What is the EU and where did it all begin?

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The European Union – known to most of us just as the EU – is an economic and political partnership that consists of 28 individual member states. The EU as we currently know it came into being with the Maastricht Treaty, signed in February 1992, which came into effect on 1 November 1993. (The Maastricht Treaty will be a subject of a future blog – you lucky people!)

However, the EU existed before that in various forms before Maastricht, and its origins go back to Europe in the years after World War 2. The War raged, as we know, in Europe and much further afield from 1939 through to 1945, costing 60 million lives – estimated to have been 3% of the world’s population in 1940 – including the victims of the Holocaust.

Leaders of the European countries that emerged battered and bruised from World War 2 were determined to avoid the devastation and destruction caused by centuries of international competition, expansionist foreign policy and war. They had a desire to tie Europe’s nations so closely together that they could never again wreak such damage on one another. The way to do this was political and economic union because, in short, countries that traded with each other and shared laws were a lot more likely to avoid going to war with each other! Winston Churchill fully supported the idea, proposing in a speech to the University of Zurich back in 1946, that Europe should form: “…a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and freedom… a kind of United States of Europe.” Incidentally, Churchill’s grandson is a sitting MP, Sir Nicholas Soames, who also supports membership of the EU, and his Twitter feed can sometimes be amusing with his very blunt and brash comments. Might be worth a follow!

The EU existed in its embryonic guise as the imaginatively named European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Formally established in 1951 through the Treaty of Paris, it had six signatories: Belgium, France, (West) Germany – the East was doing its Communist thing at the time – Italy, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The Community created a common market for, you guessed it(!), coal and steel amongst its member states which would serve to neutralise competition between member states over natural resources, particularly in the Ruhr region of Germany. When you think about it, coal and steel did seem quite a good pair of commodities to start with when taking control away from national governments; after all, they are the two raw materials used to make weapons!

So why didn’t Britain join the ECSC? The truth is that the then-Labour Government under Clement Attlee wanted nothing to do with it. The story goes that some senior civil servants tracked down the then-Deputy Prime Minister who was anti the idea of integration, Herbert Morrison, at the Ivy Restaurant in Central London, who delivered the well-remembered put down: “The Durham miners won’t wear it.” As a piece of pointless trivia, Hebert Morrison is the grandfather to Peter Mandelson, who didn’t prove to be quite as sceptical about Europe – he actually went on to be European Commissioner to Brussels.


As another bit of a twist, Churchill was returned as Prime Minister in October 1951 but he didn’t seem too keen to reverse the initial decision or want in after that.

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