The drive for European unity to 1973
In the years immediately following the ending of World War Two, there was a
determination among some Europeans to rebuild the continent and in so doing to ensure
that it would not be plagued by war again. They felt that in unity, there would be
strength. A series of international bodies was created which provided for varying levels
of cooperation. However, it was the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 that marked
the key turning point. By creating the European Economic Community, the pioneers of
postwar unification were taking a step which had the potential to reorder economic and
political relations among its member states.
In this chapter, we explore how and why European states which had previously
jealously guarded their national independence were willing to surrender or pool their
sovereignty and join an organisation whose immediate goal was to create a common
market but whose longer-term aspiration was to achieve ever closer union. We then
examine how the success of the enterprise led to Britain and other countries seeking
In 1914, Europe was at the centre of world affairs. Thirty years later, it was in ruins and world leadership was passing into the hands of two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States of America.
World War Two had resulted in millions of deaths and physical and economic destruction across the continent. The nations of Europe were virtually bankrupt and faced the prospect of a long struggle to regain the position they had attained before hostilities. Britain, which had been the world’s greatest trading nation in 1914, was now a debtor and had little chance of returning to its former glory without assistance. To get back to earlier levels of production and standards of living would need outside help from the United States’ which alone had the money and resources that Europe lacked. It would also depend upon the willingness and ability of the European nations to put their own house in order and work together in a new spirit of cooperation.
In the early postwar era, there had been economic, political and military cooperation between the countries of Western Europe as never before in peacetime. It was encouraged by the United States and for many years stimulated by fear of the Soviet Union (USSR). Soon after World War Two, it became apparent that the main threat to Western Europe came not from Germany but from the USSR. At first, not everyone recognised the danger posed by the Soviet Union, which for more than four decades was to split the continent in half and dominate the Eastern sector via its puppet governments. However, as the tension and suspicion of the Cold War era developed, so too did the feeling that unity might give more security.