Fifty years of the European Union

Richard Laming
Based on a talk given by Richard Laming to the Eastbourne branch of the European Movement, 24 January 2007

I was going to start off this talk by saying that this is a good moment to discuss fifty years of the European Union, but actually it is the only moment to discuss it, given that the Treaty of Rome was signed in March 1957, that is fifty years ago.

I want to say a few words about the history of the European Union and how it has changed since it was founded 50 years ago, but before then I want to put it into context. And the most important feature of that context is that the EU has been a success.

I don’t intend to give a long list of reasons why it has been a success; I think most of us know most of them. And the small quibbles that some of the Eurosceptics come up with really pale into insignificance against the truly historic changes that we have seen in our time.

I would simply ask anyone who doubts this suggestion to compare the experience of Europe in the past fifty years with its experience of the previous fifty years. From being the cockpit of world war and the Holocaust, it is now peaceful, prosperous, confidence and secure.

My own family is proof of this. My grandfather was a soldier, and fought in the first world war. He saw combat. My father was conscripted to do national service in the navy; he didn’t fight, but had to take two years from his studies. Myself, I have never worn a uniform and have never fired a gun.

Data collected by political scientists extends this story from one family. Expenditure on the military is at an historic low, compared with the last 150 years, at around 2 per cent of GDP. And there has been a decrease in the number of wars involving the great powers as the centuries have passed, and in particular in Europe since 1945.

That is why we can think of the European Union as a success, and that is also why we need to concerned for its future. We don’t want to see the European Union unravel: we want to see it develop, to continue to develop as it has in the past.

Widening versus deepening

Rather than talking about incidents and moments in the development of the EU, I want to talk about trends. I think they are a better way of explaining what has been going on.

I remember reading a comment by a British diplomat immediately after the French No vote in their referendum on the constitutional treaty in May 2005 who said that the development of the European Union had been a race between widening and deepening. The big question had been, he said, whether the EU would grow so large that it could no longer integrate, or whether it would grow so integrated that it could no longer accept new members. The French No vote was proof that widening had won. An EU of 25 member states, as it was then, could no longer integrate further.

That is a striking and a clear way of describing the development of the EU, but I don’t think it is very useful. This is for two reasons.

I don’t think it really presents the right picture of how the European Union has developed, and I think it’s too early to say that a definite conclusion has been reached.

Let me explain each of these in turn.

The first of these is that there is more to the EU than widening and deepening. If you look more closely at the developments, you find there are not two trends, but three. There is widening – enlargement – but the deepening process is better understood as two separate trends in its own right. There is the question of the powers of the EU institutions -the policy areas for which they are responsible – and the separate question of the way in which those powers are exercised. These two need to be looked at separately rather than treated as the same.


The EU started out with 6 member states in 1957 and has 27 today. That is, on its own, an extraordinary achievement. Who would have imagined back then that Estonia would become a member state of the European Union? But it has. And that’s a great thing.

I want to point out, though, something quite remarkable about the speed of enlargement, and the time it took the central and eastern European countries to join. Specifically, less time passed between the end of the second world war and signing of the Treaty of Rome than between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the accession of the former communist countries of central and eastern Europe. It was quicker for France and Germany to escape the bitterness and hatred of war than it was for Poland to join the family of democracies, even though it had been deeply longing to do so.

I draw two conclusions from this. It shows the determination of the founders of the EU in the 1950s to make it work. They knew how necessary it was to overcome the old division of Europe and make sure that war could not recur.

And it also shows the sheer complexity of EU membership now. There is a substantial body of law and practice – the so-called acquis communautaire – which any member state has to follow. The EU is a much more developed political, economic and social system now than it was fifty years ago.

The powers of the EU

And this is the second area of development of the EU: the powers have grown. The Treaty of Rome spelled out a number of areas where there should be common action at European level, starting with a customs union and a common external trade policy, and policies for agriculture, transport, and some others. During the 1960s and 70s, these policy areas developed from being items on a “to do” list to become actual policies.

In 1986, there was the Single European Act creating the single market, with its principle of the free movement goods, services, capital and labour. It set in train a process to create the largest single market in the world. It was accompanied by a set of social legislation, to protect workers and employees in this market, too.

Other policy developments included the Schengen agreement to provide for passport-free travel, the single currency, and increasing cooperation in foreign and defence policy.

The rule to be followed in deciding which powers should be granted to the EU called the principle of subsidiarity. This means that the EU should have the power to act if member states cannot act effectively on their own, but that the EU should not have the power to act if the member states can.

Now this is a guide to how to take a decision, rather than a decision in its own right, and naturally it provokes much debate. In particular, it gives rise to one of the main Eurosceptic criticisms: that the EU has too many powers. I think that most of us in this room would disagree with that broad criticism, but we accept that it is a legitimate debate to have.

The second Eurosceptic criticism of the EU is that, whatever powers it has, this is not what we voted for. In 1975, the referendum was on whether or not Britain should be part of the common market, that’s all. Now, as I have pointed out, it is much more than that. That’s not we voted for.

All this is true, but there is an important consideration regarding the powers of the EU. They arise from the treaties, the Treaty of Rome and its successors. They do not spring from nowhere. Every amendment to those treaties, including those which grant new powers to the European Union, has to be agreed by all the national governments and ratified in national parliaments. The point is that the 1975 referendum was not the last word on British membership of the European Union: there have been changes agreed since.

This need to secure agreement can lead to some creative thinking. For example, when the single currency was agreed at the Maastricht summit, by all 12 member states present at the time, it was agreed grant the UK and Denmark an opt-out. It was agreed by all 12, but would apply only to 10. No-one imagined at the time, I don’t suppose, that the opt-out would turn out to be permanent, certainly not on the pro-single currency side. But that is the way it feels right now. Britain is probably further from joining the single currency than it has ever been. The opt-out from the euro is living proof that there is nothing inevitable or inexorable about the EU. It is a matter of choice, not of compulsion.

It is simply wrong to say that the EU is somehow undemocratic or out of control, as some Eurosceptics like to suggest. Its actions have a mandate from the governments of the member states, whether explicitly or implicitly. The union is a union of consent.

Decision-making methods

And this leads me neatly on to the third area where the EU has developed over 50 years: its decision-making methods. Sometimes this gets treated as an expression of deepening, sometimes it is neglected altogether. I think it deserves attention in its own right.

There are two reasons for this.

First of all, it is possible to argue for institutional reform without more powers, and equally it is possible to argue for more powers without institutional reform. Proposals for reform and development of the EU are not all the same. It is possible to be a pro-European without being a centraliser.

Secondly, there is a strong school of thought which argues that institutional reform is an objective in its own right. The argument is not only that European countries should cooperate but that they should cooperate in the right way. The Brussels system, in this view, is not incidental but fundamental both to the success of the EU so far and to its future development.

This insistence on the institutions as a distinct source of strength for the EU explains a lot about the shape and nature of the institutions right from the outset. The European Commission as an independent executive rather than a creature of the national governments. An independent court of justice. And perhaps most strikingly of all, a consultative parliamentary assembly. From the very beginning, the idea was there that citizens should have a direct say in the decisions of the EU and not merely via their national governments.

And the development of the EU institutions is in many respects the development of the powers of the European Parliament.

At first, it was basically a consultative body, composed of national MPs seconded to the EP for a few days a month. It acquired some substantial powers over the budget in 1970 and its members became directly elected in their own right for the first time in 1979.

Every reform of the institutions since then has increased in the power of the parliament. Now it has co-decision over much legislation, a role in setting and approving the budget, and the right to approve the Commission president and the whole Commission. The terms of office of Commission and EP are now synchronised to make possible a connection between the EP elections and the choice of the members of each Commission.

There has been a parallel but not so dramatic reform in the Council. Most notably, this is shown in the replacement of unanimity by majority voting for many areas of its work. Like the role of the EP, this was implicit in the early days but took time to become a reality. It was the cause of the famous empty chair crisis in the 1965, when France refused to attend Council meetings in defence of its veto. The so-called Luxembourg compromise persuaded France to return. The Single European Act of 1986 finally saw the principle of QMV return in the treaties, and it is well recognised now that a more efficient method of decision-making was necessary to bring the single market into being.

Decision-making by unanimity encourages each country to find reasons to oppose any given proposal in order to extract concessions. Decision-making by majority rewards those countries that find reasons to support the proposal: countries that persist in holding out will obtain no concessions whatsoever. The dynamic of discussion changes when majority voting comes into play.

Another welcome development in tandem with the move to majority voting is an increased level of openness in the Council. More and more of the meetings are held in public, with the documents available for public view. The traditional model of diplomacy is that it is secret. The open model of democracy is becoming increasingly the rule.

I don’t want to overstate the extent to which democracy has replaced diplomacy within the EU. There is the notion of the “democratic deficit” – the idea that the EU institutions are not as democratic as their counterparts within the member states, which also reflects the idea that the EU institutions ought to be as democratic as their national counterparts.

The future of the EU

If that is a quick sketch of the history of the European Union, what of the future? What conclusions can we draw?

Specifically, what solutions might there be to the present crisis over the constitutional treaty? Do fifty years of the EU give us any clues, or any hope?

I want to draw three lessons from the history I have just recounted, one from each of the three trends: widening; the powers of the EU; and the decision-making methods.

Regarding widening, a fundamental principle is that all member states are equal, regardless of when they joined. The fact that they all have to agree means that proposals that satisfy some of them at the expense of others are not going to work. Countries haven’t gone to such great efforts to join the EU only to slip out meekly again now. The whole point of the EU is to unite Europe, not to unite only that bit of it that thinks most like us.

This is a comment directed to some of those on the continent who want to reverse the recent enlargements and deepen integration amongst a smaller group of members. It is also a comment directed to those politicians in Britain who don’t seem to understand the motives and ideas of the other member states. It makes no sense to go round complaining, as some do, that the problem with the rest of Europe is that it is not enough like Britain.

Secondly, thinking about the powers of the EU, I think we are going to have to get used to the idea that not all countries have to do everything. The euro was introduced with opt-outs for Britain and Denmark, and the foreign and defence arrangements recognise the different traditions of neutrality. A solution has to be agreed by all – I have already said that – but it does not necessarily have to apply to all.

This is quite a revolutionary notion in some quarters. The old idea that there is a single goal for Europe towards which all countries can be directed won’t work any more. The integrity of the institutions and of the single market has to be maintained, but if a country wishes to opt-out of a policy without harming the interests of the others, then that should be respected. It is going to make for a more complicated European Union, but if the alternative is no agreement at all, a messy agreement would still be preferable. Thinking back to the principle of subsidiarity, the only powers to be exercised at European level are those which the member states cannot exercise effectively on their own, so that any member state that does try to opt-out will, by definition, be missing out. But the union is a union of consent and opt-outs may well be one of the consequences of this.

My third lesson, from the area of decision-making, is that the EU is going to have deal with the problem of the democratic deficit. Future amendments to the treaties cannot be done behind closed doors and slipped through parliament when no-one is looking. The spread of the notion of referendums – at one point, it seemed that as many as ten countries might hold them on the constitutional treaty – is probably irreversible. This is not to say that every single managerial detail will necessarily have to be ratified in that way, but any changes of political substance almost certainly will have to be.

The fact that the referendums in France and the Netherlands were No votes has two implications. There is the obvious one that we have to rethink what we are doing. The second implication is that there cannot be another No vote in response to whatever is proposed next. The defeat of the first version was bad enough; a defeat for the second draft of the treaty might well be terminal for the EU altogether.

Politicians who think in terms of widening and deepening only – which countries are members and what are the EU’s powers – probably can’t come up with the right sort of proposal. We need those who understand that the very decision-making methods themselves matter, that there is a value in the EU over and above what the different countries bring themselves, that the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts.

If we can find such leadership, and if then all of us in the pro-European movement do what we can to help, then the fifty years of the EU I have talked about this evening will be remembered not as a discrete moment in history, but instead as the first fifty years of the EU to be followed by an even more successful second fifty years. Let us hope, all of us, that that is how things turn out.

This article was written by Richard Laming, Director of Federal Union. He may be contacted at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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