| By J Robert Parks |
The history of Europe has been marked by devastating wars; some fought over religion, while some fought over nationalism. That history culminated in World War II, when the continent was embroiled in almost six years of warfare that left more than 50 million dead and many countries lying in rubble. Although there have been smaller wars since then, most famously in the Balkans in the 1990s and the one currently in Ukraine, much of Europe has known peace for almost 70 years. One of the key contributors to that peace has been a series of European organizations that have built ties between countries that used to be bitter enemies, particularly Germany and France. That culminated 30 years ago, with the formation of the European Union (EU). Librarians and teachers looking to help their students navigate recent European history will find a wealth of resources in Gale In Context: World History.
The precursors to the EU were the European Coal and Steel Community, established in 1951, and the European Economic Community, established in 1957. These “communities” initially consisted of just six countries: France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark joined in 1973; Greece followed in 1981; and Portugal and Spain in 1986. The communities were designed to foster economic collaboration between the member countries. The belief was that countries whose economies were bound together were much less likely to go to war with each other.
The signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 led to the European Union and laid the foundation for an economic partnership that would eventually include a monetary union. The Euro, a currency that many of the EU member states adopted in 1999, was designed to tie their economies even more closely together. Several countries opted to keep their own currencies, however, including the United Kingdom and Denmark. In the years since the treaty was signed, another 15 countries have joined the EU, and several more are in negotiations to join. Gale In Context: World History includes more than 25 portals on topics related to economics; they allow people to do a deep dive into the subject.
The executive branch of the EU is called the European Commission (EC); it is governed by a cabinet-like body of 27 members, one per nation in the EU. Under those commissioners are more than 30,000 civil servants who help run the EU. The current head of the EC is Ursula von der Leyen, who became the first female president of the EC when she was elected in 2019.
Many students outside of Europe may find the EU unusual, it being an international organization like the United Nations but one that has significant authority in how its member countries operate. One of the key distinctions of the EU is that, unlike most international organizations, it has an elected body: the European Parliament. Elections are held every five years for its 705 legislators. Along with choosing the president of the EC, Parliament also helps set the budget for how EU funds are allocated. That funding is often distributed to support poorer member nations in order to spur their economies. The lure of EU generosity has been one of the primary motivators for some countries to put aside their differences with their neighbors and to adopt policies that will enable them to join the EU. In this way, the union fosters peace along with certain economic and social standards. Countries that refuse to abide by EU policies face the prospect of losing out on that financial support.
One of the governing documents for the EU is its Charter of Fundamental Rights, which was adopted in 2000. Gale In Context: World History includes full text as well as excerpts of hundreds of primary sources. Some of the rights in the charter will be familiar to students who have studied the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, but the EU’s charter, which includes 54 articles, is much more expansive. Examples include the right to protect one’s personal data and the right to an education. Equality between men and women must be “ensured in all areas,” and the charter also establishes that artistic expression and scientific research should be “free of constraint.” There are also several articles that protect the rights of workers.
These rights are not just boilerplate platitudes. They guide the rules and regulations that the EU has adopted — and are more particular than in other parts of the world. This has made some European countries, such as Norway, leery of joining the EU. Seven years ago, the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU in a process known as Brexit. That led to contentious negotiations, particularly over the relationship between Ireland, which is a part of the EU, and Northern Ireland, which now was not. Nonetheless, most members of the EU believe that the union has been a catalyst for a more peaceful and more prosperous continent.