European Integration: A Historical Overview and Contemporary Challenges

  • 5 Pages
  • Published On: 14-10-2023


Post-war Europe was a politically fragile continent after the long and bloody war that claimed millions of lives. It is in that background, that the first steps to European integration were taken with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The celebrated Schuman Plan, laid the foundation for the first real supra-structure in the world, that is, the ECSC. The European integration continued through the decades with the establishment of the European Economic Community (ECC) and the European Union (EU).

In the recent period, the EU has come under intense questioning with the economic crisis in Europe starting 2007. The recent Brexit vote has put further questions on the future of the EU.

In the recent period, the EU has come under intense questioning with the economic crisis in Europe starting 2007. The recent Brexit vote has put further questions on the future of the EU.

This essay considers the process of European integration through the decades and also discusses the advantages and disadvantages of the integration.


Post war Europe – Political and economic conditions

The Second World War led to a climate of economic devastation, however, it is remarkable how fast Europe did recover after the war and economists do refer to this period as the “Golden Age of European economic growth” (Campos & Coricelli, 2015). Despite the economic recovery in the Europe, there were few areas of discord, one of these being the French favouring a Customs Union and the English wanting a Free Trade Area (Campos & Coricelli, 2015). Moreover, there was distrust between France and Germany, which did impact the initial years of integration (Pinder & Usherwood, 2013, pp. 4-5).

Nevertheless, the European governments responded to the regional and global challenges in the wake of the Second World War with a series of steps that ultimately led to the European integration (Dinan, 2015). The 1947 Marshall Plan was also an important step as it established the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation.

The beginning of European integration

The European integration process began in the 1950s in the post-war period. The six founding members were still mindful of the bad experiences during the Second World War and its aftermath (Dinan, 2015). The most important guiding factor at this point in time was the need to maintain peace and security as the strong anti-war sentiment gripped Europe, and the European nations were looking for the “durable peace” (Pinder & Usherwood, 2013, p. 1). Two world wars within the space of little over two decades had also dented the economic stability of Europe. The integration calls of the post war period have to be understood in the context of the anti-war sentiment at the time as well as the need for economic security.

The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was established on 23 July 1952. It was the first European supra-structure and it lay the foundation for the European Economic Community and European Union. In fact, the ECSC was the first supra-national organisation of its kind in the world. However, it would be wrong to assume that the first steps towards integration and the founding of the ECSC were smooth (Pinder & Usherwood, 2013).

The basic motivation behind the establishment of the ECSC was the creation of a common market for coal and steel. The Schuman Plan sowed the seeds of the ECSC. However, the Schuman Plan is also reflective of the rivalry between France and Germany at the time. The chief architects of the Schuman Plan, Jean Monet and French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, were French (Pinder & Usherwood, 2013, p. 1). The French were particularly concerned that Germany should not pose a threat to France, economically as well as from the security point of view (Dinan, 2015, p. 26).

European Steel and Coal Community to the European Union

Alan Milward has explained the birth of the EEC in economic terms, as opposed to other accounts that focus on the political issues involved in the establishment of the EEC (Dinan, 2015, p. 25). A major impetus for the establishment of the EEC came from France because France was at the time focussed on economic development, for which trade and economic liberalisation was sought by the French politicians (Bomberg, et al., 2012). The Treaty of Rome was primarily the result of the interests of France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands. These are the six countries that are the founders of the Treaty of Rome, which came into existence on 25th March 1957.

The French interests were very strong and General Charles de Gaulle was able to influence important decisions made by the EEC, including the denial to allow UK’s membership into the EEC. Britain, Demark, Ireland and Norway applied for the EEC membership (Campos & Coricelli, 2015). In fact, de Gaulle is generally considered to have exercised his considerable influence within the EEC to put a brake on integration under the ECSC as well as EEC. In particular, there was an antipathy between France and the UK during this time and De Gaulle used his influence to veto UK’s entry into the EEC. However, UK did become a member of the EEC in 1972.

As the EEC developed and expanded other countries gained from the advantages of liberalised economic and trade relations. In fact, by the 1980s, EEC (now known as EC) had a share of more than one fifth of the world trade, thanks to its liberalisation. By 1999, Europe had stabilised its exchange rates under the common European currency, ‘Euro’, another first in the world (Bomberg, et al., 2012).

Economic union

The European Union (EU) was established under the Maastricht treaty on 1 November 1993 (Pinder & Usherwood, 2013, p. 162). Under the Maastricht treaty, the idea of a European citizenship was also laid down. The Treaty of Lisbon came into force in 2009 and under this treaty the European Economic supra-structures came under the European Union.

The integration can be explained or summarised in the following manner. The Maastricht Treaty created the European Union and the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 formally merged the three pillars of the European Community into a single entity. The unique aspect of the EU, as compared to other regional arrangements is that institutions established within the EU share competence with national counterparts in some areas and enjoy exclusive competence with others.

On the other hand, some writers say that the process of European integration demonstrates opportunistic politics by European states in the backdrop of extreme political and economic conditions brought on by the Second World War (Bomberg, et al., 2012, p. 41).

Advantages/disadvantages of the EU

Since 2007, the beginning of the financial crisis has led to some questioning the continued existence of the European Union. The Eurozone crisis in 2010 further raised the questions on EU’s continued existence. However, it is also a fact that many European states have specifically benefitted from the

The major disadvantage of the EU is that its laws and treaties are superior to those of the nations. This is not appreciated by many states, as they feel that their sovereignty is being compromised by being a part of the EU. This is the same sentiment that has produced an anti-EU sentiment in the UK leading up to Brexit.

There has been a lot of treaty making in the EU and each time a new treaty is made, states have to modify their domestic laws or even constitutions in order for their law to align with the EU law (Bomberg, et al., 2012). From the period between 1985 to 2010, the EU has its basic treaties five times (Bomberg, et al., 2012, p. 233). This may be seen as a disadvantage because it leads to a situation where the domestic laws need to be constantly realigned to the EU law.

The advantage of EU is that it gives access to member states to the largest market in the world, allowing manufacturers and service providers to sell their products and services throughout the EU market. This also means that there is a freedom of movement for these people under the Maastricht treaty and the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (Campos & Coricelli, 2015).

Another advantage of the EU is that it is taking lead in important policy measures such as climate change, which are easier to implement because integrated law and policy in Europe (Bomberg, et al., 2012, p. 233).

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The European integration began in the post war period of the 1940s and has culminated in a one of its kind regional arrangement with supra-structures, such as the European Parliament, Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights.

In the recent period, the European Union has come under a lot of criticism, particularly after the economic crisis of the late 2000s. There is also a problem of the alignment of the national laws with the ever changing EU law, which pushes states into constantly amending laws.

There are decided advantages of the EU for the economies of the European nations, as states have access to a common market for the products and services of their domestic manufacturers.


  • Bomberg, E., Peterson, J. & Corbett, R., 2012. The European Union: How Does it Work?. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Campos, N. & Coricelli, F., 2015. Why did Britain join the EU? A new insight from economic history. [Online] Available at:
  • Dinan, D., 2015. How did we get here?. In: D. Kenealy, J. Peterson & R. Corbett, eds. The European Union: How Does it Work? . Oxford : Oxford University Press, pp. 24-44.
  • Pinder, J. & Usherwood, S., 2013. The European Union: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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