Denise Dunne

The EU is imperfect – but will go down in history as one of Europe’s most creative experiments in community building

The EU is the culmination of a process of co-operation that began in 1952 with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which aimed to make war between its members “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”. Though Europe has not been free from war since, there has not been an armed conflict between member states since the foundation of the EU – a remarkable achievement, given the history of savage conflict in the first half of the 20th century. Maintaining peace among members through economic partnership remains the EU’s primary purpose. The fact so many people are either unaware of this, choose to overlook it, or take peace for granted, is indicative of how successful it has been in fulfilling its primary purpose.


Since 1952, the integration process has meandered forward. Treaties negotiated between 1957 and 2009 provide the legal scaffolding for the EU’s institutions, with their unique DNA of supranationalism and intergovernmentalism. The deepening of interdependence through treaties has been accompanied by enlargement to 28 members with a combined population of over 512 million. Member states reap the benefits of free movement of people, goods, services and capital, and 19 share a common currency, the euro. EU citizens can live, study or work anywhere in Europe, and their rights are enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Yet almost every achievement can be critiqued. Arguably, economic and monetary union is incomplete and unfair. The EU can’t speak with one voice on foreign policy and defence issues. Its institutions and decision-making procedures baffle the public and seem permanently in need of reform. The EU is imperfect – but will go down in history as one of Europe’s most creative experiments in peaceful community building.

The EU evolves in response to challenges, albeit slowly. It grapples with the politics of design – what the treaties aspire to – versus the politics of crisis management. We cannot be complacent about challenges it confronts – Brexit, the migration crisis, a militarily assertive Russia. But the EU has proven adept at crisis management, which accounts for its survival. On balance, to date the achievements outweigh the deficits.

Denise Dunne is a lecturer in history at Maynooth University, Ireland

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Farmers protest pension reforms at the Greek parliament in 2016. Greece has seen many such demonstrations against EU-imposed austerity measures since the start of the financial crisis in 2008. (Photo by NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Farmers protest pension reforms at the Greek parliament in 2016. Greece has seen many such demonstrations against EU-imposed austerity measures since the start of the financial crisis in 2008. (Photo by NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

John Gillingham

It is administratively paralysed, and facing either sudden or prolonged internal collapse

Although a powerful inspiration to the generation of Europeans desperate for an alternative to the bitter national rivalries that led to the Second World War, the EU has had its day. Undemocratic to the core, its extravagant claims, policy failures and inability to reform have together undermined its functional credibility, made it a drag on progress and turned it into a source of division and conflict. The institution is thus largely irrelevant to the immense challenges Europe faces today.

The public rejection of that farcical overreach of the 1990s – the attempt of Brussels to impose a grotesque so-called constitution on the EU’s member states – put paid to hopes of a future European political federation. Worse yet, the ill-conceived single currency project has plunged the continent into a decade of anaemic growth at a time of rapid advance elsewhere in the world.

Within the region, it has aggravated class and generational divisions, as well as set north against south and west against east. Unsurprisingly, the EU therefore lacks both a democratic mandate and a vision of the future. It is, in fact, administratively paralysed, and facing either sudden or prolonged internal collapse.

Refugees from Carpatho-Ukraine flee Hungarian troops in 1939. "There has not been an armed conflict between member states since the foundation of the EU," observes Denise Dunne. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Refugees from Carpatho-Ukraine flee Hungarian troops in 1939. "There has not been an armed conflict between member states since the foundation of the EU," observes Denise Dunne. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The world is now entering a period of economic and political upheaval that invites comparison to the industrial revolution of the 18th century. Its motor is technological change driven by the IT giants of Silicon Valley and, increasingly, China. The broad contours of tomorrow’s Europe’s will be determined by the competitive interplay of these trans-Pacific forces and their national governments.

The outcome of such a contestation cannot, of course, be predicted, but will entail, in some manner, the creation of a new, global version of corporate capitalism featuring close interdependent relationships – be they amicable or hostile, beneficial or otherwise – between international producers and their governments, as well as between the governments themselves.

The stakes in this contest are epochal: they involve a choice between the world of Orwell’s 1984 or, at the opposite extreme, an era of unprecedented opportunity, personal freedom and abundance. Its proclamations and protests notwithstanding, the EU will be a bystander to the now unfolding drama. Europe’s fate is in other hands.

John Gillingham is professor of history at the University of Missouri-St Louis

Heidi Maurer

The EU has been a success in ensuring cooperation between member states – but less so in integrating European peoples

The EU has mostly been a success. The European Economic Community, formed in 1957, aimed to foster economic cooperation between members. The main tool proposed for this purpose was a common market in which there would be free movement of goods, services, capital and people.

Despite this economic focus, at that time European integration already entailed a political purpose: “to lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe”. This aim for political integration between European states, but also between their peoples, was taken to a new level in the Treaty on European Union, signed in Maastricht in 1992.

The EU has been a success in ensuring cooperation between its member states. Its institutions facilitate diplomatic negotiations in a rule-based and efficient manner. The high intensity of this exchange is unprecedented in international affairs: in 2017, there were 92 meeting days for ministers of the 28 member states, and 3,000 working party meetings, in addition to regular exchanges between presidents and prime ministers. Those meetings provide a unique environment in which to share experiences and to agree on joint policy responses. Nevertheless, the EU can make decisions and shape policies only if it has the required authority, and if member states agree.

A Croat soldier defends the city of (Photo by Laurent VAN DER STOCKT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
A Croat soldier defends the city of Šibenik in September 1991 during the Croatian War of Independence. EU military cooperation did not lead to effective intervention in the Balkan conflicts of the early 1990s. (Photo by Laurent VAN DER STOCKT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The EU has been less successful in fostering integration between European peoples. Yet despite the 2005 rejection of the draft constitutional treaty, initiatives further seek to enhance the ownership and identification of citizens with the EU. Today, European citizens care more and know more about the EU, and thus also increasingly critique and contest it.

However, the biggest challenge for the EU is its set-up: the treaty specifies when and how the EU can act (if member states and the European Parliament agree), which does not always overlap with what citizens demand (for example, a Europe that also provides social policies next to economic affairs). As a consequence, the EU has not been successful in convincing its citizens that it is not just a bunch of institutions, but that the EU is its member states – and, most importantly, its citizens.

Heidi Maurer is EU politics lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford

Harold James

The EU’s great historic success has been over - shadowed by a discussion cast in rather narrow economic terms

Europe has always been a site of political and institutional experimentation, and its current experiment has been a remarkable success (in contrast with the disastrous ventures of the first half of the 20th century). Its pre-modern existence, with a proliferation of multiple and competing states or political entities, presented a stark contrast with the imperial systems that dominated the centre and east of the Eurasian landmass.

In very recent times, European integration created a postmodern view of the state, moving away from modern concepts of clearly defined sovereignty to offer a superior contrast to the classically modern state, or super-state, offered in particular by the course of American history. The success of this vision of Europe has to do with values, with a commitment to diversity and tolerance, to a diversity of cultures and religions and heritages, rather than with specific, narrowly defined outcomes.

Europe historically was a site of bitterly contested and continually shifting frontiers. By contrast, the core units of the states on the western and eastern geographic fringes of Europe – England and Russia, at the heart of the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation – have had much more continuity, and in consequence may not see the need for a European solution to the problem of sovereignty as clearly as central Europeans.

The modern European problem is that its great historic success has been overshadowed by a discussion cast in rather narrow economic terms. It is an easy exercise to contrast the high aspirations of the founding treaties of the European Union, and their emphasis on “ever closer union”, with the rather mixed record of European practice.

The first objective set out in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty was “to promote economic and social progress which is balanced and sustainable”, but European economic growth has been disappointing and unbalanced: the credit boom to peripheral Europe before 2008 was not sustainable, and collapsed with disastrous consequences. The challenge today is to fix the economic issues while preserving the profound vision.

Harold James is Claude and Lore Kelly Professor in European Studies at Princeton University

Olivette Otele

Africans are prisoners in their own countries because of the EU’s approach to economic migration

The integration of new states and the adoption of the euro exacerbated political and economic problems, and led to social unrest. Far-right movements have risen with unemployment in Greece and economic turmoil in Italy, where minority discrimination and anti-immigrant sentiment are also increasing. That trend is noticeable in Germany and France, too.

In part, these issues are related to colonial actions and more recent EU policies towards neighbouring regions, notably Africa. The European response to its ‘migrant crisis’ has been to enlarge borders beyond the Mediterranean. Measures taken by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) have made many Africans prisoners in their own countries because of the EU’s approach to economic migration.

The EU Emergency Trust Fund For Africa aims to tackle the root cause of migration and help vulnerable populations, but has focused on tightening border controls outside the EU by providing funds to a few African countries. In July 2018, 55 millions euros were given to the Maghreb region (especially Morocco and Tunisia, seen, with Libya, as part of the ‘North Africa Window’). The EU is responding to so-called emergency situations rather than working with countries that are not transit states. Young people continue to risk their lives on dangerous new routes north into Europe.

Meanwhile, no sustainable economic and educational measures have been put in place in central and west Africa. The EU’s approach to them is a significant factor contributing to the problems facing these countries. Though research and innovation projects provide opportunities for African and European researchers to collaborate, their impact on the vast majority of the population in the continent remains limited.

As to the future, changes in the EU must be sustainable. French president Emmanuel Macron once stated that the EU will soon have to function within three circles. The first would comprise treaties with superpowers such as Russia. The second would be close to the current membership, focusing on freedom of movement and a commitment to research and innovation. The third circle would be the “core of the reactor”, according to Macron – essentially the eurozone, with countries that adhere to a fully integrated labour market and real social convergence.

The EU needs those internal changes. It must also re-think its neo-colonial economic and migratory approaches.

Olivette Otele is Professor of History of Slavery at Bristol University

Alejandro Quiroga

In the 2000s, the eastern enlargement of the EU was a successful project of economic and political expansion

The level of success of the European Union has to be measured against the different goals set over time. The founding fathers of the European Coal and Steel Community (1952) and the European Economic Community (1957) aimed to secure peace among member states, promote capitalism and consolidate liberal nation-states in the midst of the Cold War. By the late 1980s, the initial objectives of the European project had been fully met, while the Soviet bloc began to crumble.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, new objectives were set. Gaining control of the emerging capitalist markets in former communist countries and consolidating liberal democracies in eastern Europe became the priorities of the European Community. In the 2000s, the eastern enlargement of the EU was a successful project of economic and political expansion.

The new historical circumstances also allowed further economic and political integration. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty included a social charter, increased foreign policy, military and judicial cooperation, and laid the foundations of the single currency. The euro became legal tender in 12 countries in 2002, but cooperation in military and foreign policy did not extend to effective intervention in the 1990s wars in Yugoslavia.

the EU, and a project he described as “a leap into the unknown” . (Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images)
French foreign minister Robert Schuman signs the 1951 treaty creating the European Coal and Steel Community – forerunner to the EU, and a project he described as “a leap into the unknown”. (Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images)

The 2008 financial crisis led to a redefinition of the EU goals. Austerity, bailouts of banks and direct economic interventions in member states have been implemented in the past decade, prioritising economic performance over social justice. In this context of crisis, the EU values of equality and solidarity have also been challenged by the rise of the nationalist right and the growth of xenophobia all over Europe. This threat, of which Brexit is just one manifestation, is a real menace because it undermines some of the main principles of the common European project.

From a long-term perspective, there is no doubt that the EU has been a success. Yet historical achievements do not necessarily ensure success in the near future.

Alejandro Quiroga is reader in Spanish history at Newcastle University

Katja Seidel

During the postwar era, being a federalist was the norm rather than the exception

Brussels’ Eurocrats are easy targets on which to blame all the wrongs of the EU. They are often seen as conspiring to hatch bureaucratic regulations that enforce conformity between member states, and as attacking expressions of national culture with the aim of creating some kind of impersonal European super-state. Alarm at the appointment of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker epitomised such fears, because Juncker is close to an ideological conviction that is thought by some, in particular in the UK, to be out of place in today’s EU: federalism.

During the period of postwar reconstruction and the early years of European integration, being a federalist was the norm rather than the exception, both among politicians and Commission staff. Walter Hallstein, the first Commission president of the European Economic Community (EEC; the predecessor of the EU) from 1958 to 1967, was an ardent federalist.

For Hallstein, European integration – leading eventually to a European federal state – was the solution to the continent’s many ailments: excessive nationalism, divisiveness, economic particularism and the threat of the continent vanishing into political and economic obscurity following the rise of two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union.

As a law professor, one of the most talented of his generation, Hallstein was an advocate of integration through law; he saw the EEC as a community founded upon law. Through its treaty and the legislation derived from it, the EEC was an emerging autonomous legal order that was entwined with and complemented those of the member states. A strong institutional system with firm and binding rules, this legal order was necessary to pave the way for a stable, peaceful and economically prosperous Europe – something that had not been achieved in the past by blood and iron. A European legal order was thus the way to maintain peace and democracy in Europe.

The EU has been a success, but remains a work in progress. The way it functions is complicated and lacks transparency. It will need to reform, particularly because both it and the idea of the peace project have never been under more threat. With the wave of nationalism and populism sweeping the continent, we face an unprecedented challenge to democracy and the rule of law in the EU – not to mention to the idea of a federal Europe.

Katja Seidel is senior lecturer in history at the University of Westminster

Jane Lewis

The EU remains a giant experiment built on rigid institutions which, in the eyes of its critics, are destined to fail

In 1950, when the French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, announced a coal and steel pact between France and Germany, Le Monde dubbed it “une initiative revolutionnaire”. Schuman more guardedly described the project as “a leap into the unknown”. Yet it undoubtedly succeeded in its first overarching aim. Clearly, coal and steel were crucial to rebuilding Europe’s smashed cities and economies, but the drive to establish peace was always the uppermost consideration.

Even before two world wars provided urgent momentum, the concept of a democratic union of European states had been advanced (by everyone from America’s founding fathers to the radicals of the 1840s) as the optimum defence against tyrants and of fostering trade and wider prosperity.

Dismissed by many as utopian, the EU has, on the whole, delivered. For all its flaws, it remains the most ambitious model yet seen of the pooling of national sovereignty in pursuit of a common good. And, whether by accident or design, it has coincided with an unparalleled period of peace and prosperity among its members. For all that, the EU remains a giant experiment built on rigid institutions which, in the eyes of its critics, are destined to fail.

We don’t know if it will be possible to rejig the edifice to resolve the perceived ‘democratic deficit’ of a governing structure dominated by an unelected (and some would say autocratic) Commission. Or whether the euro – a common currency that was supposed to unite – will succeed in fracturing the union further by placing impossible economic burdens on member states. There is also an argument, first advanced by the philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill in the 1860s, that the drive towards unity threatens the historical diversity that has always been Europe’s chief strength, leading to what he called a crippling state of “stationariness”.

Some recognise that malaise now. “In the 1940s, the European leaders had a clear sense of direction. Right now, they mostly want to avoid trouble,” observed the veteran US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, in 2018. The EU is still a half-built house. It will need more pragmatic, fluid leadership to shore up its foundations.

Jane Lewis is the author of All You Need to Know: The European Union (Connell, 2018)


This content first appeared in issue 12 (October/November 2018) of BBC World Histories Magazine