UK and Denmark, are obliged to join once they meet certain criteria.
Eurozone members and monetary status of non-Eurozone EU member states
2004: The EU sees its most significant enlargement with the joining of 10 new countries: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia. Member heads of state and EU foreign ministers sign a treaty establishing the Constitution of Europe. However, France and the Netherlands do not ratify the constitution, killing if off entirely.
2007: Bulgaria and Romania join the EU, bringing membership to 27.
2009: The Treaty of Lisbon is enacted, which put a president in charge of the European Council and significantly expanded the power of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. European Parliament elections are held, marking the biggest transnational elections in history, with 736 Members of European Parliament elected to represent 500 million Europeans.
2013: Croatia joins the EU, bringing its member states to 28, which remains the count today until the UK departs following the June 23, 2016 “Brexit” referendum vote. Presently, there are five candidate countries awaiting integration into the EU: Iceland, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Turkey.
The continental territories of the European Union today
(Click here for a clearer view and a moving map that shows Community / EU expansion through 2013)
The 28 member states of the European Union as of 2016 (including the UK)
The governing bodies of the EC and now EU have shifted and been renamed over its history. The 2009 Treaty of Lisbon evolved the three pillars system into its current governing structure. Today, four main institutions govern the EU, only one of which is composed of members directly elected by citizens. All other EU leaders are bureaucrats. A few smaller agencies play ancillary roles.
1. The European Council: Comprised of the Heads of State or Government of the EU’s member states and the President of the European Commission, the council gathers several times a year in “EU Summits” to shape EU policy. Council members appoint a Council president, whose role is to coordinate work and facilitate consensus.
2. The European Commission: Although members are unelected, the Commission is the EU’s executive and primary administrative entity, charged with upholding the common interest of the EU as a whole. Member states appoint a commissioner from each state, subject to approval from the European Parliament, for five-year terms. One commissioner is selected as president. The commissioners negotiate common policy decisions, oversee proper implementation of all treaties and negotiate policy with outside countries.
3. The Council of the European Union (also called the Council of Ministers): Represents the 28 (for now) national governments by engaging ministers from each member state based on a topic at hand. As an example, foreign ministers from each member state would meet to discuss foreign affairs, agriculture members to discuss farm subsidies, etc. This institution enacts legislation, usually proposed by the Commission and agreed upon by the European Parliament. The presidency of this Council rotates every six months among the member states, with each president setting an agenda and coordinating work.
4. The European Parliament: Parliament is the only body of the EU directly elected by citizens. Presently, it consists of 751 Members of European Parliament (MEPs) who serve five-year terms. Like the US’s House of Representatives, each EU country has a number of seats proportional to the size of its population. The Parliament cannot initiate legislation, but some legislative power shared with the Council of Ministers gives it the right to accept, amend or reject the majority of proposed EU legislation. MEPs caucus according to political affiliation, not nationality; amongst them, there are eight political groups and a number of unaffiliated MEPs.
5. The Court of Justice interprets EU laws and issues binding rulings; a Court of Auditors oversees financial management; the European Central Bank manages the euro and EU monetary policy; advisory committees represent economic, social and regional interests.
What we see in the nearly 70-year history of the European Community turned European Union is a constant tension between centralizing European power and preserving the sovereign power of member states. Since the resurgence of the idea of a unified European continent in the 1940s, member states have slowly but surely relinquished more and more power to bureaucratic governing bodies – yet not totally. That both political and economic power has remained split between member states and the EU governing bodies has presented challenges, both real and existential, to the EU.
The most notorious of challenges came with the 2008 economic collapse, where the EU structure would be put to its most strenuous and globally scrutinized test.
The Wall Street Journal produced an insightful documentary about the EU in the aftermath of the 2008 crash. It’s worth a watch, but if you don’t have 20 minutes to spare, a summary follows.
The widespread adoption of the euro was the crowning achievement of the union 50 years in the making. However, next steps to solidify European economic and political cohesion were never taken, making the EU particularly vulnerable after 2008. In terms of the crash, the most obvious lack of cohesion was between fiscal and monetary policy.
Monetary and fiscal policy are the two primary tools that can influence a nation or region’s economy. Monetary policy, which is under the purview of central banks, refers to management of interest rates and monetary supply in circulation at a given time. To stimulate economic growth, central banks manipulate interest rates and money supply to incentivize businesses or individuals to borrow or spend. Or they can manipulate these economic inputs to incentivize savings and slow economic growth, often a tool used to avert inflation. In the US, the Federal Reserve Bank manages monetary policy. In the EU, it is the domain of the Central Bank of Europe.
Fiscal policy refers to the suite of tools governments can use to influence the economy, and they generally fall under the categories of taxation and government spending. If the private sector is not seeing enough spending and activity, the government can increase expenditures, which is called stimulus spending (a feature of Keynesian economic theory). If tax revenues cannot cover government spending, the government can issue debt securities, called deficit spending. By increasing or lowering taxes, the government can extract money from the economy to slow activity or infuse money into the economy to boost activity, respectively. In the US, the executive and legislative branches manage fiscal policy.
But who manages fiscal policy in the EU? Officially, no one does, as the EU lacks absolute political integration. In centralizing monetary policy in the European Central Bank and introducing the euro, the thinking was this would sufficiently preclude the problems of having the multiple fiscal regimes of the EU under one monetary policy. To this end, the EU enacted overly strict monetary policy that impinged the growth of weaker EU economies, like Greece and Italy, in the years before 2008.
Without one sovereign government managing EU fiscal policy, it seems the leaders and members were taking fiscal policy on faith. Perhaps because they never expected a crash on the scale of 2008.
It would be these chickens that came home to roost once the 2008/2009 global recession hit.
In the lead up to the 2008 crash, financial markets treated all EU economies equally, handing out loans to each on the same terms despite the individual circumstances of any one member nation. Banks, nations and lenders were all operating under the assumption that the EU would not let one of its member states fail. Meanwhile, borrowing costs were so low that governments saw little risk in taking on significant debt. With stubbornly low job creation, Greece took on the most debt relative to its GDP to bolster public payrolls. Aware of Greece’s steep borrowing, the EU struggled with how to get individual member states to operate per its preferences without damaging the collective or causing fractures in the EU.
Yet this question was mostly abstract until 2009, when EU leaders discovered that Greek government debt levels and deficits had been undercounted by its government. Until then, the EU had been slow to react to the 2008 crash, assuming that American economic contagion would not reach its shores. With time already lost, many believe the EU still moved too slowly and missed a critical opportunity to contain the economic sickness of Greece before it spread across the EU. But this is, in part, because the EU – bogged down by several bureaucratic institutions – does move slowly. Without one sovereign government, like ours in the US – which moved swiftly and decisively in 2008 and 2009 to infuse our economy with money supply and contain economic calamity – the EU must negotiate 28 sovereign voices.
It is this structural shortcoming of the EU that let the financial crisis spiral out of control. By the time Greece got a bailout in 2010, only then did EU leaders realize that other countries with poor debt structures, like Ireland and Portugal, were in trouble. Eventually, they too got bailouts, but in amounts that were clearly insufficient, revealing another structural flaw of the EU: how would they convince sovereign nations (particularly the richer ones, like Germany) to cough over billions to bail out economies those individual nations did not imperil?
With too-small bailouts, the crisis would soon spread to Italy, causing perhaps the greatest panic to date in the EU. Italy is the EU’s third largest economy. In the US, New York State is the third largest economy. Consider the ramifications if New York’s economy was so endangered that it required a federal bailout. How sustainable is the European experiment if its third largest economy is unstable?
Meanwhile, Greece’s economic issues had not improved. The 2010 bailout of Greece came with conditional and strict austerity measures, which required structural reforms and privatization of certain government assets. These demands were met with Greek riots, protests and social unrest. With the EU economy continuing to deteriorate, Greece was incapable of meeting requirements and would need yet more rounds of bailout. In 2015, Greece failed to make a $1.7 billion IMF payment, making it the first developed country to default on an IMF repayment.
Since the inception of the European Economic Council, multiple attempts to centralize the union politically have failed, leaving EU leaders simply to hope that the individual member states would tend towards economic convergence and willfully becoming more similar. But this has yet to happen.
On the minds of mainstream Europe is the fear of fringe politicians feeling too similar to those of WWII. But the economic nature of our world is vastly different from a post-WWII era, when the idea of a unified Europe got fresh support. What may be underestimated today is the importance of economic stability as a means of keeping peace and keeping any threatening fringe politicians at bay. Yet the very body that arose to create this stability is the same body creating its current instability.
The UK and the EU: A Rocky Relationship from the Start
When reading through the imperial history of the European Continent since 27 BC, mention of the United Kingdom is glaringly minimal. Throughout most of history, Britain was not part of or was resistant to the vision of a unified Europe. Perhaps it is island mentality. Or perhaps it's because Britain was an empire builder itself, long since doing much conquering and imperialistic expansion of its own. It has also long since been a major trading power. Due to its influence, Britain would inevitably come into conflict with its European neighbors. Throughout history, Britain was often engaged in war with Germany, France and Russia either to defend or expand its borders. Thus, it stands to reason that many in the UK lack a wistful attitude over a unified Europe, as it was historically not its goal.
To modern historians, many point to Britain’s experience standing alone against Nazi Germany in 1940 and 1941 as having a the greatest impact on its modern day, conflicted view of Europe. What the UK learned in WWII was that if they can count on anyone to help them out, it’s not their neighbors to the east, but to the west – the United States.
When the European Coal and Steel Community was formed in 1951, Britain declined the invitation to join. French politician and economist Jean Monnet said at the time: “I never understood why the British did not join. I came to the conclusion that it must have been because it was the price of victory – the illusion that you could maintain what you had, without change.”
Perhaps there was some truth to Monnet’s notion, albeit short lived if so. Unlike France and Germany, whose economies strengthened after WWII, Britain’s was sluggish. This prompted the Brits to apply for membership into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1961. French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed their application twice, accusing the UK of hostility towards Europe, self-interest and closer allegiance to the US.
The UK was finally granted admittance into the European Community in 1973. While British voters resoundingly upheld membership in a referendum, their economy saw no immediate boost from joining, and their economic woes worsened.
Throughout the 1970s, membership in the European Community was creating divisions in all UK political parties. At that time, the most organized opposition came from the left side of the liberal Labour party, which promised to renege membership. These intra-party fissures would create an undercurrent in post-war British politics, where conflict was and remains today less between parties, and more between those who support a separate Britain and those who see Britain’s future as part of Europe.
When socialist Jacques Delors became president of the European Commission in 1986, he pushed more federal and centralized control in Brussels, as well as a single currency. In 1988, then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rejected “a European super state exercising a new dominance from Brussels” in a speech in Bruges that became the fundamental text of Eurosceptics. Indicative of things to come, fissures in Thatcher’s own Conservative party over UK’s membership in the European Community would contribute to her downfall.
Despite Thatcher’s efforts to stem the tide of a more centralized European Community, they proved deficient when, after her tenure as Prime Minster was over, the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992 creating the official European Union. A skeptical UK was able to negotiate opt outs for the euro and the social chapter, which outlined requirements around social and employment benefits. But to Eurosceptics, UK’s sacred sovereign parliament had been jeopardized.
In 1997, Tony Blair won a landslide victory as Prime Minister of the UK. A leader of the liberal Labour Party, he opted into the EU’s social chapter and attempted to repair EU relations. There was talk of the UK joining the euro. However, in 2007, Britain’s economy was doing so well that then Prime Minister Gordon Brown back burnered such plans. And with the 2008 crash looming, history would come to view this as one of the smartest moves the UK could have made since joining the EU.
The 2008 crash emboldened Eurosceptics, who saw the global recession as their best opportunity to strengthen their cause. In 2011, as EU leaders continued to try to find solutions to its vast economic problems, Prime Minister David Cameron demanded exemptions to what he saw as draconian budget rules and eventually vetoed the pact. A call for a referendum on EU membership grew, and in 2014 Cameron promised to bring a referendum to vote.
40 years of British views on “in or out” of Europe
Within the historical context of a millennia-long dream of a unified European continent, it’s reasonable to see why, once and for all, the EU might seize Brexit as an opportunity to create one united sovereign state dominated by larger member nations, primarily Germany and France, where national sovereignty is done away with. For the dream of a United States of Europe to be a reality, it would need to look more like the United States of America, with one, centralized, sovereign government and political structure.
In many ways, the EU and the US are structurally similar. American states, like EU member states, have their own governments that can set many of their own tax, social and justice policies. They retain the ability to opt out of certain federal laws. Borders are open between states, as they are within the EU. Like the EU, we too struggle with where to draw the line of power between states and the federal government.
There are three key differences, though, all of which ostensibly thwart the vision of a United States of Europe capable of functioning as the United States of America. The first is that the EU lacks universal suffrage of a president. Americans all understand that our president is the nation’s ultimate commander-in-chief. The second is that only elected officials can legislate in the US, and this is true on the state and federal levels. This is not the case in the EU, making the crevasse between legislators and citizens that much wider. Third, we have one national army and defense system, whereas all EU member states have their own militaries.
The US also has two cultural and social advantages that cannot be underemphasized. We have one, albeit unofficial, language. And while we can debate the political correctness of saying this, we share a story of Founding Fathers and had the benefit of building a country on land that had not yet been colonized. For a United States of Europe to actualize, citizens of EU member countries would have to give up long existing national identity and the sovereign power and leadership that is familiar and closer to them on an individual, representative level.
How realistic is it for nations with their own unique histories, identities, cultures and mores, all dating back hundreds, if not thousands of years, to up and renounce their individualism for a dream that has tried, but failed, to be sustainably realized multiple times over history?
In less than a week since Brexit, hundreds of economists, politicians, journalists and talking heads have chimed in with their take. Response is near apoplectic, but also speculative, as no power as significant as the UK has ever exited the EU. How will this all unfold?
Perhaps the most consequential question is if the UK is the first domino of many to fall in the EU. A number of EU member states aren’t exactly enamored with the EU, and at least half of member states feel more positive about their national economies than they do about the EU economy.
Based on data from a 2016 March-April poll, the following chart shows a the degree of appetite for referendum on EU member status in the following countries:
If the same survey were given today, after the UK shocked the world, defied all the odds and voted to depart the EU, might these numbers be a bit higher? Particularly if there are plans in the works to resuscitate the objective of a United States of Europe by thwarting what’s left of member state sovereignty. Or might the post-Brexit fallout push those numbers lower?
The EU is facing an existential crisis. Will they finally realize the dream of unified Europe? Or might the experiment, once again, fall under the weight of in-fighting and competing national interests? Where does power function most productively, in a consolidated bureaucracy or smaller, more individualistic “states”? Or, when zooming out to see the full history, might the takeaway be that power is, by its very nature, always swinging between the two? Again, only time will tell.
And what can we Americans, also participants in social-political experiment of our own, learn from the EU and its history? Are we living in the American equivalent of the Roman Empire, doomed to fall and face thousands of years of failed attempts to resurrect the golden age? Can we learn from our neighbors across the Atlantic and avoid a similar fate? Or is it simply impossible to overcome the natural ebb and flow of power?
Again, time will tell. But, in our case, we the people of the United States have a say in our future.
Wishing you and yours a happy and safe Independence Day.
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