A Brief History
On February 7, 1992, signatories from the 12 member states of the European Economic Community signed the Maastricht Treaty, so named after the city in which it was signed, Maastricht, The Netherlands, which more or less created a modern United States of Europe, though it is actually called The European Union. The European Union, or EU, now has a total of 28 nations aligned with each other to a common purpose of open travel and trade and economic unity. Boasting about a quarter of the entire world’s wealth, the EU is collectively the only other serious economic competitor to the United States besides China.
Over 200 years ago, Emperor Napoleon I of the French dreamed of the possibility of creating a United States of Europe. Of course, his dream also included the caveat that he personally be in charge of the giant conglomeration of states, and as we know from our history books, the great man was never able to get other countries on the bandwagon to joining him and his dream. Fast forward to the late 20th Century, and a Europe that had endured World War II, the costliest war in human history, and then about 45 years of a Cold War that threatened to eliminate modern civilization, and the time was right for Europeans to start joining forces for the common good.
Serious thoughts of a European type union got some traction after World War I, with a Pan-European movement called the Pan-Europa Movement with supporters in multiple European countries, but to no avail. In fact, by 1939, the movement had taken an abrupt back seat to the realities of World War II. After World War II, Europe struggled to rebuild the devastated landscape and economies of the European nations, under the helpful hand of the United States and its Marshall Plan.
By the 1960’s, Europe had made a significant recovery, or at least Western Europe did as the Eastern part of the continent was under the thumb of the Soviet Union. As the Cold War came to an end with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Europe once again had the opportunity to unite. From the formation of the European Economic Community in 1957 (often called The Common Market), Western Europe had already moved significantly toward a more complete system of international cooperation. The formation of the European Union in 1992 was the fruition of those efforts, and gradually the number of nations involved grew from the original 12 to the current 28. (Of course, the British “Brexit” vote to pull out of the union threatens to take away one of the major national economies from the EU, and as of this article being written the issue is still unresolved.)
So what does it mean that Europe has formed a union? For one thing, the adoption of the Euro (sometimes referred to as the “Euro dollar”) as the main currency of those nations, although 9 members still have their own national currency as well as using the Euro. The Euro has become the second most valuable currency in the world and is the second most traded currency, with the US dollar clinging to the #1 spot. There are actually more Euros in circulation in the world than US dollars. The Euro was adopted in 1999, replacing an earlier effort at creating a universal European currency called the European Currency Unit (ECU). Transition to the Euro in 1999 became complete for 12 countries by 2002, and now 19 countries rely on the Euro as national currency.
The EU has a supranational government made up of representatives from all its members, with organizations within its structure such as The European Commission, The European Council, The European Parliament, Court of Justice of the European Union, The European Court of Auditors and other functioning bodies. Citizens within the EU have free travel to any of the countries within the EU, and those citizens are provided with a European Health Insurance Card which provides for medical care for the citizens visiting other countries. Trade between EU countries is unfettered by tariffs, and the EU negotiates trade treaties with those nations outside the EU as a bloc.
One area the EU has neglected has been that of military defense, a seemingly moot point since 22 of the EU nations are members of NATO, while the other 6 EU members claim “neutrality.” There are certain mutual defense provisions within the EU charter and follow on agreements. The recent less than supportive talk about NATO by President Trump of the Untied States has alarmed some of the EU nations and made an EU defense plan a serious consideration. The UK (5th most potent military in the world) and France (6th most potent military in the world) make up the core of EU military strength, combining to make up about half of the EU’s military strength.
One area of weakness in the EU is energy, or more to the point, the lack of energy. The EU must import about 54% of its energy needs, making those European nations highly susceptible to disruption of energy supplies in the event of a war or political crisis. The EU imports a staggering 82% of their oil and 57% of their natural gas, much of that from Russia, giving that semi-hostile nation an unwelcome advantage over the EU. Renewable energy and new sources of energy are a priority of EU planners.
Just how much the pending exit of the United Kingdom from the EU will effect both the UK and the EU remains to be seen. Is the future for the EU bright? That also remains to be seen. Either way, we think Napoleon would be proud!
Questions for Students (and others): Have you traveled to any EU countries? Have you used Euros? Should the United States form a similar pact with Mexico and Canada?
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For more information, please see…
Dunt, Ian. Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now? Canbury Press; New edition, 2019.
Griffiths, Richard. History of the European Union: An audio course on the Origins and Development of the E.U. Home Academy, 2016.
Leonard, Dick. Guide to the European Union: The Economist. Audible Studios, 2013.