The following visionary leaders inspired the creation of the European Union we live in today. Without their energy and motivation, we would not be living in the sphere of peace and stability that we take for granted.
From resistance fighters to lawyers and parliamentarians, the EU pioneers were a diverse group of people who held the same ideals: a peaceful, united and prosperous Europe.
Beyond the pioneers described below, many others have worked tirelessly towards and inspired the European project. This section on the EU’s pioneers is therefore a work in progress.
The European Union is set up with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours, which culminated in the Second World War. As of 1950, the European Coal and Steel Community begins to unite European countries economically and politically in order to secure lasting peace. The six founding countries are Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The 1950s are dominated by a cold war between east and west. Protests in Hungary against the Communist regime are put down by Soviet tanks in 1956. In 1957, the Treaty of Rome creates the European Economic Community (EEC), or ‘Common Market’.
The 1960s is a good period for the economy, helped by the fact that EU countries stop charging custom duties when they trade with each other. They also agree joint control over food production, so that everybody now has enough to eat - and soon there is even surplus agricultural produce. May 1968 becomes famous for student riots in Paris, and many changes in society and behaviour become associated with the so-called ‘68 generation’.
Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom join the European Union on 1 January 1973, raising the number of Member States to nine. The short, yet brutal, Arab-Israeli war of October 1973 results in an energy crisis and economic problems in Europe. The last right-wing dictatorships in Europe come to an end with the overthrow of the Salazar regime in Portugal in 1974 and the death of General Franco of Spain in 1975. The EU regional policy starts to transfer huge sums of money to create jobs and infrastructure in poorer areas. The European Parliament increases its influence in EU affairs and in 1979 all citizens can, for the first time, elect their members directly. The fight against pollution intensifies in the 1970s. The EU adopts laws to protect the environment, introducing the notion of ‘the polluter pays’ for the first time.
The Polish trade union, Solidarność, and its leader Lech Walesa, become household names across Europe and the world following the Gdansk shipyard strikes in the summer of 1980. In 1981, Greece becomes the 10th member of the EU, and Spain and Portugal follow five years later. In 1986 the Single European Act is signed. This is a treaty which provides the basis for a vast six-year programme aimed at sorting out the problems with the free flow of trade across EU borders and thus creates the ‘Single Market’. There is major political upheaval when, on 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall is pulled down and the border between East and West Germany is opened for the first time in 28 years. This leads to the reunification of Germany, when both East and West Germany are united in October 1990.
With the collapse of communism across central and eastern Europe, Europeans become closer neighbours. In 1993 the Single Market is completed with the 'four freedoms' of: movement of goods, services, people and money. The 1990s is also the decade of two treaties: the ‘Maastricht’ Treaty on European Union in 1993 and the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999. People are concerned about how to protect the environment and also how Europeans can act together when it comes to security and defence matters. In 1995 the EU gains three more new members: Austria, Finland and Sweden. A small village in Luxembourg gives its name to the ‘Schengen’ agreements that gradually allow people to travel without having their passports checked at the borders. Millions of young people study in other countries with EU support. Communication is made easier as more and more people start using mobile phones and the internet.
The euro is now the new currency for many Europeans. During the decade more and more countries adopt the euro. 11 September 2001 becomes synonymous with the 'War on Terror' after hijacked airliners are flown into buildings in New York and Washington. EU countries begin to work much more closely together to fight crime. The political divisions between east and west Europe are finally declared healed when no fewer than 10 new countries join the EU in 2004, followed by Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. A financial crisis hits the global economy in September 2008. The Treaty of Lisbon is ratified by all EU countries before entering into force in 2009. It provides the EU with modern institutions and more efficient working methods.
The global economic crisis strikes hard in Europe. The EU helps several countries to confront their difficulties and establishes the 'Banking Union' to ensure safer and more reliable banks. In 2012, the European Union is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Croatia becomes the 28th member of the EU in 2013. Climate change is still high on the agenda and leaders agree to reduce harmful emissions. European elections are held in 2014 and more Eurosceptics are elected into the European Parliament. A new security policy is established in the wake of the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Unrest and wars in various countries lead many people to flee their homes and seek refuge in Europe. The EU is faced with the challenge of how to take care of them, while safeguarding their welfare and respecting their human rights.
The COVID-19 pandemic triggers a major public health emergency and unprecedented economic slowdown. The EU and its Member States work together to support healthcare systems, contain the spread of the virus, and secure vaccines for people in the EU and further afield. To help support the recovery, leaders agree the largest stimulus package ever financed from the EU budget: the focus is on a green and digital recovery as the EU works to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. The UK leaves the European Union after 47 years of membership, opening a new chapter in its relationship with the EU.